However Did Our China Crystal Balls Fail Us?
I have been noticing some people asking the question “How did we get China wrong?”
My thinking is that engagement by western people and western government with Chinese people has been very influential. As much from the ideas that there are alternative ways of running an economy, organizing a society and figuring out how to constitute a state. I remember reading Qian Ning’s Liuxue Meiguo 留学美国 online at http://www.shuhai.org/books/5750-%E7%95%99%E5%AD%A6%E7%BE%8E%E5%9B%BD/ [Studying in America] back in 1996 (later translated into English by T.K. Chu and published by the University of Washington Press https://www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/QIACHI.html ] Qian concluded that the demonstration that there are alternative ways of doing things was the most powerful takeaway from the Chinese students encounter with US university education.
Governments and political parties have their own calculus of power which are much less open to foreign influence. Insomuch as a political party or government is influenced by changes in the thinking of its people there could be some influence pass through. True democratic opening would threaten the life of the Communist Party and its one-party rule of the people’s democratic dictatorship since 1949. The village elections that got so much attention during fifteen years ago were not a threat since the village is not a level of government in the PRC. They did have one election for a township government (the lowest unit of government) in Sichuan in 2005 thereabouts but the election result was immediately cancelled.
Things Just Keep on Changing
The degrees and kinds of engagement with China at a particular time depends upon perceptions of China and opportunities for cooperation at the state, business and individual levels. These change all the time. From the Soviet threat of the 70s, to the opening of the 80s as China, in the second founding of the PRC, underwent a vast re-organization all the while keeping intact the principle of party leadership and the people’s democratic dictatorship (My major takeaway from Zhao Ziyang’s memoir is that he really believed in legality and following the party constitution. Deng had a different idea. Party leader Hu Yaobang was revered by Tibetans for the tolerance and changes he wrought in his fairly brief period].
So China changed, perceptions changed and assessments of the potential for cooperation on the government, business/organizations and individual levels kept on changing.
Now we have the Xi Jinping time in which the Chinese Communist Party is even more in a defensive crouch than before. There has always been that element, but things of gotten steadily trending tighter with mild swings up and down around sensitive dates since Hu Jintao came in. The last years of Jiang Zemin might be remembered as much more open than the China of today. The color revolution time in Central Asia sees to have given the Party a scare. Even the fake wave of country wide demos of the so-called Jasmine Revolution. The massive response to very little showed just how worried the party is.
Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping are different as party leaders. I do see Hu – Xi continuity however in the narrow sense of a long-term tightening on differing or dissenting voices. One of my Chinese friends after Hu’s first year said, give him time, he said “Everybody tightens up in their first year.” But it kept getting tighter with the usual fluctuations. Hu Jintao did a lot for rural people. I was impressed at the improvements in rural areas of Sichuan I visited during my five years in Chengdu. Peasants got health insurance albeit on at the level of an unemployed urban resident for the first time under Hu Jintao. Hu doesn’t usually get credit in the West for the good things he did — a common problem for the Party since their credibility is generally fairly low at least outside of China.
Engagement with Individuals and Organizations Influential; Party Sees Political Peril in Opening Up
So I would say that engagement on the personal and private organization level has been very influential. How the government and Party responds is quite another matter. A Chinese internal matter. In the end, only the Chinese change China. The result of increasing influence of ‘western ideas” (setting to one side the western ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin of course) seems to have been an even greater defensive crouch.
The Star Trek Timeline, Contingency, Teleology!
So I think the problem is the question, or rather the idea behind “How Did We Go Wrong?” Guess the ESP didn’t work out. It is a bit of a whiggish question, an ersatz foreign-Chinese brand of whiggishness to be sure “China has been inexorably marching towards Xi Jinping for decades and we should have known that.” There are lots of contingencies, we just don’t know because we are on our particular timeline as they would say in Star Trek!
Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy: It’s Not Only China
Where does the question come from? As people who follow China, we often see issues the party and government addresses at home and in foreign policy as having domestic roots. The Cultural Revolution for example, dominated Chinese foreign policy. He Qinglian points out in her recent book on Chinese language ideological and media infiltration work abroad (no English translation yet) 红色参透：中国媒体全球扩张的真相 [Red Infiltration: The Truth About the Global Expansion of China’s Media] Chinese diplomats worldwide became well known for passing out copies of Chairman Mao’s thoughts and encouraging revolutionaries in Africa, Asia and Latin American to be inspired by Mao’s thought.
My supposition is that much of this “How Did We Go Wrong” is a sort of “Who Lost China?” question. In the U.S. it is a club for the current administration to beat up its predecessors. One of my State Department friends used to joke about a new officer arriving at the Embassy. The saying, probably which probably goes back to the ancient Babylonian Foreign Ministry, goes that all predecessors are incompetent; all successors are usurpers.
Now I would have to caveat a bit and say that it always has been useful to keep the people’s democratic dictatorship in mind. China never did stop being totalitarian — though I think it is fair to say the PRC was refounded in the late 1970s since there were important breaks with the past, an important foundation element that remained was one Party rule and the people’s democratic dictatorship.
China Totalitarian But Has Been Called Merely Authoritarian (Just to be Polite?!)
My thoughts on that continuity I put on another blog posting. https://gaodawei.wordpress.com/2017/08/30/is-china-totalitarian-or-authoritarian/