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DEMOCRATISING CHINA: HU, WEN AND HOW

Paul Monk on the Chinese President’s speech in Canberra

 

“[Gorbachev]’s got it backwards. He opened up the political system without a clue about the economy. The result is chaos. I did it the other way around, starting in agriculture and small businesses, where opening up worked, so now I have a demand for more of what succeeds. [Political opening] will come later and will start small, just as in the economy. You have to be patient but you have to get the sequence right.”

-         Deng Xiaoping to George Shultz, July 1988

“In China today we need to restrict the powers of the state and enlarge its responsibilities. Only democracy will allow us to achieve this two-fold change.”

- Qin Hui ‘China’s Stolypins’, New Left Review, Mar/Apr 2003

“Democracy is the common pursuit of mankind and all countries must earnestly protect the democratic rights of the people. In the past twenty years and more, since China embarked on the road of reform and opening up, we have moved steadfastly to promote political restructuring and vigorously build democratic politics under socialism.”

-         Hu  Jintao, to the Australian Parliament, 24 October 2003[i]

 

Who would have thought, a generation ago, that the political heir of Mao Zedong, architect of thirty years of inward-looking economic irrationalism in China, would one day stand before the Australian parliament and extol markets and the international division of labour, investment and comparative advantage, diversity and mutually beneficial cooperation? Yet this has just happened.

Who would have expected the political heir of Mao Zedong, arch-proponent of violent anti-capitalist revolution, to come to Canberra in a smart business suit and sing the praises of the growth of China’s market, the immense economic complementarities between China and Australia, our burgeoning two-way trade (up one hundred-fold since the early 1970s), and China’s readiness “to be your long-term and stable cooperation partner.”? Yet this has just happened.

Hu Jintao’s visit to Australia was remarkable for these reasons. Jiang Zemin had come here before him, as had the impressive Zhu Rongji. Yet Hu’s visit seems the truly historic one. For those with long and deep historical memories, it prompted reflection on the visit to Australia long ago - in the very year of Australian Federation - by the great Chinese scholar and advocate of political reform Liang Qichao.

With Kang Youwei, Liang was the leading proponent of constitutional reform in China under the late Qing dynasty. In 1901, he met with Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, in Sydney. He saw much to admire in Australia’s constitution and wrote for a Chinese readership of the need for a federal polity and constitutional monarchy in China.[ii]

A century later, the meeting of Hu Jintao with John Howard has taken place in a world immeasurably changed, but constant in this respect: that China is still in search of a truly workable constitution and Australia still stands out as a model of democratic governance. But Hu is not Liang Qichao. He did not come as an exile or wandering scholar. He came as the head of state.

He is the head of a new generation of Chinese leaders. There is about him a certain air of freshness and dynamism, of the kind still associated with the coming of John F. Kennedy to the American presidency, in 1961. With Hu, as with Kennedy, it is possible, in an important sense, to talk of the torch having been passed from an older generation to a younger one.

Born in 1942, Hu grew up after the Communists came to power. He is the first Chinese leader of whom this can be said. He has the reputation, somewhat like Kennedy, of being highly articulate, able to listen to advice and keen to gather intelligent people around him. All this is both important and stirring. It is all the more crucial, therefore, that we think carefully about Hu’s words - and about the challenges he faces.

Three themes of his speech in Canberra stand out  - the promise of economic growth, the commitment to democratization and the question of Taiwan. Each of them is problematic and confronts him, far more than it does us, with critical challenges. How he deals with them will very certainly define his presidency.

But before turning to these three themes, it seems worth reflecting on the unorthodox comparison between Hu and  Kennedy. The differences are, of course, as striking as any similarities. Kennedy was, apart from anything else, the liberal leader of the world’s greatest democracy, while Hu is the leader of a one party dictatorship that has no electoral mandate, an appalling human rights record and a still highly repressive attitude to critical inquiry into its own history and policy-making processes.

Consider, however, not only the broad generational and character similarities, but the broad similarities in the policy challenges the two men inherited. Each came to power facing significant domestic policy challenges without having anything like a clear mandate to do much about them. Each faced the foreign policy challenge of an island state just off the coast which powerful domestic forces believed should be within their country’s orbit, but which was in reality allied with it’s chief superpower rival. For Kennedy, of course, it was Cuba. For Hu, it is Taiwan.

