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Tuesday, June 14

China and the rascal rabbit of life's surprises

This essay continues the dialogue about China-US relations, which the author of the Simon World blog initiated with Pundita in the Ducking Reality essay; new readers might want to turn to that essay before starting this one.

Dear Pundita:
Thanks for your essay -- a very interesting response to my questions. One immediate thought about your points is that the world has already experienced a time where geopolitics was dominated by trade -- the British experience of the 19th century. Rule Britannia and all that.

While empire is so 1800s, are we witnessing a gradual emergence of an effectively liberal capitalist democracy empire, primarily directed and led by the US? Is the British Empire analogy a useful pointer or a distraction?

I also am not sure [I'd agree that] Beijing is asleep at the wheel. I'd cast the problem more as a dictatorship used to absolute control grappling with the realities of a (mostly) market economy and foreign trade flows. You observed that for decades the US had a bipolar policy toward China. You could say there's a bipolar China as well.

Some additional thoughts:

1. China's central government gives the impression of being dominant, in control and with a firm grasp on power. In reality it is more often reactive than proactive, at the whim of conflicting agendas of regional governments (witness the trouble the central government has had in reining in economic growth).

2. Outside of Taiwan, China's people and government mostly have little interest in foreign policy and geopolitics, save perhaps in securing a reliable flow of natural resources to keep China's economic growth strong.

3. The Communists (CCP) are now a party of nationalism and market economics. The leadership is kept up at nights by the thought of the 700 million peasants that are largely missing out on its economic miracle, while its support is more often coming from the rapidly growing coastal people. The growing income and living standard gap is the biggest problem the government faces.

Economic management matters far more than geopolitics (which is why I don't think a Taiwan invasion is likely unless provoked by the independence factions on the island). A nice contrast to the American government.
Simon in Hong Kong"

Dear Simon:
Thank you for your thoughtful response and insights--and for questions that provide enough material for several essays! I'm sure Pundita readers appreciate, as I do, the time you've taken to engage in a little citizen journalism for our edification.

Your original questions -- the ones that formed the basis of the Ducking Reality essay -- took on an ominous tinge for me after I read Henry Kissinger's June 9 opinion piece Conflict is not an Option for the International Herald Tribune. For all his high-level contacts in this country, Kissinger doesn't understand the Bush Doctrine. Yet it's clear from his writing (and from his long, close relationship with high level officials in China's central government) that China's government has turned to him for advice on how to interpret the Bush administration's view of China.

The tone and substance of Kissinger's piece strongly suggest that Chinese officials are alarmed about Robert D. Kaplan's piece for Atlantic Monthly (How we would fight China), which implies that the US could be turning to a cold war posture in relation to China.

So I will dedicate this essay to sketching the rationale for the Bush Doctrine, as preface to answering the questions you pose above. Beijing cannot understand the doctrine by reading Kaplan's piece. Nor will they understand by consulting with Dr Kissinger on how to interpret the piece, which, as ZenPundit points out, Thomas M. Barnett eviscerates in his critiques.

However, getting a balanced view of Washington's policy on foreign relations, which is undergoing a massive revision, is not easy for a dictatorship that has no history of democracy as a reference point. No matter how much time Chinese spies, envoys and businesspeople spend in America, much is lost in translation when they return their observations to China. So I think it's best to start answering your questions by discussing what I consider to be the fundamentals:

At the height of Japan Inc.'s trouncing of US manufacturers, some congressionals used a hatchet to smash Japanese electronic appliances on the floor of the Senate (or maybe it was the House). Meanwhile, a couple of young men named Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were fooling around with software programs. American industry soon came roaring back with a great leap forward, one that no one could have predicted.

But all the above was just another day in the life of a democracy. The great difference between China and America is that America puts faith in their people. China puts faith in planning.

The drawback with pinning faith on planning is that one can't predict and control life, much less plan for life's surprises. So as messy as the free society is, it has the edge where it counts -- in the struggle for survival -- because a democracy allows for highly diverse input to government in response to new challenges. That increases the chance that an effective response can be quickly mustered to deal with life's surprises.

China's faith in planning keeps the government in the position of Elmer Fudd. They tend to look at the ebb and flow of life in the way Elmer looks at Bugs Bunny. The wascal wabbit keeps popping up, no matter how much lead Elmer pumps at him.

These observations echo the point you raised in #1 when you observed that in reality China's central government is more "often reactive than proactive, at the whim of conflicting agendas of regional governments."

