James Mann And His Prescient Book “The China Fantasy”

In 2007 James Mann published The China Fantasy, a short book arguing that Western elites misrepresented the benefits of engagement with China and that prosperity and capitalism might not, as they claimed, eventually bring democracy to the PRC. Mann pissed off a lot of people, including me the first time I read it. In fact, he attacked the foreign policy and business elite (and specifically the Sinology elite) in such a way that many of them either ignored this book or did their best to discredit or downplay it.

I have come to believe that this is the most important and prescient American book on China of the 21st century. I urge you to read it.

Mann lays out three general scenarios for China. In the first, the “soothing scenario”, trade and engagement with China brings capitalism, political liberalization and eventually democracy (Western-style democracy, not the intra-party democracy China has introduced). In the second, the “upheaval scenario”, China is headed for chaos, disintegration and collapse (see Gordon Chang and his now two decades of foolishness on this topic).

His third scenario is the most controversial.  It also increasingly appears to be the most prescient. For the third scenario Mann asks:

What if China manages to continue on its current economic path, yet its political system does not change in any fundamental way? What if, twenty-five or thirty years from now, a wealthier, more powerful China continues to be run by a one-party regime that still represses organized political dissent much as it does today, while at the same time China is also open to the outside world and, indeed, is deeply intertwined with the rest of the world through trade, investment and other economic ties? Everyone assumes that the Chinese political system is going to open up—but what if it doesn’t? What if, in other words, China becomes fully integrated into the world’s economy, yet it remains also entirely undemocratic?

Remember, Mann wrote this before the 2008 crash and the near bankruptcy of most major developed economies. China’s relative rise has occurred much faster than even Mann expected.

James Mann deserve a lot more credit than he has gotten for this work, and given the current state of affairs I hope he and his publisher are working on a new edition. The world needs to understand and prepare for the political, security, and economic ramifications of the third scenario.

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  • http://twitter.com/wangsher Sherry Wang

    I do not think that the next 30 years for China are likely to go the same way as the last 30 years, when the CPP’s power has grown on the back of China’s rapidly rising economy. Eventually, the 9% growth rates will drop as either 1) China approaches economic convergence with the developed world; or 2) China meets some combination of obstacles that act as a ceiling to its growth (in terms of resource scarcity, demographics, or political/economic mismanagement that results in China’s falling into the “middle income trap”).

    Evan Osnos wrote that “the dominant national characteristic [in Egypt] was sclerosis. It was a nation in suspended animation, with an infrastructure, economy, and leadership that had not measurably improved in more than thirty years. For all of China’s problems these days, the simple fact is that the dominant sensation in China is the polar opposite of that in Egypt: China is a place of constant, dizzying, churning change.”

    Meanwhile, the recent Pew polls comparing Chinese and Egyptian attitudes toward their governments show that the Chinese have come to expect greater things for their future. The CCP has won the tacit approval of the majority of the people by giving them the sense that there is hope, that tomorrow will be better. What if tomorrow stops being better? What remains of their legitimacy then? I would not rule out rising expectations leading to demands of political change when economic progress stalls, as it inevitably must.

    But that point might be several decades from now, which is not encouraging for the rest of the world. China’s still at an earlier stage of development than Taiwan and Korea were when they liberalized. Granted, China’s situation is quite different from either of those countries, so it might take even longer.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when 70% of the Chinese population are Internet users…how will society be affected when there are literally one billion educated citizens with the world’s knowledge at their fingertips?

    So I still have hope for China, although maybe we have yet to see “the darkest hour before the dawn.”

  • http://twitter.com/wangsher Sherry Wang

    I do not think that the next 30 years for China are likely to go the same way as the last 30 years, when the CPP’s power has grown on the back of China’s rapidly rising economy. Eventually, the 9% growth rates will drop as either 1) China approaches economic convergence with the developed world; or 2) China meets some combination of obstacles that act as a ceiling to its growth (in terms of resource scarcity, demographics, or political/economic mismanagement that results in China’s falling into the “middle income trap”).

    Evan Osnos wrote that “the dominant national characteristic [in Egypt] was sclerosis. It was a nation in suspended animation, with an infrastructure, economy, and leadership that had not measurably improved in more than thirty years. For all of China’s problems these days, the simple fact is that the dominant sensation in China is the polar opposite of that in Egypt: China is a place of constant, dizzying, churning change.”

    Meanwhile, the recent Pew polls comparing Chinese and Egyptian attitudes toward their governments show that the Chinese have come to expect greater things for their future. The CCP has won the tacit approval of the majority of the people by giving them the sense that there is hope, that tomorrow will be better. What if tomorrow stops being better? What remains of their legitimacy then? I would not rule out rising expectations leading to demands of political change when economic progress stalls, as it inevitably must.

    But that point might be several decades from now, which is not encouraging for the rest of the world. China’s still at an earlier stage of development than Taiwan and Korea were when they liberalized. Granted, China’s situation is quite different from either of those countries, so it might take even longer.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when 70% of the Chinese population are Internet users…how will society be affected when there are literally one billion educated citizens with the world’s knowledge at their fingertips?

    So I still have hope for China, although maybe we have yet to see “the darkest hour before the dawn.”

  • Panda Bear

    I didn’t diss Mann’s original book and so I won’t give it extra credit now because I don’t think it is especially prescient – it merely outlined one of the three future scenarios in China’s development. That said, it is a bit early to be handing out props this early in the game. If I were a betting man, some form of democracy is still more likely. Not because democracy is an inherently better system per se but because it is the most low-cost in terms of governance – people believe that they have the power to change things and so squabble amongst themselves (Tea Partiers) and/or choose elected representatives from a choice of 2 (in the US, more in western Europe). The inherent instability in an authoritarian system is that people perceive themselves butting up against the hand of the government. People like to feel that they have control of their own lives. Nothing is inevitable, of course, but democracy seems a more plausible long-term scenario. That said, there is nothing to say that a democratic China will somehow be less competitive with the ‘West’ – some argue that there will be greater populist pressure than currently allowed.