Each, also, realised that his country needed to demonstrate leadership and responsibility on the world stage, in order to consolidate world progress toward prosperity and democratization. In every case, the challenges that confront Hu are considerably more difficult than those that confronted Kennedy[iii].

Civil rights in China are in much worse shape than they were in the United States half a century ago; poverty is far more widespread; and crime more difficult to constrain - despite the highest execution rate in the world.[iv]

Taiwan is an even more delicate policy challenge for Hu than Cuba was for Kennedy. It has governed itself in defiance of its huge neighbour not for two years, like Cuba when Kennedy took office, but for almost sixty. It is a wealthy and democratic state that cannot easily be subdued.

As for global leadership and responsibility, Kennedy inherited this mantle when the United States was incontestably the world’s greatest economic and military power - as it is today. Hu heads a state seeking a larger role in world affairs without triggering an outright strategic competition with the United States.

A second historical analogy is also useful here. It is a very different one - with Peter Stolypin, one of the last great statesmen of Tsarist Russia. Stolypin was conscious that Russia, in the 1890s and 1900s had taken giant strides economically, but still had a long way to go. He was a cautious, conservative politician and a tough opponent of those demanding radical political reform.  

“Give me twenty five years of peace,” he declared to the Russian Duma in 1907, “and you will not recognise Russia.”[v] The peace he had in mind involved a gradual move to constitutional monarchy, not the upheaval sought by any of Russia’s plethora of socialists, populists and anarchists. He was assassinated in 1911, by a political radical, and Russia got forty years of war, revolution and terror, not twenty five years of peace.

Why compare Hu with Stolypin? Because, beneath the surface of China’s one party political regime, there is a major, ongoing debate between those who believe democratization could disrupt the process of rapid economic reform and those who believe it is indispensable to just that process.[vi] The authoritarian conservatives, those most cautious about political enthusiasms, are China’s Stolypins.

They agree with the liberal economists who recommend restricting democratization, since it might unleash popular resistance to the costs of reform. It is a policy, to use a phrase made famous by Stolypin in the 1900s, of ‘banking on the strong’ - ie the new rich. It is a controversial policy - and it could be seriously mistaken.

Hu Jintao and the new prime minister of China, Wen Jiabao, both seem to be ‘Stolypins’, while being aware of the dangers of the path this sets them on. This is how to make sense of Hu’s agenda and the phrasing he uses when talking boldly about economic development, but obliquely about democratization. It is why Wen admires Singapore and believes that China needs “a detailed system of management through laws” in order to avoid “chaos”.[vii]

It is why Hu and Wen believe that there should be a “strengthening of internal party mechanisms to rectify the behaviour and quality of cadres”[viii], in a dubious tradition going back to Lenin’s last pamphlets, of 1922-23[ix]. Yet these men are not mere Leninists. They are increasingly well educated in political and economic theory and are searching for solutions to China’s problems, as Stolypin sought solutions for Russia’s a century ago[x].

 These two historical analogies, I suggest, offer useful alternative lenses through which to read Hu Jintao’s Canberra speech. When he evokes the promise of economic growth, the commitment to democratization and, more negatively, the question of Taiwan, we can read or hear him in very different ways. Much depends on what analogies and antecedents, what expectations or assumptions make up our mind-sets, or what might be called our ‘listening sets’.

At the centre of any critical understanding of Hu’s address lies the vexed question of democratization in China. If we are to do justice to the possibilities and the uncertainties of Hu’s presidency, we need to be able to look at this issue through alternative lenses. Kennedy for the possibilities; Stolypin for the uncertainties.

The question of democratization is central, in the first instance, because of its relationship to the promise of economic growth. “China enjoys a vast market, abundant labor, social and political stability and a vibrant momentum for development”, Hu stated. The first two parts of this claim are relatively uncontroversial[xi]. The problematic parts are the second two: that China enjoys ‘social and political stability and a vibrant momentum for development.’

