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Jim Mann details why "engagement" with China failed

Photo of author James Mann in his office during interview with VOA
VOA interviews James Mann in 2014. Photo: VOA YouTube via Wikipedia

Author James Mann, whose views once stirred controversy about a decade ago when he suggested prosperity might not bring the PRC closer to Western liberal ideals in his book "The China Fantasy," now appears vindicated by the evolution of the relationship between the two superpowers.

What's new: I interviewed Mann this week about the current state of U.S.-China relations, to compare with his older premise (which was one of three possible scenarios) that Western elites misrepresented the benefits of engagement with China. Back then, Mann posed the question...

"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? ... What if, in other words, China becomes fully integrated into the world’s economy, yet it remains also entirely undemocratic?"

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?

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

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.

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