Is There Another China Fantasy?

Recently, flitting from one aircraft to another, I read an old 2007 essay-cum-book: James Mann’s The China Fantasy. Mann’s argument is that there were two broad schools of thinking about the future of China in the West. One school argued that as China’s economy grew and its middle class expanded it would, over time, become a more tolerant and democratic regime. The other school said that the contradiction of a modern economy and a totalitarian polity meant that China would ultimately suffer a political meltdown.

Mann asked the obvious question: What if both schools are wrong and China continues to grow economically and does not change its one-party political system? It will be a rich but repressive nation.

And that is exactly what China has become today.

So what does the West believe about China today, and is there an element of fantasy to it?

Not many today are talking about Beijing ever loosening its hold on the political system – even after its present succession struggle is over. But also only a minority are still talking about a Chinese economic meltdown. It may have many problems, but it has both the experience and the resources to overcome them.

So what does the world want from a strong but illiberal China? It wants, for the most part, for China to be a responsible global player. To be restrained in using its growing power, prepared to play a constructive role in the multilateral sphere and, the most difficult, to be prepared to sacrifice in the short-term to help stabilize the world system in the long-term.

There is no fantasizing in this area because no one really knows what Beijing is thinking.

My view is that a global player always finds it difficult to be responsible, especially with the really tough stuff of giving as well as taking to the international system – even if domestic opinion is less than supportive. This requires a political system where legitimacy, institutions and all that jazz are well-established. China doesn’t have that yet and it’s not clear it ever will. This makes it difficult for Beijing to provide global public goods in security and trade, serve as the lender of last resort, and manage a reserve currency with relative objectivity, given the fragility of its domestic polity.

(India has them– malfunctioning ones, but at least they have the potential to improve.)

It is too much to say China as the global stakeholder is a fantasy. But it is not farfetched to say it is wishful thinking. The real test may be after the present succession struggle is over. But Beijing may be the superpower that doesn’t because its domestic polity won’t.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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