The Economist 11 January 1997


The fight over China's Future
Why are the pundits so bad at predicting where China is going?

Hong Kong

PUNDITRY, said John Fairbank, means judging a distant and obscure situation which, though essentially unknowable, the public media are interested in, at least for the moment. "Descended from shamanism, this public function will always be performed, even if only by dopes and dupes, so why not by oneself? Better a little wisdom than none at all."

Even that little wisdom is sometimes lacking. Fairbank may have been the most famous western pundit on China, but in a notable burst of self-criticism he once cited as an outstanding example of naive Sinophilia "my statement in Foreign Affairs, October 1972, that in a certain context the Maoist revolution was 'the best thing' that had happened to the Chinese people in many centuries."

Today the number of China pundits is rising, along with China's growing sense of itself as a future power-and with America's reaction to that sense, which is to grope for a "China policy'. Everybody wants to be a China specialist these days (at least, that is the complaint of a Washington policy wonk at work in the wrong field).

Sheer numbers apart, China pundits differ from those in other fields in another way. Now that Kremlinology is irrelevant, they form the last priesthood licensed to transmit the hidden truths of their chosen subject. This is not just because China's is almost the last big communist party still in power, and trying to follow it demands a certain morbid fascination, indoctrination even. It is also because the Chinese leaders' smug habit of setting their rule in the context of a grand historical sweep of some thousands of years is not a total conceit. China's overarching challenges-the press of its population, the destruction of its environment, the efforts to control a giant civilian bureaucracy and its merchant relations with the outside world-were just as pressing for the Ming dynasty in the 14th century as they have been for the People's Republic since 1949.

So historians, such as Fairbank and Jonathan Spence, a specialist on the Qing dynasty and the best writer in English on China, are often called upon to divine the future. "I'm interested in history, Mr Spence told the Financial Times recently, "so why should I be asked about the future? With China, perhaps, it's a lack of knowledge, the strangeness of the names and language. But it says something about the global feeling of China's oldness and size."

Not all China pundits, though, consider themselves to be part of the mainstream church; indeed, there are the heretics, termed Jansenists by the cognoscenti, at war with it. Gerald Segal at the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, who sometimes contributes book reviews to this section of The Economist, charges that the priesthood has had a dismal record of interpretation and prediction. He says that the conventional view of many specialists-including Allen Whiting, an American academic who has written several influential books about China-that China had no role in the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950 has been discredited by newly-opened Soviet archives in Moscow. China's communist leadership, it turns out, was actually an ardent advocate of aggression.

Heretics also disparage the China watchers' view that Zhou Enlai was decent and wise, even if his Communist colleagues were thugs. (Fairbank, for instance, always kicked himself for not proposing a toast to the memory of Zhou at a White House dinner for Deng Xiaoping.) Some new interpretations of Zhou's role under Mao Zedong have him, at their most charitable, as a bumbling sycophant. And in the early days of the Communist Party, Zhou killed his enemies as ruthlessly as anybody.

These may be narrow instances, but the heretics charge that China-watchers missed the implications of big events, too. Examples are the famine that followed the Utopian "Great Leap Forward" of 1958, when perhaps 30m people died, and the devastation of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" of 1966-76.

All this, Mr Segal and his allies argue, matters for the interpretation of China's future acts. China-watchers have been too indulgent of the Communist regime, in part because their visas to carry out research in China depend on its grace. In recent years, they have been inclined to gloss over the authoritarian side of Deng Xiaoping and the era that bears his name, not to mention the bureaucracy's rampant corruption and the ruthless cynicism of the Communist Party. They now overestimate the party's unity, President Jiang Zemin's grip on power, and the desire of China not to stray militarily beyond its borders.

The corollary, says Mr Segal, is a conventional wisdom that in future China will "muddle through", for which it should have western applause. Mr Segal argues that America and its allies should take a harder line against China, something he has called "constrainment", a teasing echo of America's policy, fathered by George Kennan, of containing the Soviet Union. For this kind of reasoning, Mr Segal has been banned from entering China-a badge of honour, it might be argued.

Certainly, if some China-watchers are too close to their subject-suffering from the so-called "Pander Complex"--this is not new. In his last book before his death in 1991, Fairbank wondered why so little historical research had been done into the custom of footbinding, an iniquitous practice with heavy social and economic (let alone physical) consequences. He put the lack down to that "sentimental Sinophilia" which had from time to time infected other western academics as well as himself.

Any China-watcher visiting Beijing, or any journalist for that matter, knows about the burden of being hailed as a "friend of the Chinese people', with all the reciprocal obligations that entails. Even the tombstone of Agnes Smedley, a campaigning American journalist before the war, is inscribed with the phrase, for she lies buried in the Babaoshan cemetery for revolutionary martyrs just outside the capital. Smedley always spoke her mind; it is hard to imagine that her reciprocal obligation could have been honoured with anything but the silence of the grave.

Nor is it new for China specialists to be drawn up along opposing political battelines at home. Several China "hands" drafted into America's State Department in the 1940's correctly predicted the Communists' ascendancy. The Washington establishment, which had pinned all its money and hopes upon Chiang Kai-shek and his corrupt Kuomintang, bitterly blamed the prescient for "losing" China. "Owen Lattimore", wrote a Washington diplomat in 1946 of the best-known Sinologist of the day, "has achieved chiefly by prolixity the position of a leading authority on China and Far Eastern politics. Lattimore ... et al are perhaps not communists, but they play Communist tunes."

Things may since have improved. Although some Sinologists are too wary of offending China, their sources of information have broadened greatly as China has opened up. Today, China and Taiwan try to amplify fault-lines in the West by competing to befriend academics. But, in the end, there are unfairnesses to some of the heretics' charges.

One is the notion that the priesthood is bound too tightly to the Communist regime, depending upon the biased views of the leadership for its analysis. This, if it was ever true, is no longer so. Academic research has recently been able to delve into the minutiae of Chinese life, giving the world a much more subtle view of Chinese affairs than the one propagated by the leadership in Beijing. To take just a few examples, academic journals in the West have in the past year published articles on subjects as varied as the culture of guanxi (relationships) in a north China village, early signs of the emergence of a civil society in business federations in Tianjin, and the role of women in sport. Many of the old guard China analysts could not even speak proper Chinese.

In the days of high Maoism, it was hard, even for insiders, to predict the next lurch of the People's Republic. But in an all-encompassing, all-explaining political system, which depended for its legitimacy on the weight of the aura surrounding a single, capricious man, it was in the nature of things that this should be so. Mao's charisma might once have touched academics, just as it did people at home. But his totalitarian China has been replaced by a heavily authoritarian leadership. And nobody, inside or outside China, seriously loves the brutish party of today.

In the end, the dispute between the priesthood and the heretics is about China's future. China lies in sullen, political limbo. Both sides of the debate agree that at some point China's politics will greatly change. Some think the Communist Party can hang together and evolve, smoothly on the whole, towards a more representative style of government; they also put faith in the economy's ability to underpin social stability. Others say there will be fireworks in China, with loud bangs heard abroad. But whatever outsiders may say of China's future, the unobliging leadership, as ever, will do little to make their task easier.

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