Five Myths About China

November 6, 2013 Topic: EconomicsGlobal Governance Region: China

Five Myths About China

Less economic might than some think—but more military power than some expect.

Given China’s massive economic development since the rise of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, there has been the assumption that the natural next step would be a transition, however, halting, towards political liberalization, to complement it. The protests in Tiananmen in 1989 have often been interpreted in that light. Some analysts go further. As noted Chinese leadership analyst Cheng Li assessed the 2012 Eighteenth Party Congress, political reform, including greater competition for office, heightened oversight, and the rule of law “is actually not a choice, in my view; it’s a necessity.” Without political reform, it is argued, economic development will be throttled.

But the linkage between political system and economic development is tenuous, at best. “A review of empirical evidence shows no systematic relationship between regime type and growth performance.” This lack of causality actually cuts both ways—just as some believe that political liberalization is automatically linked with economic growth, some have argued that economic growth in the Asian context is best sustained through authoritarian rule. There is little evidence that the two are very much related at all.

What is clear, however, is that neither political nor economic reform is easily effected. There are inevitable winners and losers in any reform attempt; as important, reform is as likely to create the conditions for instability, as lines of authority are blurred and additional costs are imposed. In the case of the PRC, political reform is even more dangerous, because it would also raise questions about the ability of the CCP to retain power.

Worse, the various economic relationships which link the senior Party leaders and their families serve as an
additional disincentive to both economic and political reform. Reform in either sphere could jeopardize delicate political relationships, not to mention lucrative linkages between families. Consequently, if economic reform, which generates tangible benefits for both the nation and the top leadership, is now moribund, political reform is even less likely, given the associated risks of domestic upheaval.="#axzz2elbj6has">

Myth #5: Engaging China has value in itself.

Reality: While refusing to engage China is dangerous, engaging China can only be useful when there are clear objectives in mind.

The fallacy of the saying “It is always better to jaw-jaw than war-war” may be seen in the confusion of the administration when it comes to Syria. The lack of clear objectives and strategy means that talking has substituted, not only for acting, but also for thinking.

The same pitfalls apply to interacting with the PRC. It is important that the United States and the PRC maintain open channels of communications. There is neither desire nor need to revert to the 1960s and 1970s, when the two nations, each for their own reasons, refused to interact with each other at all.

But neither does it help to hold summits and dialogues simply for the opportunity to prove that there are summits and dialogues. In particular, fostering the impression that the simple act of holding summits and dialogues is somehow a boon ceded by the Chinese to the United States misleads China’s leaders as to who holds the initiative in the relationship. If Washington appears overly anxious to hold meetings for the sake of meetings, Beijing is likely to extract ever higher prices for ever decreasing actual benefits.

In this regard, it is important to note that greater dialogue does not necessarily lead to greater mutual understanding. In past crises, such as the EP-3 incident, the Chinese have simply refused to communicate. Despite the establishment of hotlines between US and Chinese military leaders, there are real doubts about whether the Chinese would use them, in event of a crisis.

Effective engagement of the Chinese, then, requires having a consistent American goal and set of messages, one that is first reconciled among the various American bureaucracies, before it is unveiled to the Chinese. Thus, in the context of the American “pivot to Asia,” for example, it would behoove Washington to integrate the Trans Pacific Partnership; US military operations, exercises and deployment; diplomatic openings to states such as Burma; and military-to-military engagement with the PRC, and crafting a single message for allies and friends, as well as Beijing. By contrast, the recent Sunnylands summit appears to have been a waste of time, highlighted (lowlighted?) by the Chinese refusing to even stay at Rancho Mirage for fear of electronic espionage—a reference to Edward Snowden’s revelations in Hong Kong and a slap in the face of the United States.

It is hard to imagine that US-China relations were substantively advanced by that meeting, or that future meetings that followed a similar path would be any more rewarding.

Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Derek M. Scissors is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Image: Flickr/FHKE. CC BY-SA 2.0.