Mann's "Third Scenario," and Some Related Commentary

Last weekend, I began reading James Mann's noted book The China Fantasy, and I have deliberately put off reading beyond the first chapter in order to write this post. Initially, I wanted to keep it to a response to Mann's first chapter, "The Third Scenario" -- his introduction describes the book as a "collection of essays," so I feel somewhat justified in taking the chapter as an independent entity. However, since then I've read some interesting items that I would like to discuss along with, or in light of, the arguments in Mann's essay.

For those who haven't read The China Fantasy, Mann describes two opposing sides of a debate regarding China's future. One side says that economic involvement will bring inevitable political change in its wake. Mann calls this the "Soothing Scenario." The other side, according to Mann, argues that China's political and/or economic system cannot withstand an increasingly complex set of pressures and that China's system is doomed to collapse in the not-so-distant future. Mann calls this possibility the "Upheaval Scenario":

The optimists say China is obviously headed in the right direction and predict that China will become ever more open, politically as well as economically. The pessimists contend that China is headed for a period of turmoil or collapse.

After describing the ways in which both of the above scenarios are unlikely, Mann introduces a "Third Scenario," in which China's economic development continues according to the patterns of the last twenty years of fast-paced growth, while the country's political system remains essentially as it is today. Mann argues that there is no reason to expect anything but more of the same, with China continuing to grow in economic and military strength while it avoids substantial political reforms.

While I strongly agree with much of Mann's first chapter, especially with his arguments regarding the Soothing Scenario, "The Third Scenario" underestimates the likelihood of political change coming from domestic turmoil and pressure. This underestimation is the result of a denial of middle ground and an inadequate refutation of the possibility of internal conflict that forces political shifts. On one hand, Mann's Soothing Scenario predicts gradual and peaceful political evolution. On the other hand, his Upheaval Scenario predicts total meltdown and disintegration. The true change scenario, if it is to occur, lies somewhere between these two. It will not be gradual and free of political trauma, nor will it be the end of mainland China as a national entitiy.

Mann's refutation of the Upheaval Scenario is incomplete. He emphasizes China's size and tradition of geographic cohesion:

--China is a huge country, and it is particularly hard to draw conclusions about the political situation from what is happening in any one place or region...There will always be large numbers of regions that are unaffected [by political unrest].

--Mainland China has a long history of managing to hold itself together...The Chinese mainland has always managed to reemerge as a distinct, unified political entity. Predictions that China will fall apart run counter to this strong historical tradition.

--The Upheaval Scenario mistakes the appearances of chaos for the reality of China's underlying cohesion.

Both of the above arguments are based on purely geographic observations. China's size and demographic diversity no longer provide a shield against nationally cohesive social action. In the last decade, the proliferation of information technology has given rise to large-scale national movements. While most of these nation-wide movements have had nationalistic characteristics and have been largely tolerated by the central government, they have nonetheless illustrated the ways in which uncontrolled popular momentum can sweep the country in a short period of time. Most recently, events in Tibet and Sichuan province generated intense debate nation-wide and internationally. These issues created an atmosphere of non-governmental political debate and discussion that, in both cases, the Communist Party ultimately felt to be a potential threat to stability. While most issues remain localized, many attract national attention amidst increased citizen speculation in the absence of adequate official coverage. China's size is no longer a political safeguard for the leadership.

Mann's second argument against the Upheaval Scenario, while historically and geographically accurate, is politically irrelevant. Mainland China's history of cohesion as a geographic entity is coupled with its history of sudden and violent political upheaval within the borders of that entity. The argument also ignores long periods during which central government authorities maintained only nominal, if any, control over certain regions. Given similarities in maps of mainland China from 1908 and 2008, one cannot assume a century of political stability.

