Tag Archives: James Mann

George Bush Sr.'s Frustrated Tenure in China

One of George H. W. Bush’s less discussed jobs, lost among president of the United States, ambassador to the United Nations, and CIA director, was head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing during the Nixon administration. Bush’s China journal has recently been published, and it reveals frustration at being made irrelevant by direct contacts between Henry Kissinger and Deng Xiaoping.

James Mann, author most recently of The China Fantasy, has an article on the book in The New Republic. A couple of choice paragraphs.

When Bush landed in Beijing on October 21, 1974, its wind and dust reminded him of places he had encountered in the oil business. “It reminded me very much of West Texas and also of a trip to Kuwait,” he observed. He soon tried to establish high-level contact with Chinese leaders. He paid a call on Deng Xiaoping, then a vice premier under Mao Zedong. Bush’s initial impression of Deng, eventually the father of China’s economic reforms: “He was a very short man.” (For American one-liners about China, this ranks right up there with Richard Nixon’s verdict on the Great Wall: “It really is a great wall.”)

And then there was the question of human rights. “China is very vulnerable on human rights, just as the Soviet Union was,” Bush thought. “Some day sure as can be Congress will turn its attention to these aspects of the Chinese policy. … [T]his euphoric analysis of this society as an open society, as a free society, a soft or gentle society, is simply wrong.” All in all, Bush concluded, China was getting more out of its relationship with the United States than the United States was getting from China. “They need us, actually more than we need them in my judgment,” he decided. “This is the consensus of the international community incidentally.”

Coming Around to Mann's Book: A Valuable Polemic

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.

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 ForeignPolicy.com. 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.