In a hard-hitting polemic in 2001, Gordon Chang, a Chinese American lawyer who had worked in China for 20 years, argued that China’s rapid economic growth of recent decades is a house of cards. He predicted that the regime will collapse, very probably because of a massive financial crisis and certainly because the Party’s very insistence on maintaining ‘stability’ prevents it from dealing with the fundamental sources of instability.[xii]

Arthur Waldron, historian of China[xiii], argued in a provocative essay ‘The Chinese Sickness’, in the July issue of Commentary, that China’s regime is corrupt and incompetent and that its financial institutions are teetering on the brink of collapse, while discontent boils to the surface in the vast Chinese hinterland, beyond the coastal cities.

Many China specialists have strongly contested Waldron’s argument. It is, in the words of Henry Rowen, “a collection of truths, half-truths, and misconceptions”. “We have heard all this before, many times. Unfortunately, it does not become more convincing with the retelling”, comment Michael Swaine and eleven others in a collective letter.[xiv]

Yet William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency[xv]; James Lilley, former US Ambassador to China; and China specialists at the Heritage Foundation, John Tkacik Jr and Larry Wortzel, greeted Waldron’s essay as, in Odom’s words, “an excellent antidote to the conventional wisdom on China”. Harvard University’s Ross Terrill has written recently that “simple prudence requires the United States and the rest of the world to prepare for drastic political discontinuity within China.”[xvi]

Waldron’s response to his critics is, in essence, that they concede all his major claims, but baulk at drawing the appropriate conclusions.[xvii]  He argues that they are in denial. He recalls a “comparable intellectual scandal that afflicted the field of Sovietology during the period of the USSR’s existence” and quotes Richard Pipes on “the groupthink then dominating Soviet studies”.

According to Pipes “it was permissible to maintain that the Soviet regime was more stable or less stable, but not that it was unstable.” Waldron conjectures that “something about my analysis—something, perhaps, too candid—[seems to have] crossed the line of the permissible”.

What is important here is to recognize that a possible abyss yawns beneath the presidency of Hu Jintao. This is the Stolypin set of lenses and it puts the question of democratization in a very different light than do the Kennedy set, which would have us focus on bright prospects, stirring rhetoric and the logic of international geopolitics. If we use the Stolypin lenses, Hu’s remarks, about China intending to “move forward our political restructuring in a vigorous and cautious manner as our national conditions merit”, are thrown into somewhat higher relief.

 “In the past 20 years and more, since China embarked on the road of reform and opening up”, Hu declared, “we have moved steadfastly to promote political restructuring and vigorously build democratic politics under socialism”. There has been some political restructuring in China since 1978-79, without question. That is why it was possible for Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao and the other fourth generation leaders to succeed Jiang Zemin and the rest without a violent struggle.

Nonetheless, it is plainly false to claim that China has been vigorously building democratic politics under socialism, unless the whole burden of the claim lies in the last two words. In that case, the word ‘democratic’ has only a hollow, Leninist meaning. The reality is that, since the democratic movements of the 1980s, which Deng Xiaoping regarded with deep ambivalence, the Communist Party has steadfastly suppressed the emergence of democratic politics in China.

The vigorous unbuilding of democratic politics in China in the era of reform began with the suppression of the Democracy Wall movement in 1979 and the imprisonment of Wei Jingsheng and climaxed with the brutal crackdown in Beijing, centering on Tiananmen Square, in 1989. It also includes the bloody suppression of Tibetan dissent, the Falungong religious movement and the China Democratic Party and the arbitrary arrest and detention of scholars and journalists for ‘revealing state secrets’.

This is not a subject on which propaganda and face cut any ice. “Our world is a diverse place like a rainbow of many colours”, Hu declared, in the most flamboyant phrase of his speech, but the Chinese polity is no such thing. A future in which diversity truly flourishes in China under the rule of law is something the world would rejoice in. Achieving it, however, will be a task requiring fundamental restructuring of the state and an end of the Party’s monopoly on political and judicial power. Stolypin again, not Kennedy.

