Monday, June 11, 2007

A fantastic review of three recent books on China by Rick Perlstein over at The Nation. I haven't read The Nation in years--but this was a return to the kind of writing that thrilled me in the 80s in the public library of small Republican towns in California.

It's also encouraging to see China be taken up by a well-informed member of the left who is not a China watcher. I was disappointed by the absence of any comment on Taiwan as a democracy, but I believe that Perlstein represents a generation that has wholly rejected the old liberal fantasies about China (and nightmares about Taiwan) that have their roots in the McCarthy era. It's not just the right that is ignorant of the outside world.

Some money quotes:

This man, retired after many decades building a successful business in the Midwest, is a car nut who long ago became dismayed by, then resigned to, the slow decline of American industrial dominance. He didn't see any American cars on China's newly teeming roads; China, he pointed out, is "going to start exporting cars to the US in the next few years." He couldn't imagine America building a Three Gorges Dam. That was for the Chinas of the world--civilizations of destiny.

This capitalist sounded like the kind of pilgrim who used to visit Soviet steel mills, or cut sugar cane beside Cuban peasants, and returned singing panegyrics to a new, better world being born.

Note the lessons learned by the left about being taken in by regimes whose ideology you think you share. Good. Finally.

Those who return no better informed about this record than when they arrived include, it would appear, tourists who should know better. Nicholas Kristof dishonored the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre in 2004, Mann points out, with a column titled "The Tiananmen Victory." The democracy activists had won: "After the Chinese could watch Eddie Murphy, wear tight pink dresses and struggle over what to order at Starbucks, the revolution was finished. No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot."

Here's one of the few places where I disagree. OK, so Kristof dishonored Tiananmen. But Kristof is probably right. Most of the leading dissidents from the Tiananmen era have made their peace with new China. The ones who haven't are the ones who can't go back. Democracy was just one of things Tiananmen was about. Most of what they wanted has come true beyond their wildest dreams.

This one's isolated from Jim Mann. Read it twice. It's important.

There haven't been any multiparty ballots for China's middle class to mark yet. And there won't be, Mann argues in an elegant formulation: The urban middle class is "a tiny proportion of the country's overall population," and in any election candidates representing their interests would be swamped by those of the peasantry; thus it is just as easy, or easier, to imagine them as "a driving force in opposition to democracy."

In Taiwan, the emergent middle classes firmly believed (or imagined) that their interests would dominate. That of course hasn't been the case, but the Taiwanese middle class wasn't afraid of anyone except the State. It's a big difference.

China has become rather like Israel: No matter the party, no matter the leader, certain de rigueur formulas must be uttered. Mann strips the hustle bare: "Every single American president since Nixon has, in one way or another, either ignored or quietly given up on the issue of Chinese democracy."

The review is a devastating critique of American foreign policy toward China from the left. It's a great start. If only they would take another look at Taiwan.


Rick Perlstein said...

Thanks for the flattering words. Point me to a good article summarizing what's up in Taiwan.

Rick Perlstein said...

Feiren said...

Behind a pay wall but...this is very good.