CDT Bookshelf: Interview with James Mann

MannIn his new book, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression, James Mann, author in residence at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and former Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Beijing, throws into question the conventional wisdom about China’s future. In Mann’s view, U.S.-China relations have long been based on one of two assumptions: that capitalist reforms in China will inevitably lead to a democratic government (“The Soothing Scenario”), or, alternately, that China is headed for certain political and social collapse (“The Upheaval Scenario”). In the book, Mann examines how the accepted language and images used to describe China inside the Beltway help to perpetuate these scenarios. According to Mann, both of these scenarios serve the purposes of various stakeholders in Washington, but may neglect an alternative reality – that the Chinese government may well remain autocratic and unyielding for the foreseeable future.

Mann has discussed these ideas during testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and in a recent article in the L.A. Times.

CDT recently asked Mann a few questions about his views on U.S.-China relations. His replies are below:

CDT: You have been watching the U.S.-China relationship, from both Beijing and Washington, for years. Why did you feel this particular book needed to be written now?

JM: I’ve been increasingly saddened to see that America’s public discourse about China still operates with many of the same assumptions, the same rationalizations, the same vocabulary as it has for decades – above all, the notion that China is inevitably destined for far-reaching political change. Meanwhile, four years after the transition to a new leadership in Beijing, there has been no change in the fundamental realities of the one-party system: There is no organized opposition to the Communist Party, no independent judiciary, no free press, and no sign of such changes anytime soon.

My abiding interest has been in the interaction between America and China. I’d written in my first book “Beijing Jeep” about American commercial interest in China and in my next book “About Face” about American diplomacy with China. I wanted to explore this time the realm of ideas: What do Americans say about China, and how do our leaders justify their policies? We have certain formulations we use in talking about China; I wanted to examine whether these formulations make sense, why they persist and what interests they serve.

CDT: How would you evaluate the western media’s coverage of China? What role do you believe the media plays in the formulation of ideas about China in the U.S.?

JM: The biggest problem is that the media coverage of China tends merely to reinforce whatever is the reigning stereotype or image, or “frame,” of China in any particular decade or era. In the 1950s, the coverage in the United States was of Chinese as disciplined automatons. In the 1980s, it was “China goes capitalist.” In the early 1990s, it was “crackdown in China.” Now, it’s “China rising” (and “China gets rich”). Once an impression gels, then the extended press coverage – by which I mean, TV specials, newsmagazine covers, newspaper features – all either repeat the impression or at least play off it in some way or another.

I think the press coverage of Western correspondents stationed in China, living and working there, is very good and does cover the diversity of the country. The problem arises elsewhere: back in the home offices, with the producers, editors, and others who, whether consciously or unconsciously, steer the coverage of China to fit into the governing images of the decade. From the wide range of newspaper stories about China, which ones are selected for network news stories or magazine covers? That stage, in particular, is a highly selective process. The bottom line is: I think the media coverage plays surprisingly little role in the formulation of ideas about China in the U.S., because it’s too often packaged in a way that fits what we already believe.

CDT: What role, if any, do you think the Internet is playing in helping to change the political dynamic in China?

JM: The beneficial impact of the Internet is that it has become impossible to keep basic information out of China, and this is of profound importance. People in China know when there’s an election in Taiwan. They know when there are people in the streets in Ukraine. Still, the monitoring and control of the Internet by China’s security apparatus remains huge. People in China are able to find out about, say, a Green Party in Germany – but they can’t post a notice seeking to organize a Green Party in a Chinese city.

The second significant result of the Internet is not beneficial at all. In order to do business in China, some of America’s leading companies, like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft, have been willing to cooperate with censorship – sometimes altering the principles that they have been operating on elsewhere and applying different standards in China. The result has been to reinforce the sense that China is so powerful that it can set its own rules.

CDT: Nancy Pelosi, who recently became the majority leader in the U.S. Senate, has long been one of the most outspoken voices in the Congress on the issue of human rights in China. Do you think her new position will alter the discussion about China inside Washington?

JM: I’m not sure. I covered Pelosi in the late 1980s and early 1990s, her early years in Congress, and wrote about her a bit in “About Face.” I think the views she expressed on China then were deeply held. They represented a school of thought within the Democratic Party: it was not just Pelosi, but leaders like George Mitchell and Richard Gephardt as well. When President Clinton abandoned the effort to link trade and human rights in 1994, Pelosi, who had favored partial sanctions, felt bitter, angry and betrayed. She told me, in a subsequent interview, “He [Clinton] said he was going to do something, and he walked away, as if he was tossing away a used napkin.”

I don’t think she’s changed her fundamental views about repression of dissent and of political opposition in China. On the other hand, as speaker of the House, she’s got a lot of other things going on and a lot of issues to deal with‚Äì starting, of course, with Iraq and Iran, not to mention a bunch of domestic issues. I don’t know where China will fit in or how it will come up as a legislative issue. Certainly, the mere presence of Pelosi as House speaker is quite a change from Dennis Hastert, her predecessor, who seemed to look at China almost entirely from the perspective of the business community.

CDT: Following the Iraq War, and accusations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison, many observers have said that the U.S. has lost its moral authority to lecture other countries, including China, about human rights concerns. How would you respond?

JM: As I say in the book, the Bush administration damaged the cause of promoting democracy through its policies in Iraq, both by using democracy as a largely after-the-fact justification for the war and, especially, by linking the enduring ideals of democracy and self-determination so closely to the use of military force. As for Abu Ghraib, it was morally repugnant and destroys the moral authority of those people, both lower-level people and their leaders, who were responsible for it.

At the same time, Abu Ghraib also helps to illustrate the point I’m trying to make about open political systems. How did we, or the rest of the world, even find out about Abu Ghraib? The American military began looking into a soldier’s complaint; American news organizations found out about the probe and wrote or broadcast stories about it, despite considerable resistance from the US government; Congress proceeded to examine what happened and held public hearings, and some of those who were involved have been prosecuted. Let’s compare this to the way the Chinese government has handled the events of June 4, 1989, in which a number of unarmed civilians were shot to death. After nearly eighteen years, there have been no press investigations, no legislative investigations. It’s still a subject that cannot be freely debated or even discussed in China.

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