Which brings us to the third theme of Hu’s address - the matter of Taiwan. “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory”, he asserted at the end of his speech. “The complete reunification of China at an early date is the common aspiration and firm resolve of the entire Chinese people…The greatest threat to peace in the Taiwan Straits is from the splittist activities of the Taiwanese independence forces.” This is wearisome and sterile rhetoric.

Taiwan was part of the Chinese empire until 108 years ago, but an enormous amount has changed since then. It has never been part of the People’s Republic of China and cannot be accused of wanting to ‘split’ from something of which it is not a part. It is untrue that the entire Chinese people seek the reabsorption of Taiwan into China. Plainly, by Hu’s own admission, a significant number of the people of Taiwan (which he regards as part of China) do not seek it. As for those on the mainland, they are not free to develop or articulate an independent opinion on the subject.

Yet here one may allow more Kennedy than Stolypin. For Kennedy did not feel politically free to accept Castro’s government in Cuba and made extraordinary efforts to undermine it, beginning with covert invasion and including a series of attempts to assassinate Castro himself.[xviii] Hu cannot be accused of having attempted any such thing in regard to Taiwan and it is to be hoped that he does not. What is clear is that he is almost certainly in no position to simply renounce China’s claims to sovereignty over Taiwan.

What is equally clear is that, so long as Taiwan’s aspiration to have its de facto independence respected by China is met only by vituperation about ‘splittist’ forces, no constructive solution to the Taiwan problem will be found. The solution that is implicit in China’s own development is a Chinese offer to Taiwan of freedom, friendship and ‘long term and stable cooperation’. A China truly committed to diversity could build such a bond with Taiwan. 

Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and their colleagues have their work cut out for them. We should not demand more of them, given China’s challenges, than Kennedy was able to achieve in America, which was actually not a lot. We should understand that they are in some respects more in Stolypin’s circumstances than Kennedy’s and should do what we can to give them ‘twenty years of peace’.

We should also recall, with a sobering sense of how things can go awry, that both Stolypin and Kennedy were assassinated. In China’s twentieth century, many of those who sought democratization were assassinated or defeated. Yet somehow China has overcome enormous setbacks to get to where it is. The twenty first century beckons. What beckons? The prospect of successful economic development and political democratization. Why do they beckon? Because they are what beckon all the world. The question is only how to achieve them. Now that two Chinese leaders call Hu and Wen are in power, just possibly the how will at last be found.


 

[i] Throughout, I am drawing on the edited extract from President Hu’s speech as printed in The Weekend Australian, 25-26 October 2003, pp. 10-11.

[ii]  John Fitzgerald’s Awakening China: Politics, Culture and Class in the Nationalist Revolution, Stanford University Press, 1996, 461 pp., is a brilliant evocation of the world and times of Liang Qichao. Fitzgerald, one of Australia’s leading Sinologists, received the Levenson Prize of the American Historical Association for this book. For his specific reflections on Liang Qichao’s visit to Australia see ‘The Slave Who Would Be Equal: The Significance of Liang Qichao’s Australian Writings’, in Billy So, John Fitzgerald et al (eds) Power and Identity in the Chinese World Order, Hong Kong University Press 2003, pp. 353-75.

[iii] For an excellent new biographical study of Kennedy, including a judicious assessment of his presidency, see Robert Dallek John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life 1917-1963, Allen Lane, Penguin, 2003, 838 pp.

[iv] Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley (eds) China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, Granta, London, 2003, p. 191, quote Chinese Communist Party internal investigation reports as indicating that “more than 60,000 people were put to death in China during the four year period between 1998 and 2001, an average of 15,000 a year”, including “both death sentences and the killing of alleged criminals apprehended or in the act of flight.” They add two observations of some interest. The first is that the same internal reports state that these figures are the highest since the beginning of the reform period, in 1978-79. The second is that Amnesty International reported only 2,486 executions in China in 2001, or well under 20% of the official figure, “which it said accounted for 81% of the known worldwide total. Its analysts have variously estimated the true figure for China to be two to four times higher. According to the investigation report, however, the figure was six times higher, although it is not clear how many were judicial executions and how many were police killings. On that basis, China in 2001 accounted for something closer to 97% of the world’s executions.” They comment that “When China reformed its criminal code in 1979, it put seventy three capital offences on the books, including petty theft and fraud. Today the figure stands at sixty-eight offences…None of the new leaders is known to disagree with the view that the execution of thousands of criminals every year is necessary to maintain stability.” p. 192, n14.

