Commentary Magazine


Losing China Again

During 1993, visitors to China began to notice the widespread appearance of trinkets, souvenirs, and other memorabilia of this century’s most prominent Chinese leader, Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Though they were struck by something festive in the phenomenon, there was also speculation about darker implications. In particular, people remembered how portraits of Stalin began to pop up as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and how those were interpreted as nostalgic longing for iron-fisted good order, as an escape from freedom.

But China was not disintegrating; on the contrary, it was getting richer by the day. By some reckonings its open-market economy had become the third largest in the world, and businessmen everywhere were jostling to participate in its expansion. In 1993 alone, the Chinese government had approved almost 100,000 foreign-financed projects, representing commitments of some $110 billion in toto. The United States and China by themselves did about $30 billion in trade—$10 billion more than the preceding year. And there were other tabulations to show that, throughout the world, industrialists and financiers had been seized by a powerful Sinomania.

All this had resulted from decisions by China’s government to allow capitalism an unprecedented sway throughout the country. Yet here was the same government planning and then putting on an old-style Communist spectacle for December 26, 1993, the 100th anniversary of Mao’s birth, complete with the long-winded speeches, the giant portraits, and the almost forgotten phrases of Mao’s own day. And after the ceremonies in the once-renowned Great Hall of the People in central Beijing, various dignitaries walked past Mao’s embalmed body, still on Lenin-like display in a mausoleum at Tiananmen square.

For all this, however, there is little Maoism in today’s China. Indeed, almost immediately upon Mao’s death in 1976, his successors began to undo his work. In short order, his closest associates—to be immortalized as the “Gang of Four”—were neutralized, and his fearsome wife, Jiang Qing, later received a show trial. Not only that, but by 1977, the previously twice-purged Deng Xiaoping had returned from internal exile to become paramount leader. As against the imperial Mao, Deng strove to be taken for an ordinary bourgeois—a family man dandling his grandchildren, a bridge player, and even an audiophile with an expensive pair of high-end speakers for his home stereo system. But more importantly, Deng came armed with a plan for “four modernizations” and an “opening to the world” which has been at work full force ever since, and with spectacular success.

Moreover, it was as if the centenary celebrations were another way of marking the decline in Mao’s historical standing, for both inside and outside the country there was no longer any denial that his reign had been marked by great failures and even greater atrocities. Everyone now acknowledged that one of his early inspirations, the “great leap forward” of the 1950’s, had so battered rural areas that the ensuing famine eventually claimed as many as 30 million lives. The “great proletarian cultural revolution,” which proceeded in fits and starts in the decade prior to his death, was also now universally recognized to have been profoundly destructive. And as much as Mao had labored to become larger than life, in death he was becoming fodder for the tabloids. There were salacious accounts of the sexual adventures of his dotage, with more promised in the forthcoming memoirs of his long-time personal physician.

If Mao can be regarded as in some sense the last of the Chinese emperors, the posthumous pomp of his centenary was also devilishly exquisite in highlighting the country’s positive reversal of fortune since his death. In nearby Japan, by contrast, there is still a very-much-alive emperor, and he traditionally greets his subjects on New Year’s Day, as Akihito did on January 1, 1994. However, in Tokyo, unlike in Beijing, the end-of-the-year wrap-up was downbeat.

Japan, it was reported, was confronting “an awesome debacle.” The country’s financial system was threatened by losses in stock and property values of at least $6 trillion, losses which made the $350 billion squandered during America’s savings-and-loan fiasco seem like spare change. The rising sun was beclouded and the economic miracle had ended. The vaunted Japanese bureaucrats had seriously bungled, and they now seemed far less intimidating—no longer the relentless policy-makers the world had been urged to emulate. Japan was descending into gloom and depression but, from the Chinese perspective, the turnaround was altogether natural. For centuries, they had disdained the Japanese and had especially resented them for becoming China’s principal tormentor throughout the 20th century. Japan’s defeat in 1945 had been a proper comeuppance; now, the prospect that Japan’s postwar economic hegemony might also be waning was deeply satisfying to Chinese rulers old enough to remember Tokyo’s past affronts. In the meantime China, as Newsweek put it, had become “the straw that stirs the Asian drink,” and Boeing’s largest customer to boot.

