Interview with James Mann on engagement and US-China relations

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 the PRC closer to the Western liberal order. 

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. In the second, the “upheaval scenario”, China is headed for chaos, disintegration and collapse.

His third scenario was the most prescient:

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?

It looks like the third scenario is the reality of China today. 

I first wrote about Mann and his book in April 2011 while I was still living in Beijing:

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.

I interviewed Jim over email in December 2018. Axios ran a shortened versioned of the interview; here is the full verison.

Bill: In the last year we have seen lots of discussion and handwringing about the “failure” of the engagement policy. Why has it failed, and why were you treated as almost a pariah in the China-watching world when you wrote this book?

Jim: To answer that, we have to start with the history of  what “engagement”  is, or was. Does an “engagement” policy mean simply having contacts with China — going to meetings, talking? Or does it mean a policy based on the belief that those contacts would lead “inevitably” (that was the word Bill Clinton used) lead to political change in China?

It is often forgotten now, but at first, “engagement” just had the meaning of contacts. The word first began to be used by George H.W. Bush in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown. The debate was over whether to stop meeting with high-level officials. Bush said he wanted to “engage” China, because isolating it would lead to a hostile China. (Later, retroactively, the word “engagement” in this narrower sense was applied to the Nixon opening, too, and the meaning more or less fit; even before Nixon took office, he had written about bringing China out of isolation.)

It was only in the 1990s, mostly in the Clinton years, that “engagement” came to take on this new additional meaning of opening up China’s political system. Clinton needed that argument because he was trying to persuade Congress to renew China’s trade benefits. But this redefinition of “engagement” also fit with the spirit of the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Francis Fukuyama was writing about “the end of history.” Indeed, Clinton used to say that China was on "the wrong side of history."

Now — to come back to the China Fantasy: I’d lived in China in the mid and late 1980s. I’d been there for the crackdown in 1989. When I saw in the early 1990s, back in Washington, that Clinton and others were saying that China would  open up as a result of trade, investment and prosperity, it struck me as simply out of contact with the China I’d so recently lived in and covered. Why did China have to open up and liberalize? Just because Taiwan and South Korea had?

China was different. It took me several years to put it all together in my mind — that what people comforted themselves by saying inside the U.S. was just at odds with the reality of China on the ground. So why did engagement (in this second sense) fail?  It failed because the political change vaguely held out as a prospect was never in the running. The Communist Party wasn’t going to give up power. And the idea that the party would reform itself from within was precisely what had been rejected, with violence, when Zhao Ziyong was ousted from power in 1989.

Finally, you asked why was I treated as  “almost a pariah.”  The short answer is simply that people disagreed with what I was saying. But there was a human dimension to this, too. In the late 1980s, when I returned to Washington from China, most people covering foreign policy in Washington spent their time on either the Soviet Union, the Middle East, or both.

I was one of the few reporters covering Asia on a full-time basis. So of course I talked a lot with the  China-watching community. Yet  for most of that decade, I was a reporter, and I tended to keep my views to myself. I mostly just asked questions, rather than volunteering opinions. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2005, on a fellowship away from Washington, that I began to collect my thoughts and write a book. So when the book came out, some of the people I’d been dealing with for years were taken by surprise. After the book, one China hand I’d talked to amicably probably 50 times in the past once walked across the street so he didn’t cross paths with me. But all that’s mostly passed now.

The assumption that things would gradually open up in China turned out to be harmful American policy. It provided comfort to American officials and prevented them  from focussing on or preparing for  other possible scenarios — that, in fact, China could become more tightly controlled and less interested in integrating in the existing international order


Bill: Does the US risk an overshooting of China policy from engagement to containment/decoupling?

Jim: Well, I hope the ongoing changes in policy towards the Chinese government, most of which I think are  justified as a direct response to Chinese government actions, do not also lead to a general prejudice against ordinary Chinese people or all things Chinese.So far, we haven't seen that, at least not much.

For example,  Trump, who's been utterly shameless in provoking racial and ethnic tensions when it comes to African-Americans, Latinos, Mexicans, Africans -- maybe I'm missing something, but I haven't seen the same sort of thing on China yet.

Trump seems to put China mostly into the trade/jobs economic section of his brain, rather than the "chaos/social upheaval/white nationalism" section of his brain. (And that's one reason why, so far, lots of Democrats and independents have supported his policies, along with the Trumpists.)


Bill: Who do you see as the key drivers of China policy in the Trump administration, and how are they doing?

Jim: Not necessarily the faces you see on TV. If you watch, or read the news coverage, you'd think that under [President] Trump, the main drivers of China policy are people like [U.S. Trade Representative] Robert Lighthizer and [White House trade adviser] Peter Navarro — essentially the trade agencies and constituencies. 

But that coverage is misleading. I do think Lighthizer is important — Navarro not so much, except as a convenient demon for those who oppose the policies.

Matt Pottinger at the NSC may be more important than either of them. But more  broadly, the other, largely uncovered constituencies behind the changes in China policy are the high-tech community, the intelligence community and the Pentagon. They're the ones who have been increasing upset — and this dates back before Trump -- about China's theft of American technology, including weapons systems and technology with military applications. 

We rarely see a face on television to represent those three constituencies, but they're the driving force behind the series of actions like Huawei. I'm assuming that the FBI, the intelligence community and the Pentagon are all not only supporting but pressing for the stronger actions Trump has taken, based on what the Chinese are doing.  

So when you ask who are the driving forces? I'm guessing the FBI director, the DNI and CIA director, and the leading China people under them inside their agencies. I'd put the attorney general on that list, too,  but there isn't one — so let's add the national security people inside the Justice Department.


Bill: When are you publishing an updated edition of the China Fantasy?

Jim: I’ve learned over the years that publishing for general lay audiences is fundamentally different from academic publishing. When it comes to academia, my friend, Warren Cohen, the historian, is now finishing his sixth edition of "America's Response to China" By contrast, in  trade (general) publishing, there's no real constituency for a "second edition," "third edition."   I did do one update for "China Fantasy" when the paperback came out. After that, the publishing dynamics encourage an author to write a new book rather than regular updates of an old one.  

As for myself, I'm just near the end of a new book -- it's not about China but in my other general interest, modern American foreign policy. But I'm just beginning to think of a new project, and I’m considering returning to the subject of China.


Bill: Any other questions I should ask?

Jim: You didn't ask me if, when I published "China Fantasy" in 2007, I could have imagined Chinese repression going so far over the next decade that the regime would deny medical treatment to a Nobel Prize winner, and  set up  camps in Xinjiang in which to lock up huge numbers of Moslem Uighurs. And the answer is no. --although I predicted China would remain repressive, I didn't know how repressive it would become. 

Who knows what sorts of  repressive actions China might take over the coming years that are beyond our imagination right now?

Finally, there's the question of whether the current Xi Jinping regime will be long-lasting.  I'm not sure. Even from a distance, you can see there are sporadic signs of unhappiness with Xi -- and I could imagine that, particularly if there were some huge crisis or economic downturn in China, Xi Jinping could some day, even suddenly be replaced. 

But obviously, I don't think that  political change at the top, if there is any, would be in the direction of an opening-up or liberalization. Rather, the change would come from within the Communist Party. In short, I'm not convinced Xi Jinping will serve out all of his limitless "term."    

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