     To put these figures into comparative perspective, 15,000 executions in one year in China is the statistical equivalent, on a population ratio basis, to 200 such executions in Australia or 3,000 in the United States. Under the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, the total number of executions has been estimated at 11,000 over a period of twenty three years, or about 500 per year in a population of rather less than 150 million. On a population ratio basis, that would be the equivalent of about 4,000 executions per year in China in 2001, making contemporary China a great deal more repressive in this respect than late Imperial Russia. Under Lenin, some 200,000 people were executed in just over six years, during the Red Terror, or roughly 30,000 per year on average. The equivalent in China today would be about 240,000, which is vastly more than the actual figure. If the comparison was with Stalin’s Great Terror, in which some 700,000 people were executed in two years (1937-38), the Chinese figure would blow out enormously, to about 5,500,000 per year - a staggering statistic. In fact, during the worst excesses of Mao’s rule, in the 1950s, the number of executions has been estimated at between several hundred thousand and fifteen million. The latter figure is extremely high, but there is no doubt that really large scale killing took place as the Communist Party consolidated its rule and this even before the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, which devastated the country and caused many hundreds of thousands of deaths. This goes to show how far China’s judicial execution rate has declined since the Mao era, but it certainly still remains at a savage level and is made worse by the fact that executions tend to follow also immediately upon conviction and that successful appeals against the death sentence are virtually unheard of.

[v]  Abraham Ascher’s magisterial P. A. Stolypin: The Search for Stability in Late Imperial Russia, Stanford University Press, 2001 is the best study in a very considerable literature on the man. The remark about twenty five years of peace was accompanied by an equally famous statement: “What you (the radicals) want is great upheavals; what we (the conservatives) want is a great Russia.” Peter Arkadyevich Stolypin (1862-1911), scion of the nobility, formed the opinion, even as a young man, that “Russia must adopt major reforms to develop into a prosperous, stable and powerful country”.  Becoming prime minister and minister of the interior in 1906, at the age of forty four (the same age Kennedy was when he became president, as it happens), he “placed on the political agenda a series of reform proposals that touched on virtually all aspects of Russian society and were designed to reshape the country in a fundamental way.” Lenin saw him as “an astute statesman whose dual program of repression and reform might well have succeeded in undermining the revolutionary cause.” He was also, in the interests of his reform agenda, “unbending in his determination to keep Russia out of foreign entanglements that could embroil the country in war.” In a major speech on 8 July 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin evoked the shade of Stolypin in calling for a reconciliation of patriotic responsibility for the country’s future with “what Stolypin once described as civil freedoms.” (pp. 3-10)

Stolypin liked to compare himself to Bismarck. Ascher astutely observes that there was, indeed, a strong similarity between the two, both in their methods and their achievements, but also as regards the flaws in their work. He cited Max Weber’s criticism of Bismarck for having “left behind a nation totally without political education” and observed that Stolypin, likewise, “did little to enable political leaders to obtain appropriate experience in the art of responsible government.” These criteria will apply to Hu Jintao, also, over the coming years, as will Ascher’s observation that Stolypin’s “insistence on excessively severe treatment of student activists did more to inflame the opposition than to restore calm to the universities, which, as he acknowledged, were indispensable in training the manpower needed in a modern state.” (op. cit. pp. 396-97)

[vi] Qin Hui ‘China’s Stolypins’, New Left Review, March/April 2003. See also the extended interview with Wang Hui, then chief editor of China’s leading monthly journal Dushu (Reading) ‘Fire At the Castle Gate’, New Left Review, Nov/Dec 2000, pp. 69-99.

[vii] Wen Jiabao, quoted in Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley (eds) China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, Granta, London, 2003, p. 191. For a searching critique of this interesting, but somewhat loosely written book, see Alfred Chan ‘s review essay in The China Journal No. 50, July 2003, pp. 107-119.

