Twofish's Blog

May 19, 2007

Jim Mann’s commentary on Washington Post

Filed under: china, new york city, politics — twofish @ 3:43 pm

A few comments:

1) First of all, it isn’t clear to me that people who believe that markets and capitalism will lead to political liberalization are wrong.  Something that Mann doesn’t mention is that during the 1970’s, economic growth in Latin America, South Korea and Taiwan managed to increase the power of the authoritarian governments there.  What happens is that either the economic growth continues (South Korea and Taiwan), in which case you end up with a middle class which pushes for political liberalization, or it stalls (Latin America) in which case you end up with demands for political change.  There is one example where economic growth *didn’t* lead to political change and that is Singapore.

My own belief is that history is not determinstic, whether mainland China ends up with a multi-party political system like Taiwan or a one-party authoritarian system like Singapore will be determined by accidents and choices that cannot be forseen.  What I’m trying to do is to do whatever little part I can to develop institutions and frameworks so that whatever happens, mainland China will be able to cope with whatever history throws at it without falling apart.

2) I think that Mann for overestimates the degree to which the rhetoric of democracy has actually influences US foreign policy.  Sure there are a lot of people who were arguing that trade will advance democracy in China, but there were equally large numbers of people who were arguing that trade would retard democracy in China.  The interesting thing is that for the most part, these groups were just putting a spin on their own self-interest.

Mann has been criticized (rightly) for not presenting any concrete policies.  He argues that he is calling for the US to merely interact with China on the basis of self-interest rather than flawed abstract ideas.  I don’t see how this is fundamentally different from the policies that the US has followed for the last hundred years.  People figure out what their self-interest is, and then adopt “democracy” and “freedom” to sell their self-interest.

Take Mann’s suggestion that the US should be tougher about the revaluation of the RMB.  This neglects the fact that there are some groups in the United States that benefit from a cheap RMB, the housing market, Walmart, the electronics industry.  There are also groups in the United States that lose from a cheap RMB, organized labor, manufacturing states, and so forth.  When you add together all of these different interests together, I don’t think that you end up with a policy that is very different than what the US has been doing.  This is because US policy *has* been based largely on self-interest, and the democracy and freedom talk is there just for marketing.

However, Mann misses the *real* problem with US foreign policy and that is that by using the concepts of “democracy” and “freedom” to justify self-interest, the US has brought those concepts into disrepute.  US interests in the Middle East are to prevent a terrorist attack on the American homeland, and to insure a secure supply of oil to the US economy.  These are basically self-interested goals.  Nothing wrong with a little self-interest.  But by trying to *deny* that those are self-interested goals and by using the democracy and freedom to justify that, the US has damaged those ideals globally.

Let me give an example, of how national self-interest makes the US look bad.  Cheney’s justification of the Iraq War that we are fighting in Iraq so that we don’t have to fight on the streets of NYC.  Can you imagine how awful that sounds to the typical Iraqi?  The elaborate lengths that the Bush administration has gone through in order to make sure that the detainees in Guantanamo don’t have the legal protections of American citizens.  What is the average Zimbabwean supposed to make of that?  And then the US talks about democracy and freedom?

So what do I think the United States should do?  I think that first of all, the United States should stop talking about democracy and freedom.  At this point, anything the United States does to *talk* about democracy and freedom is just going to make the situation worse.  Rather, I think that the United States should act in ways that are consistent with its stated principles.  People are smart and if the United States acts in a way that protects democracy and freedom within the United States, there is no need to promote oneself.   Resolving the Guantanamo detainees is a good start.  Having a real national debate on what to do with the mess in Iraq in which the common man in the United States is treated intelligently is another.

Finally, I leave with one troubling question.  One crucial difference between China and the old Soviet Union is that China has no interest in exporting it’s political model.  Yes, China deals with dictators in Burma, but it also deals with democracies like Japan.  It tries to have good relations with North Korea, but it also tries to have good relations with South Korea.  China claims that it’s system is the best system for China, but it’s ideology explicitly states that different countries have different historical circumstances and that the political system of a country must respect those different historical circumstances.  Even within its borders, China “practices what it preaches” and has a political system in Hong Kong which is very different from the one in Shanghai which it justifies based on special historical circumstances.

