In 2007, James Mann published a book that sent shockwaves through the entire China-watching world. His ideas were more than contrarian. They were radical.
The established authorities flew into fits of rage. How could anyone as well-informed as Mann, a distinguished foreign correspondent and bestselling author, possibly embrace such views? Many scholars felt compelled to cast dispersions on him. Others shunned him. Some did both.
In many ways their reactions were entirely predictable. Mann’s book, The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China, called into question the bedrock assumptions underpinning US-PRC relations. What if America’s policy toward the Chinese Communist Party regime was based on nothing more than a fantasy? What if the vaunted “China Hands” had it all wrong?
Mann observed that Beijing was not reforming politically, and vastly increased American cooperation and trade with China hadn’t gotten the country moving in a positive direction. China was still a brutal Marxist-Leninist state. Moreover, the pillars supporting the Chinese Communist Party had not weakened, and the regime was not about to collapse. In fact, thanks to American support, the Party was growing stronger than ever.
Mann predicted that China was likely to become fully integrated into the global economy and remain undemocratic. To stay in power, the regime could simply use increasing levels of repression, underwritten by American capital, talent, technology, and diplomatic support. The implications were damning.
He wrote, “If China’s political system stays a permanently regressive one-party state, that will mean the US policy toward China since 1989 has been sold to the American people on the basis of a fraud — that is, on the false premise that trade and ‘engagement’ with China would change China’s political system.”
A full decade later, in October 2017, Xi Jinping (習近平) proved Mann’s point once and for all at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, where he dismantled China’s collective leadership model and made himself a Mao-like dictator. Shortly thereafter, the US government finally acknowledged its China policy was demonstrably fraudulent and needed fixing.
In December 2017, the White House released a new National Security Strategy, which stated: “China wants to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”
Rather than make political progress, China’s government instituted a cult of personality around Chairman Xi, which was enforced by a ruthless campaign of political purges. Orwellian mass surveillance and repression followed, casting a dark shadow across every corner of Chinese society.
Rather than move in the peaceful direction Washington elites had long forecasted, China’s government chose to engage in a stunning armaments buildup. It militarized the South China Sea, weaponized outer space, and destabilized the Taiwan Strait.
China has not become a responsible stakeholder. The opposite happened. The Chinese Communist Party has built city-sized concentration camps, and it is now engaged in what the US State Department says is textbook genocide. China has also flooded the United States with highly lethal opioids. In 2019 alone, US law enforcement agents seized enough Fentanyl to kill every American four times over.
Then, adding insult to injury, Beijing covered up the COVID-19 outbreak and weakened America’s ability to protect itself from the virus. In December 2020, the US Department of Homeland Security revealed that it had seized millions of fake COVID-19 test kits and counterfeit surgical masks, which it believed had been intentionally sent to the United States.
Winston Churchill once wrote: “The human mind, except when guided by extraordinary genius, cannot surmount the established conclusions amid which it has been reared.” Well over a decade ago, James Mann clearly saw something happening in US-China relations that no one else at the time did. With the fulsome benefits accorded us by hindsight, we can now safely assert that Mann’s mind was indeed guided by extraordinary genius.
Dan Blumenthal is another author who has been able to surmount established conclusions. In his new book, The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State, Blumenthal casts a searching light on China — and by way of extension, the faulty logic of American foreign policy. His book tells the story of Chinese Communist Party machinations at home and abroad, taking the reader from vicious inner-party battles to the outer edges of Beijing’s global footprint. And by so doing, he forces the reader to confront an uncomfortable fact: by integrating China into a globalized world, the United States and its allies have poisoned the wellspring of their own success.
Blumenthal writes, “Thanks to the Chinese Communist Party, the nation’s domestic disorders and ills, caused by internal economic and social weaknesses and decaying political institutions, have now been exported to the world… as COVID-19 has demonstrated, China’s system of governance causes massive problems for the world.”
There is an important lesson here for Taiwan, which until recently has probably done more than even the United States to help the Chinese Communist Party thrive. Since 1987, Taiwan has poured investment money, managerial talent, and technical knowhow into the People’s Republic of China. Today, the most prosperous regions of China are those enriched by Taiwanese businesses.
Like Washington, Taipei was dazzled by the China Fantasy. To be sure, some corporate elites did profit and gain wealth beyond their wildest dreams. But this came at the cost of undermining their home nation’s security. It is now clear that Taiwan has contributed to the success of a country that poses an existential threat to its own survival.
Can the United States, Taiwan, and other liberal democracies stop aiding and abetting the expansionistic and genocidal regime in China? Can they cleanse themselves of Chinese Communist Party influence before it’s too late? Or will their manifold dependencies, which Beijing has long cultivated, prove unescapable?
In the end, will the Chinese Communist Party infiltrate, subvert, and overthrow Taiwan’s democracy? Or will President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) strategic efforts to turbocharge Taiwan’s trade and economic relations with the United States save her country’s future?
The answer matters not only for Taiwan, but for free and open countries everywhere. The entire world order is hanging in the balance. What happens in Taiwan could tip the scales.
Ian Easton is Senior Director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat.
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