[viii] Ibid. p. 194.

[ix] Moshe Lewin Lenin’s Last Struggle Pluto Press, London, 1975, is a crucial documentary source here, but an indispensable corrective to any sentimental interpretation of Lenin’s politics is Richard Pipes Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924 Harvill, London, 1994, 587 pp.

[x] A good overview of intellectual debates in China between 1989 and 2000 and their policy implications, is Joseph Fewsmith China Since Tiananmen: The Politics of Transition, Cambridge University Press, 2001, 313 pp. On the controversies of the 1980s, it is very hard to improve on Merle Goldman’s Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era, Harvard University Press, 1994, 426 pp.

[xi] Joe Studwell The China Dream: The Elusive Quest for the Greatest Untapped Market on Earth, Profile Books, London, 2002, 359 pp. is the must read book on the question of the ‘vast market’ and the propensity of Western investors to pour money into China in the hope of economic returns that never seem to materialize.

[xii] Gordon G. Chang The Coming Collapse of China, Random House, 2001, p. xvii.

[xiii]  Arthur Waldron The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth, Cambridge University Press, 1990 (Canto, 1992) is an excellent example of his work as an historian.

[xiv] Commentary July/August and October 2003. For more sanguine views of China’s economic prospects, see Laurence J. Brahm Zhu Rongji and the Transformation of Modern China, Wiley & Sons, Singapore, 2002; and various remarks in Joseph Stiglitz Globalisation and Its Discontents, W. W. Norton, 2002. Stiglitz was the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics.

[xv] William E. Odom (Lt-Gen. Ret’d, US Army) is also an adjunct professor at Yale University, a fellow of the Hudson Institute, and author of a major book, The Collapse of the Soviet Military. His most recent book is Fixing Intelligence For a More Secure America, Yale University Press, 2003, 230 pp.

[xvi] Ross Terrill The New Chinese Empire, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2003, p. 21.

[xvii] Waldron’s comments are worth reading verbatim, which is why I include a lengthy except here. For the original comments by his critics, see Commentary October 2003.

Striking to me is the extent to which my correspondents, even those whose tone is most negative, either agree with the central points of my article or fail to refute them. I began by saying that China’s mishandling of the SARS crisis has implications beyond the field of public health. From this initial example I moved to two distinct sets of problems. The first involves misgovernment at home, ultimately rooted in the Communist-party dictatorship; the other, of similar origin, takes the form of threats to China’s neighbors. Finally I argued that the convergence of both sets of problems would, before long, push the Chinese regime toward some sort of major change, possibly spelling the end of Communist rule but in any case likely to be abrupt and unexpected (though perhaps not inevitably bloody)—to which possibility we and our government should be paying much greater attention.

And what do my critics say? On the bungling of SARS, Henry S. Rowen finds correct my view that this demonstrates the “Chinese government’s impulse for ‘secrecy, denial, and cover-up.’” On internal problems, David M. Lampton concedes the “systemic defects in the People’s Republic of China (which are legion),” while, regarding the worries felt by China’s neighbors, he endorses my citing of the “things Beijing has done to ignite these anxieties.” Jonathan D. Pollack, another critic, likewise declines to rebut my characterizations of China’s present condition and future prospects. Even the joint communiqu from the twelve China specialists, whose tone I will address below, fails to take serious issue with my main contentions, instead treating them as common knowledge: “Nearly all analysts,” write the twelve, “recognize that the Chinese regime confronts major problems, including widespread corruption, and that Chinese behavior is often highly objectionable.” They even grant my point about regime change, wearily stipulating that “most serious scholars, businessmen, and government officials believe that the Communist party will eventually be compelled to share or even relinquish power.”

But if regime change is likely, as “most serious scholars” allow, or even possible, then surely experts like the twelve, not to mention the rest of us, should be actively thinking about the when, the how, and the why. China is an immense country, and regime change there would be an event comparable in significance to the collapse of the USSR and the end of Communism in the West. Yet neither the group of twelve, nor Mr. Lampton, nor Mr. Rowen, nor Mr. Pollack has anything at all to say about this possibility, its modalities, or its implications. All of them, save Mr. Rowen, are China specialists. What do they spend their time thinking about, if not this biggest of all the big questions?