    As for Mann’s book, was not the irritation less about challenging predictions of China’s future trajectory and more in suggesting that policymakers and academics intentionally misled the public over engagement with China. Moreover, was that really the case?

    I think there are grounds to accuse these same groups for engaging with China but I am not sure there was knowing duplicity involved. Nixon, Reagan and Bush acted under the strategic aegis of Cold War thinking of using China as a strategic hedge against the USSR while Clinton and Bush were high on the post-cold war hubris of the ‘end of history’. Obama is, as on most things, mealy-mouthed.

    The critique of a China fantasy is less about the democracy – engagement with non-democratic regimes have been carried out time and again on the basis of strategic importance (here the discrepancy is between the rhetoric and the action but you can argue that this has more to do legitimating a democratic system and its purported values) – and more about capitalism. Engagement with China has opened up a wealth differential in the past 20 years that has seen the global return on capital increase spectacularly while wages have remained largely flat, as a whole new swath of workers has entered the global workforce. This is not necessarily a bad thing but its effects are felt differently and there has never been an honest discussion of it in the political discourse. Rather, political and economic elites have encouraged engagement with/investment in China while not openly discussing the consequences of such trade (e.g. not disincentivising companies to off-shore while talking about the importance of ‘buying American’). That, to me, is the greater crime.

    • http://www.sinocism.com/ Bill Bishop

      Great point. I agree. Thanks
      “Engagement with China has opened up a wealth differential in the past 20
      years that has seen the global return on capital increase spectacularly
      while wages have remained largely flat, as a whole new swath of workers has
      entered the global workforce. This is not necessarily a bad thing but its
      effects are felt differently and there has never been an honest discussion
      of it in the political discourse. Rather, political and economic elites have
      encouraged engagement with/investment in China while not openly discussing
      the consequences of such trade (e.g. not disincentivising companies to
      off-shore while talking about the importance of ‘buying American’). That, to
      me, is the greater crime.”

  • Panda Bear

    I didn’t diss Mann’s original book and so I won’t give it extra credit now because I don’t think it is especially prescient – it merely outlined one of the three future scenarios in China’s development. That said, it is a bit early to be handing out props this early in the game. If I were a betting man, some form of democracy is still more likely. Not because democracy is an inherently better system per se but because it is the most low-cost in terms of governance – people believe that they have the power to change things and so squabble amongst themselves (Tea Partiers) and/or choose elected representatives from a choice of 2 (in the US, more in western Europe). The inherent instability in an authoritarian system is that people perceive themselves butting up against the hand of the government. People like to feel that they have control of their own lives. Nothing is inevitable, of course, but democracy seems a more plausible long-term scenario. That said, there is nothing to say that a democratic China will somehow be less competitive with the ‘West’ – some argue that there will be greater populist pressure than currently allowed.

    As for Mann’s book, was not the irritation less about challenging predictions of China’s future trajectory and more in suggesting that policymakers and academics intentionally misled the public over engagement with China. Moreover, was that really the case?

    I think there are grounds to accuse these same groups for engaging with China but I am not sure there was knowing duplicity involved. Nixon, Reagan and Bush acted under the strategic aegis of Cold War thinking of using China as a strategic hedge against the USSR while Clinton and Bush were high on the post-cold war hubris of the ‘end of history’. Obama is, as on most things, mealy-mouthed.

    The critique of a China fantasy is less about the democracy – engagement with non-democratic regimes have been carried out time and again on the basis of strategic importance (here the discrepancy is between the rhetoric and the action but you can argue that this has more to do legitimating a democratic system and its purported values) – and more about capitalism. Engagement with China has opened up a wealth differential in the past 20 years that has seen the global return on capital increase spectacularly while wages have remained largely flat, as a whole new swath of workers has entered the global workforce. This is not necessarily a bad thing but its effects are felt differently and there has never been an honest discussion of it in the political discourse. Rather, political and economic elites have encouraged engagement with/investment in China while not openly discussing the consequences of such trade (e.g. not disincentivising companies to off-shore while talking about the importance of ‘buying American’). That, to me, is the greater crime.

    • http://www.sinocism.com/ Bill Bishop

      Great point. I agree. Thanks
      “Engagement with China has opened up a wealth differential in the past 20
      years that has seen the global return on capital increase spectacularly
      while wages have remained largely flat, as a whole new swath of workers has
      entered the global workforce. This is not necessarily a bad thing but its
      effects are felt differently and there has never been an honest discussion
      of it in the political discourse. Rather, political and economic elites have
      encouraged engagement with/investment in China while not openly discussing
      the consequences of such trade (e.g. not disincentivising companies to
      off-shore while talking about the importance of ‘buying American’). That, to
      me, is the greater crime.”

  • http://www.inpraiseofchina.com Godfree

     We (westerners) seem to take for granted that the Chinese people want different government than they’ve got, and that “better” means ‘more like ours’.  I doubt that either of these propositions is true for the vast majority of Chinese, and the polls support my doubts.
    China has arguably the best national government on earth at present (again, the polls support this contention) and the Chinese people, who have studied and endured governments for millennia, know it.  

    Meanwhile, our own system of fake (or ‘formal’) democracy is looking less and less attractive every day…