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All these developments of the past fifteen years have revived old expectations. In the early 1950’s, the “loss of China” became an emotional political issue in the United States. The establishment of a Communist regime in the world’s most populous country—one which many Americans had assumed, in the 1940’s, was somehow amenable to democracy, free enterprise, and even Protestantism—came as a great surprise, made ominous by the new China’s alliance with the Soviet Union, and its increasingly bellicose stance toward the outer world. In addition to the bloody combat between the U.S. and China in the Korean war, there was the prospect of further Sino-American conflict over Taiwan and Indochina, and many other crises of greater or lesser severity—the Sino-Indian war of 1962, or Chinese ties to “national-liberation” movements in various places.

On the other hand, China’s relations with the Soviet Union were deteriorating at an even faster rate, making possible a Sino-American diplomatic rapprochement in the early 1970’s that went on to outlive the Soviet Union, which was its target. To the extent, then, that China had been “lost” in a strategic sense, it appeared to have been found again in only two decades.

Of course, China was still a Communist country and the Chinese were still convinced that their adoption of Communism had catapulted them out of their backwardness. But today the preferred way of 40 years ago is all but defunct in China, as it is defunct everywhere that matters. Far from placing a nation in the vanguard, Communism has become synonymous with the very condition of backwardness China still strives to overcome. It can certainly no longer serve as the foundation for a governing ideology; as the political scientists like to say, Chinese Communism has lost its legitimacy, or, as the Chinese themselves used to say, it has lost the mandate of heaven.

In this respect, the condition of the Communist-inspired system in China is not so very different from that of the last imperial dynasty in the late 19th century. Everyone knew that its days were numbered, though no one could forecast the precise day of its demise; it might take a decade or a century, but much as the dynasty might wiggle, squirm, and try to delay the inevitable, its doom was certain.

This sentiment, we may remember, was especially pronounced in 1989, at the height of China’s democracy movement. The interest among China’s best and brightest in Western parliamentarianism and human rights had reached unprecedented heights, and the recovery of China for Western-derived political values and institutions seemed at hand. In the grand sense, this would complete the process which had begun twenty years earlier with China’s reintegration into the West’s worldwide security system, and which had been followed by China’s decision to become part of the West’s worldwide trade and investment system. Even the now-famous Tiananmen massacre could be seen as mainly a temporary setback, not a strategic defeat. The window of opportunity opened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war seemed larger than ever.

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Yet now, less than five years later, these dynamics seem to be changing once again, and we may soon have cause to wonder about the loss of China for yet a second time in half a century.

Thus, Adrian Karatnycky, who coordinated this past year’s Comparative Study of Freedom for Freedom House, reports that “the period of rapid democratic gains occasioned by the collapse of Soviet Communism appears to have ended,” and that the “democratic renaissance that began in 1989” has of late suffered a dramatic blow. He notes how some repressive states—China among them—continue to get richer and more powerful and are therefore able to exert greater influence in what is becoming a strategic and philosophical global vacuum. What is perhaps more instructive is that many of these states have decided that their successes entitle—or at least enable—them to answer back against Western charges in the field of human rights. Money talks.

Last June, for example, the United Nations convened a World Conference on Human Rights, the first such it had sponsored since 1968. The Western representatives, expecting little more than to conduct ideological mopping-up operations in the wake of Communism’s demise, were taken aback by the intensity of the resistance mounted by some traditional, albeit newly prosperous, states. China and Indonesia, not otherwise philosophical soulmates, were especially forceful in asserting the autonomy of their beliefs and practices.

Obviously, the Chinese do not wish to be called to account even before so weak a bar as the court of “world opinion.” And even though they sometimes make concessions on human rights on a case-by-case basis, sufficient to deflect American pressures connected with trade policy, such ad-hoc accommodations are essentially “humanitarian,” and do not imply an acceptance of our political principles.