It is, indeed, a delicious irony that it falls to General William E. Odom to show my China-watching colleagues how the discipline of political science should be practiced. He does this by looking immediately to the larger picture—the one that forms the context for China today. Above all he looks at the collapse of the USSR, and from that event and the events in Europe at the end of the 1980’s he draws a generalization: so far, it would appear that “every time a Communist country has attempted a transition to a different regime type, it has collapsed. The exception seems to be China. But is it really an exception?” Exactly the right question, it seems to me, but one which his fellow correspondents do not even raise, let alone attempt to answer.

Instead, they shrug their shoulders in dismissal, focus on a few minor areas of disagreement—and engage in vitriol. This is particularly true of the letter from the group of twelve, which garnered the endorsement of so many weighty and visible authorities. The explanation for the vitriol, I think, lies in the unwelcome situation now confronting sectors (though not all sectors) of the China-watching community. In brief, it is no longer possible to defend the largely upbeat views about China and its future that have been a standard establishment line for so long. What then to do? They will not or cannot say they were wrong; but neither can they or will they say that another view was right. What they can do is to argue ad hominem, accusing someone like me of “unsubstantiated hyperbole, half truths, and in some cases complete untruths that produce unwarranted, one-sided conclusions”—though without documenting the charge.

Those who remember the comparable intellectual scandal that afflicted the field of Sovietology during the period of the USSR’s existence will recognize the phenomenon. In Vixi, his forthcoming memoir, Richard Pipes says something about the groupthink then dominating Soviet studies that applies equally well today to at least one group of China specialists: “That is not to say that there was no room for controversy; there was room but it was strictly circumscribed. Thus, for example, it was permissible to maintain that the Soviet regime was more stable or less stable, but not that it was unstable.” Something about my analysis—something, perhaps, too candid—crossed the line of the permissible.

My critics do in fact disagree with me on a few points of substance. Thus, Henry Rowen points to “misconceptions about economics” that I have supposedly derived from the “mistaken” work of Thomas Rawski. It is true that economics is not my “strong suit,” as Mr. Rowen helpfully adds, but my confidence in Rawski is not based merely on his reputation as a respected academic economist who also happens to be a superbly qualified China specialist. In his early work, Rawski turned on its head the conventional wisdom about pre-1949 China—that it was “economically stagnant”—and was proved correct. He is now in the process of doing the same for our understanding of the PRC, most notably by querying the high growth rates that have been claimed for it and tracking the burgeoning problem of resource misallocation. His work is painstakingly empirical, though not lacking in a certain intellectual adventurousness. Above all, his sources of information on that closed society include Chinese statisticians and economists who themselves know what they are talking about.

Unique among my critics is Jonathan Pollack, who takes me to task not for what I say or how I say it but for what I do not say: namely, what U.S. policy should be. To this I plead that my article was intended as a diagnosis, not a prescription. But the policy recommendations follow directly from the analysis. We should devote our efforts to maintaining good relations with China’s current regime, a challenging task requiring every bit of diplomatic talent we possess as well as enough military clout to deter any Chinese adventures. At the same time (and this is the difficult part), we must realize that one of these days the regime is going to change, perhaps suddenly, as the Soviet Union did, and begin to prepare for that eventuality. How? By working so to strengthen our alliances among Asian democracies that no matter what happens in China, the region will not be de-stabilized.

The point of my article was that we Americans must start thinking about how we are going to deal with the change that is coming in China. My critics, while not disputing that change is coming, nevertheless appear to find the task of thinking hard about it misconceived, uncongenial, and unwelcome. Why they feel this way, and with such passion, they do not explain—which is a great pity. Nevertheless, I thank them all for taking the time to write.”

 

[xviii] Hugh Thomas Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, Pan 2002, 1151 pp., is the richest resource on the history of Cuba and its Castroist revolution. For Kennedy’s problems with Cuba see Lawrence Freedman Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 123-248 and Dallek op. cit. pp. 373-574.