Finally, his conclusion regarding China's underlying unity should, in my opinion, be reversed. People outside of China -- and Chinese themselves -- often mistake the appearance of cohesion for the reality of China's underlying chaos. While the word "chaos" may be too strong, one of the most prominent trends in recent CCP policy has been to use force in creating the appearance of unity and uniformity where, in fact, pluralities exist. This is true for the Chinese leadership's treatment of itself as well. In a recent article for the Brookings Institution, Cheng Li Describes this intra-party competition:

In the absence of a paramount figure similar to Mao or Deng, Chinese leadership politics have been increasingly characterized by checks and balances between two contending political camps or coalitions. This trend toward bipartisanship within the CCP, or what one might call a "one party, two coalitions" phenomenon, first emerged in the fourth generation and will most likely become more dynamic in the fifth generation.

This imposition of the appearance of one where in fact there are many becomes a trend throughout the government of mainland China. Whether it's policy towards the media, towards Taiwan ("One China") or Hong Kong ("One country, Two systems"), or towards the nature of the leadership itself, there is an emphasis on a need for a single vision. Even China's Olympic slogan, "One world, One dream," carries this implication.

Forthis reason, the Third Scenario -- in which China remains essentially unchanged as a political entity as its growth continues -- depends on continued repression through governmental use of an increasingly effective security mechanism as well as continued reliance on traditional unity propaganda. According to Mann:

--If the regime were threatened by ever greater political unrest, it would respond with ever greater repression...The party leadership would simply invoke once again the same justifications it has put forward in the past when calling for an end to protests or organized dissent.

--The main reason Tiananmen Square remains so quiet today is that China's security apparatus goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure there will never again be large-scale demonstrations there to challenge the regime.*

This is essentially in line with what we have been seeing in the run-up to the Olympics, especially following the March riots in Tibet. Mann is correct about the political goals of China's ruling party, but it appears that he is unable to reconcile those goals with the inherent characteristics of the party and also of China's society. This is where Mann's argument against inevitable change through turmoil begins to collapse on itself. On one hand, as shown above, he describes a Chinese system that depends on the use of coercion and force to resist change. On the other hand, he describes a population that desires political freedom and a system with no means of thoroughly coopting dissenting voices:

--Of course such stereotypes [that Chinese people don't want democracy] are discarded during those rare periods, such as the late 1980's, when the Chinese leadership allows people to engage in organized political activity. At such times, it is obvious that people in China are as eager for a voice in their country's political life as are people anywhere else in the world...Undoubtedly, there are some people in China who don't want elections -- those who are now in power and those who depend on the current regime for privileges or economic favors.

--Of equal importance, China's existing, undemocratic political system is deleterious, both for the country itself and for the rest of the world, because it is unstable. There is no established process for resolving high-level disputes within the Communist Party leadership, and such disputes have led to repeated political crises over the past half century...There are no guarantees under the existing system, however, that all successions will be [as easy as the last].

Under such conditions, it should be impossible for China's government to continue unchanged through difficult straits. China has recorded unprecedented international and domestic succcesses during the past twenty years, yet the government still seems to rest on a base of insecurity and paranoia toward its own people. In an article in the July 17 issue of China Brief, Willy Lam describes the sentiments of Yang Huanning, China's Executive Vice-Minister of Public Security:

Yang...urged police and related personnel to work harder at speedily resolving disputes and diffusing social contratictions at the grassroots level. He admitted, however, that China's development had reached a stage "where multifarious types of social contradictions and conflicts have markedly increased -- and it has become much more difficult to mediate among and reconcile various interest groupings."

Absent abnormally high rates of enonomic growth and atypical super-events such as hosting the Olympic games, will the CCP be able to justify and maintain harsh potitical controls without significant backlash? Will they be able to maintain public support for policies that solve social disputes by silencing one side and amplifying the other? Is there no avenue for political change in China other than Party-guided reform or total systemic collapse?

