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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Capitalism and Democracy in China

George Will sounds a pessimistic note on the emergence of democracy in China:

Real Change In China?, by George F. Will, Commentary, Washington Post: The phrase "regime change" is associated with the doctrine of preventive war as applied to Iraq. But another sort of regime change has been the crux of U.S. policy toward China through most of the 35 years since President Richard Nixon's opening to that nation in 1972.

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the objective of U.S. policy has been ... the steady subversion of China's repressive regime. The cure for communism is supposed to be commerce with the capitalist world...

The theory, which is more than wishful thinking, is that capitalism ineluctably brings about an ever-broader dispersal of information and decision-making, and requires an ethic of trust and a legal regime of promise-keeping (contracts). Those who subscribe to this theory can take some comfort from China's recent strengthening of protections of private property, which gives a sphere of sovereignty to individuals whose appetite for sovereignty, once whetted, might become a demand for a politics of popular sovereignty.

But suppose this is not so. Suppose James Mann is right to dismiss all this as the Soothing Scenario. In his new book, ... Mann [argues] business and other advocates of the Soothing Scenario use what Mann calls "the lexicon of dismissal" to refute skeptics like him: Skeptics are being "provocative" when they engage in "China bashing" that reflects a "Cold War mentality." But although the theory is that "engagement" with China will change China, Mann wonders: Who is changing whom?

The Soothing Scenario says: Tyranny requires intellectual autarky and the conscription of the public's consciousness, which is impossible now that nations are porous to cellphones and the Internet. But Mann says companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo are cooperating with the government's censorship and security monitoring.

Mann warns against "McDonald's triumphalism," the belief that because the Chinese increasingly eat like us, they are becoming like us. That is related to "the Starbucks fallacy" -- the hope that as the Chinese become accustomed to many choices of coffee, they will demand more political choices.

His most disturbing thesis is that "the newly enriched, Starbucks-sipping, apartment-buying, car-driving denizens" of the large cities that American visitors to China see will be not the vanguard of democracy but the opposition to it. There may be 300 million such denizens, but there are 1 billion mostly rural and very poor Chinese. Will the minority prospering economically under a Leninist regime think majority rule is in their interest?

Mann is rightly disdainful of many meretricious and economically motivated arguments that American elites offer for the Soothing Scenario. In his polemical mood, however, he probably underestimates the autonomous and transformative power of today's commercial culture. ...

I'm more hopeful for China than that. Here's more on this topic:

And, closely related:

    Posted by on Thursday, April 26, 2007 at 12:15 AM in China, Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (13)

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