After my initial reaction to James Mann’s China Fantasy, I was ready to be disappointed by the rest of the book. As it turns out, rhetorical excesses aside, the book is a valuable read for anyone interested in how the U.S. political world discusses China, especially those of us who discuss the U.S.–China relationship every day.
The crux of Mann’s criticisms of the U.S. discourse on China is this: He sees the discussion in the United States as centered around an assumption that more trade will inevitably bring more democracy to China. His core message is: maybe not. That’s it. The whole book is devoted to cutting down what Mann sees as a widely-held assumption.
I’m always in favor of tossing out rhetorical conventions that have no relation to reality, and I agree with Mann that, as far as trade leading to democracy, “maybe not” is an important possibility to consider. In fact I can’t imagine any transition to democracy coming about through means so simple as more trade with the United States and greater integration in the international community.
However, the book can be frustrating. In addition to certain logical problems when Mann attacks people he disagrees with (see my previous post), he has not set out to find evidence one way or another on the central question he says faces us. The book is, as advertised, purely about how people talk about China-U.S. relations, not about the relationship itself.
But that’s why it’s valuable to those who read and write about China and the United States. Whether you agree with his positions or not, many of the clichés of the field are laid bare. As Mann predicts, the 2008 Olympics will be venue for much discussion about China, and let’s hope journalists and governments give due consideration to what they say.
Perhaps another day I will have more to say about Mann’s online debate with David Lampton.