Indeed, highly publicized agreements which purport to make the Chinese legal and penal systems more open to outside inspection can no doubt ameliorate harsh conditions of confinement for courageous political dissenters and may even cause the government to think twice before it moves against others. But such agreements are rooted in expediency on both sides. From the American point of view, some human rights are more politically correct than others: the Clinton administration has argued in federal court that Chinese seeking asylum here to escape forced sterilization at home should be deported; the Bush administration had favored the granting of asylum in such cases. And on the Chinese side, Beijing’s occasional “flexibility” derives more from working the abacus than from any real change of heart.

The Chinese are apt to persist in doing their sums and in skillfully deflecting American entreaties as it becomes increasingly apparent that our heart is not much in it, either—precisely because we follow the same arithmetic. For example, one influential Senate Democrat has said that if the President were to make good on his threat to withdraw China’s trade benefits, it would be tantamount to dropping the economic and political equivalent of a nuclear bomb. As interpreted by the New York Times, this statement reflects a “new consensus . . . among Democrats.” The idea is to secure Chinese cooperation—please, just this once, as it were—in return for our scrapping, “once and for all, the annual threat to withdraw preferred-trading status on the basis of China’s human-rights record . . . [because] trade with China is now so economically important that . . . if Washington ever actually had to carry out its sanctions threat, the effects would be disastrous for both American business and Chinese reform.” For America, about 180,000 jobs could be at stake.

For the Chinese, and beyond their workaday sense of how we now make our commercial and diplomatic calculations, there is also something deeper at work, even among those very closely identified with liberalization. Li Xianglu was a close adviser to Zhao Ziyang, China’s reform-minded Prime Minister who openly sympathized with the Tiananmen protesters—for which he was placed under house arrest after the crackdown. Nevertheless Li, now in the United States, believes that there are viable, and indeed humane, alternatives to Western liberalism. In particular, an economically successful China could, he thinks, pose an “alternative world view to American-style liberalism, especially because it will be aided by the fact that the East Asian countries all share a common value system.”

Moreover, the case made by advocates of democracy, that it invariably promotes prosperity, is also under critical scrutiny. Professor Robert Barro of Harvard has assembled an array of data purporting to show, as he puts it, that “democracy has, at best, a mixed record as a contributor to improved standards of living,” and that “the average effect of more democracy on economic growth is roughly zero.”

Flourishing democracies, Barro argues, create powerful interest groups which generate policies that favor themselves but hamper economic growth overall. He compares China, with its “regime of political oppression and gradual economic liberalization” and its economic successes, with Russia, whose “sudden move to democracy” has not been rewarded with similar successes. And he concludes that “our pressure for enhanced political freedom in China may therefore be self-serving, but may not improve life for the Chinese people.”

No doubt, the embrace of these points by the Chinese has its own self-serving aspect. But their real significance is that they reinforce the traditional Confucian critique of the West’s unrestrained individualism and of how that individualism produces bad results for society as a whole.

Besides, the case that any Chinese can make for Western-style liberties inside his own country immediately encounters the visible evidence of the West’s own civic decay and social pathology. If a nation can attain wealth and power and yet minimize its vulnerability to social instability and moral decadence, why take unnecessary risks?

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For almost two centuries, intellectual and cultural commerce between China and the West has been seen as exclusively a seller’s market. The products were of Western origin and the customer was invited to choose among socialism, Christianity, scientism, republicanism, existentialism, Marxism, social Darwinism, constitutional monarchism, Freudianism, vitalism, anarcho-syndicalism, pragmatism, hedonism—or any combination thereof. China’s confidence in itself was so shaken that the country’s older thinking was almost buried in ongoing debate about differing Western doctrines.

Yet there was also a lingering interest in searching for those things in China’s own vast experience which might be mobilized in the nation’s behalf. After all, Chinese culture had influenced more people, over a larger area, for a longer period, than anything else in the history of world. Its ancient classics held sway for millennia. For but one example, China’s “neo-Confucian” consensus, formulated about 1200 C.E., dominated political thought not only in China itself but in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam for the next several centuries. And Chinese achievements in every other realm of human endeavor were substantial and enduring.

