Sloppiness in James Mann's 'China Fantasy'

I’m half done reading journalist James Mann’s The China Fantasy: How our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression, and it’s an interesting, if controversial, read. One thing stands out so far: Mann’s relationship with evidence is strained, and he sometimes fails in logic.

In his defense, Mann notes in the first lines, “This is not a book about China itself. This is a book about the China I have encountered outside of China.” That might be fine, if it were true. But writing about the way U.S. media and politicians talk about China, in Mann’s book, entails trying to make points about how China actually is or might someday be.

Mann has clear opponents. He brings up writings by David Lampton, who later took him to task in a debate on What’s most bothersome so far is the rhetorical excess Mann displays in opposing some other commentators. In one case, he criticizes “logical problems” in another argument one sentence after screwing up the logic in his own argument. He writes on page 37:

But this seemingly punchy aphorism, “If we treat China as a threat, it will become a threat,” bears further scrutiny. The suggestion is that the reverse is also true—if we don’t treat China as a threat, it won’t become a threat. But there are all sorts of logical problems with this notion, because one can imagine other possibilities.

Let’s take “treat China as a threat” and call it A. And “China will become a threat” will be B. The argument Mann seeks to refute is then:

If A then B.

His rhetoric turns to deriding a completely different position:

If not A then not B.

In fact this is not implied at all by the statement he’s opposing. He may be thinking of the contrapositive, through which in this case:

“If A then B.” would imply “If not B then not A.”

Anyway, there are indeed “all sorts of logical problems with this notion,” but I don’t suppose Mann was referring to his own logic.

UPDATE: In a later entry, I come around to appreciating Mann’s book despite misgivings about the rhetoric he uses to criticize others’ rhetoric.

1 thought on “Sloppiness in James Mann's 'China Fantasy'

  1. Pingback: Transpacific Triangle » Coming Around to Mann's Book: A Valuable Polemic by Graham Webster

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