Meanwhile, the United States insists that the only correct development model is one that involves multi-party democracy and that the rest of the world has to adopt a political system similar to the United States in order to be considered civilized.

So I ask this question.  Which viewpoint is more consistent with the ideals of freedom and democracy?



  1. I think there is a difference between freedom of the state and freedom of the people. China believes in the freedom of the state. The US believes in the freedom of the people. Their rhetoric accurately reflect this difference, as do their actions, for the most part.

    Comment by Kevin — May 20, 2007 @ 2:13 am

  2. Great post, a few things to add:

    1.”freedom” and “democracy” is an ideology of US and more general, the West. ideology is used to cover self interest in some respectable form and provide control over population to elites. US won’t give up it’s ideology – it would fall apart without it. Nor it will give up it’s self interest. Ofcourse due to US policices both “freedom” and “democracy” are discredited in most parts of non-western world, but that doesn’t matter to US, until it has the ability to promote self interest. the most important thing is that generally US population truly belives in this ideology, and truly believes in what US is really promoting freedom and democracy rather than self interest, due to years of extensive brainwashing from the media. just remeber, how quickly an average american was lead to believe that Iraq was connected to 9/11 or that it posessed some weapons of mass destruction.

    2. as for SU – SU HAD to try to export it model. It’s very basic stuff – there were to alternative project of the world’s development – capitalism and communism, “real communism”(as an opposition to some theoretical model,a term invented by prominent Russian or Soviet logician and philosopher A. Zinovyev) Those projects were competing, and it was Lenin who firts recognized that a communist state can not exist in the surrounding of capitalist states. Simply because of the opposing nature of two models and the agressive, expansive and “colonizatory” (i do not know which is the right term) nature of capitalism and more generaly – the west. Hence the idea to export revolution just to protect itself.

    3. You are saying the right things, and the Western society (here we should not separate US and Europe or England, after WWII the west was almost turned to monolith during the cold war, which as you remeber was stated by the west in the first place, on most of the critical issues they are unite now) doesn’t really work like it’s described by the media and ideology, but very few people recognize it. If you are interested in how societies work, and i believe you are, and how real communism in SU worked, i highly recommend a book by A. Zinoviev “On the road to supra-society”. It’s his most prominent piece, there he collected all of his work on communist andd western society. The only problem is that i doubt this one was ever translated in English. Some of his books are available in french, but i don’t see that one there:

    Comment by flipper — May 25, 2007 @ 4:49 am

  3. and another one – it’s so ironic, that the original doctrine of “global revolution”, which was invented by Lenin and Trotsky, was and is beeing sucsefully employed agains SU and it’s former republics. The thing didn’t work with china 15 years ago, but who knows that happens in several years… Elections are coming soon in Russia and the revolution export by US succseeded in Ukraine and Georgia, so that really makes me nervous a bit:)

    Comment by flipper — May 25, 2007 @ 4:59 am

  4. Let me try again and hope it stays this time.

    If the End Purpose of having “freedom and democracy” is to build a Strong Nation which implies everyone else will be better off, I would say China’s model of governing would be the “ideal” faster one based on the principle that the “ulltimate shared goal” of all the individuals is for a Strong China.

    Below is just a simple analysis of the two different models between China and USA:

    1) China Government (national interest) = All individuals (self interest = national interest)

    Thus, there would be little or no clashes/conflicts between China’s national intereest and All individuals’

    2) USA Government (national interest + self interest) = All individuals (national interest + self interest)

    Whereas, there would be more clashes/conflicts here, for example, whenever the USA’s self interest[national interest (20%) + self interest (80%)] is greater than that of All individuals [national interest (50%) + self interest(50%)].

    Comment by Keypoints — May 26, 2007 @ 6:03 am

  5. […] – twofish, Twofish’s Blog, Jim Mann’s Commentary On Washington Post […]

    Pingback by (Slightly Dated) Quotes of the Moment « The Weifang Radish — October 21, 2007 @ 3:16 pm

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