So even in the early decades of this century, when China’s problems continued apace, some Chinese still believed that there remained something in their cultural inheritance that might redeem the country, or perhaps unite with things Western to produce a new amalgamated world civilization; or that Chinese civilization’s own presumed immutable, universal, and eternal truths might just win out in the end—that China would not be Westernized, but rather that the whole world would be Sinified.

This ambition is now gathering force once again, as China’s formidable people become more and more involved in world intellectual and cultural life. Isolated for a long time now, first behind a screen of Confucian incomprehension, then behind a “bamboo curtain” of Maoist totalitarianism, the proverbial one-fourth of mankind has more than its fair share of smart people—if past history and present MIT enrollments are to be believed. And they are less and less inclined to try out Western-derived solutions to their problems. On the contrary, freed from the requirement to see their past as nothing but a preparation for Communism, they can now reclaim the riches of their own history as they search for new ways of living in the modern world. This process will certainly affect us in the West as well, and may even change our own sense of things.

A semblance of the new balance of intellectual and cultural trade is already discernible. Andrew Solomon draws the outlines of it in a lengthy and important discussion in the New York Times Magazine of China’s exuberant artistic avant-garde. According to Solomon, these artists use Western styles, but for ends of their own. He also reports that, among these seeming subversives, there is an “ambivalent but incontrovertible” love for Chairman Mao because, as one of them puts it, “misguided idealism is better than no idealism at all.” Solomon is surprised when a performance artist—and a man imprisoned for leading pro-democracy demonstrations—tells him that his friends “are nostalgic for the Cultural Revolution because it was so Chinese . . . [and] that no one at Tiananmen was interested in or understood the principle of free elections.”

The ambivalence inherent in Chinese aping of Western artistic styles seems to crop up everywhere: imitation and rejection of the West are, in the best Chinese fashion, one and the same thing. The Western style reigns as a matter of chance, something these Chinese learned because they were born into a world wherein the West was at its zenith. But, as one explains, “the West is in a state of decline and China in a state of ascendancy.” Western modernism, he thinks, may be the international language of art, but it is dominant in China only because of the current—and not necessarily permanent—international balance of political and economic power. In any event, it is far from obvious that the efforts of the Chinese avant-garde have as their objective the establishment of an American-style democracy.

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After Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the United States decided to withhold diplomatic recognition, it fell to Dean Rusk to explain why. It was Rusk’s misfortune to be Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs at that time, as it was his fate to be Secretary of State during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that is, during the Vietnam war. Rusk called the new Communist regime “a Slavic Manchukuo on a colossal scale.” It was not, he said, the government of China, for it could not meet the first test: it was not Chinese.

At one time, Chinese Communism surely did mean an expansion of Soviet influence, but that did not last long and, besides, it never turned the Chinese into Russians. Similarly, China’s course these past dozen years has certainly marked an expansion of American influence, and that will continue for a while also. But that influence has already peaked and it has not, in any event, turned the Chinese into Americans; instead, it is now quietly bruited that it may turn the Chinese against Americans.

Indeed, even though we know little about current Chinese strategic thinking, American strategic analysis of the highest order has now begun to sense the stirrings of a coming Sino-American contest, probably not for world dominance, but more likely for paramountcy in Asia. To be sure, the sounds of this contest are still but the faint harmony to the far louder melody of commerce and capitalism, but they can be heard from time to time: the Chinese are hiring dispossessed Russian weapons experts; the Chinese are buying ballistic-missile technology; the Chinese are abandoning territorial defense and equipping their forces for power-projection; the Chinese are still profoundly mistrustful of the United States.

These are, as they say, looming prospects and, given another decade or two, could become ugly ones. In that case, we will once again ask who lost China, wondering how it was that the ever-inscrutable Chinese could have become more like us and yet more like themselves at one and the same time.

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