While I question the likelihood that Mann's Third Scenario will come to pass, the essay is invaluable inasmuch as it dispels the myth of the Soothing Scenario, which still carries too much weight in western thinking about China. Just yesterday, China Daily ran an op-ed by Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Some perspective is called for. Modern China is only some six decades old. Its economic growth has been and is truly astounding. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. Indeed, Chinese economic growth must be acknowledged as one of history's great achievements in poverty reduction. China is not simply wealthier; it is also a far more open place politically than it was during the Mao era. Civil society is growing; there are now more than 300,000 NGOs. Official statistics show that more than 85,000 public protests occurred in 2005 over issues such as corruption, public health, the environment, and land use. Even the recent earthquake in Sichuan revealed how Chinese politics are changing. Cameras were allowed in; senior officials were seen and heard.**

Part of the problem is that people in the west frequently conflate material prosperity and increased cultural similarities with political liberalization. Society is "liberalized" when girls can wear tank-tops and short skirts, and young people can be seen in bars and night clubs listening to hip hop. Mann asks, "Is it simply because the Chinese now eat McDonald's and wear blue jeans?" In a review of Mann's book, Toy Reid elaborates on this conflation of the pop-cultural/material with the political:

Receptivity to global culture may be facilitated by economic development but the rise of a middle class by itself in no way guarantees a smooth path to democratization. [Political Scientist Daniel] Lynch highlights how the Chinese Communist Party seeks to prevent such socialization to global culture from occurring in China by squelching interest in "foreign" ideas and deriding them as a "blind alley."

Reid's statement, however, is not entirely correct. The CCP's strategy is to allow an influx of foreign wealth and popular culture -- the materialistic aspects of western culture -- while keeping western political ideas at bay. In this way it can foster the image of a socially and materially liberal China as a politically liberal China.

Is adherence to the Soothing Scenario dangerous? In some cases, yes. For many, it is simply their intellectual point of view on the future of one of the world's most important countries. For others, however, it is a rationalization to reap the profit of economic engagement with a country that is -- from one point of view -- the world's largest consumer market and -- from the other point of view -- the world's most serious threat to international human rights law. According to Mann:

A long-term authoritarian regime in China would pose considerable problems for democratic values throughout the world.

This article from the International Herald Tribune highlights the more dangerous results of the Soothing Scenario:

McDonald's is running a "Cheer for China" television ad. Nike ads feature China's star hurdler, Liu Xiang, and other Chinese athletes besting foreign competitors. Earlier this year, Pepsi even painted its familiar blue cans red for a limited edition "Go Red for China" promotion.

Despite the questionable events of the past six months, major American corporations are not only continuing with their investments in the Olympic games. They have taken their campaigns a step further by actively supporting the idea of China's triumph vis-a-vis the rest of the world. When faced with difficult political questions, these corporations do not respond by distancing themselves from suspect activity. Rather, they further entrench themselves on whichever side is to be more profitable, all other issues aside.

This, ultimately, is why the Soothing Scenario will not come to pass -- not because it was a ridiculous notion to begin with. The corporations whose involvement with China was supposed to lead to a liberalization of China's political system are actually further strengthening the existing system, both materially and morally, as it becomes increasingly repressive:

"There's never been an Olympics with such a big home market," says Dick van Motman, the chief executive of the Chinese division of DDB Worldwide, the advertising agency. For global brands to succeed, he said, that means "reinforcing your image; aligning yourself with the China dream; and aligning yourself with China entering the world stage. That's the real game."

The intellectual underpinnings of the Soothing Scenario may have been solid at one point. Shouldn't involvement with the United States and its companies do something to foster its traditional ideals globally? Unfortunately, Google, Cisco, Pepsi, Nike, ect., among the other main actors in the Soothing Scenario's execution, care as much about the proliferation of universal human rights and liberal democratic ideals as they do about the "China dream" and its success in the 2008 Olympic games. That is, not at all.


*In my post about Tiananmen Square back in June, I made a nearly identical observation.


**Mann quotes Hass making a strikingly similar argument in 2005: "Society is far more open today than it was 15 years ago at the time of the Tiananmen crackdown."