But it's not only regional governments that are playing Bugs for China's dictators. It's also the complex interplay of events between Nature and Humankind. Today, mega human populations can quickly transform complex interconnected events with lighting speed.

That's why I used the examples of Beijing's awful initial response to SARS and H5N1 in the Ducking Reality essay. Beijing's reaction to the SARS outbreak perfectly illustrates the stagnant aspect of dictatorship. Beijing honestly believed they could erase all trace of the original source of the outbreak, which was a military hospital. But someone who worked at the hospital called a relative in Taiwan; the relative then called back to the mainland, then ping! the wascal wabbit Reality was suddenly beyond Beijing's control.

I add that this lighting chain of events was very lucky for humankind. This is because as the word of SARS shot around China the villagers showed more sense than Beijing officials, who panicked and tried to flee the outbreak. The villagers ripped up railroad tracks in many regions, set up barricades on roads leading to and near their villages, and set up sentries who threatened to shoot any outsider trying to come near the village. In short, they imposed a quarantine.

The military sided with the villagers, it seems (or maybe the military didn't have time to react). In any case, the villagers' response forced Beijing to do what they should have done immediately -- publicly admit to the outbreak, and order people to stay in place and not try to flee the cities. That slowed the spread of SARS, which gave health officials in China and worldwide a little time to work out containment measures. Even so, it was a close call for the human race.

In this discussion, the Chinese villagers represent the intelligence/knowledge base 'river' in every society. If that river is dammed up by dictatorship -- the pool, represented by the government, stagnates. Ideas can't flow, responses can't flow.

In his opinion piece Kissinger invokes length of time when speaking of China's government: "The Chinese state in its present dimensions has existed substantially for 2,000 years."

The length of time is a laudable historical achievement, but is no measure of a government's present effectiveness. In other words, governments work until they don't work.

In olden times government could represent a stagnant pool and still survive many types of challenges because of the long lead-time associated with them. For example, the progress of an invading army could take months or even years to wend its way to the destination. That gave target governments time to fortify and raise an army in response.

Another example: it could take many months for plague to hit a population; that meant word of mouth could precede the plague in some cases, which gave the society a warning. The same with many trade situations and the spread of innovations that radically altered markets.

Today, the lead-time has greatly shrunk for many challenges. That means the ability to muster a quick, effective response depends greatly on a society's flexibility. The river must flow: the government must have ready access to the knowledge base and intelligence represented by the society as a whole.

So when President Bush talks about democracy saving civilization, he's looking at democracy from the angle of its ability to harness society's river of knowledge and keep it flowing. I venture that is what China's leaders don't understand about the Bush Doctrine. If so, they're not alone.

Many in Washington are still trying to catch up with Bush's curve because he's looking at democracy in a way that's outside the traditional ideological arguments. He accepts the traditional arguments, but he's viewing democracy as the form of government that's best suited to marshaling as many 'empowered' people as possible to respond to challenges that arise in unpredictable fashion.

The question is why this view, which seems self-evident when spelled out, wasn't transferred to developing societies when the United States took a lead role in development during the mid-Twentieth Century. I don't think there's a single answer.

One reason is that America had been 'doing' democracy for close to two centuries but doing doesn't necessarily equate to close, accurate analysis of how you do something. Nor does it equate to the ability to effectively communicate how you do something.

Another reason is that the transfer mechanisms for American ideals, and in particular the World Bank, focused on economic development. This dovetailed with the exigencies of the Cold War. America could deal with dictators at the economic level while skirting the messy question of why a democracy should support a dictatorship.

Yet economic development and free market capitalism are not fundamental to a strong society; the input of the people in the society is the fundamental factor. The Bush Doctrine implicitly recognizes this.

In typical Yankee tinkering fashion, the Bush administration has said in effect, "Whoops! Back to the drawing board! It's democracy, not economics."

The suddenness of the attempts to apply this Eureka! moment has taken many governments off guard. The same has happened to the US State Department, Pentagon, and US academic/policy institutes. Frankly the Bush Doctrine, or at least the speedy attempts to implement it, has confused and scared those who don't have a tinkering bent. Many foreign governments see democracy as something the US is trying to push on other nations as a means of US imperial expansion.

The danger, from the US side, is that confusion about the doctrine and how to implement it have driven several policy analysts back to familiar ground. Familiar ground could include cold war thinking. Here I am in agreement with Henry Kissinger when he warns that the US must not drift into a cold war mode.

To be continued tomorrow.
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