A Rocky Engagement

A Rocky Engagement

A Rocky Engagement

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
April 30 2001 11:30 PM

A Rocky Engagement

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As the China spy plane incident fades into history, one big question remains: On balance, did the incident lend credence to China Hawks or to China Engagers? Two weeks ago, Slate asked me to study this question, and this afternoon my blue-ribbon commission filed its report. Here is the executive summary.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

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There are two arguments for engagement with China: 1) engagement fosters democracy, human rights, etc.; 2) engagement makes war less likely by drawing China into a web of interdependence with the rest of the world.

Engaging for Peace
The second of these arguments—engagement as pacification—drew strength from the spy plane incident. Did you notice, throughout the standoff, the air of high drama—the way you constantly switched from one all-news network to the next, hoping to catch the latest developments? Of course not. Because you never seriously doubted that China would release the crew within weeks. After all, China wants to do business with the United States.

Compare this with the 1968 seizing of the USS Pueblo by China's ally North Korea. Now, that was drama. For all we knew, those guys would never come back. (They came back 11 months later—and meanwhile one crew member had died; during the original seizure, he and several other sailors were shot while trying to destroy data.)

Obviously, the incident itself—the midair collision—has raised tensions between China and the United States. All told, it has probably raised the chances of war between China and Taiwan. Still, just as the fact of engagement kept post-collision tensions from rising higher than they did, this fact will continue to dampen the chances of war. (And note that the precondition for the tension-elevating incident—American spy planes flying close to Chinese territory—is an aspect of China Hawk policy, not China Engagement policy.)

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Engaging for Freedom
The spy plane incident shed little direct light on the second argument for engagement—that drawing China into the global market economy aids freedom and democracy within China. But, with the Chinese government behaving in a generally surly fashion, China Hawks took advantage of the opportunity to ridicule this argument. A Weekly Standard editorial cited as a given "the fact that China's trade economy sustains a political regime of hair-curling, systematic barbarity." The Standard then went into great detail about a Chinese man who in 1998 was ruthlessly persecuted—apparently tortured to death—on suspicion that his wife had violated the one-child birth limit.

But, of course, the one-child birth limit—and ruthless persecution, and "systematic barbarity," including torturing people to death—were in place before China's transition toward a globally engaged market economy acquired any momentum. The question is whether things have gotten better or worse during the transition. Just about everyone who has actually been to China agrees that on balance the answer is "better." (There is, too, in favor of the "engage for freedom" argument.) From the outside, the picture may seem different, but one reason is that human rights violations within China are increasingly discovered and publicized. And this new transparency is itself partly a result of China's ongoing integration into global high-tech capitalism.

Still, the "engage for freedom" argument is harder to test than the "engage for peace" argument, because the two scenarios work on different time scales. Engagement should in theory have its pacifying effects immediately. Chinese leaders, if rational, should quickly see that their export-driven economy makes war with trade partners a highly non-zero-sum game—specifically, a lose-lose game, a game you win by not playing.

Engagement's liberating effects will unfold more slowly. The most credible form of the "engage for freedom" argument is that if China hopes to remain competitive in the global economy, it will have to let information technology pervade society and give people some freedom in using it, thus empowering them politically. But this technologically lubricated liberation (TLL) will fully blossom only as the developing Chinese economy matures into a modern one, which will take time. (Most Chinese jobs are still in agriculture.)

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In addition to unfolding relatively slowly, engagement's liberating effects should unfold fitfully, even spasmodically. After all, if the "engage for freedom" argument is sound, then the fruits of engagement will continually invite a backlash from entrenched government interests, since freedom and democracy are famously bad news for authoritarian regimes. You can see this already in the censoring of Internet chat rooms, the attempted squelching of Falun Gong, and the harassment of free-spirited academics.

The "engage for freedom" argument predicts that, in the long run, the Chinese government can't have it both ways—can't give people enough economic freedom to sustain prosperity while still keeping political freedom on a short leash. And indeed, even in the short run, attempts to have it both ways have. But even when the government finally confronts this choice, it could well decide to sacrifice prosperity for continued power. (History is full of governments that have chosen authoritarian power over economic progress, even if in the long run that choice proved untenable by rendering the society uncompetitive.) Here lies the biggest reason to doubt the early and graceful vindication of the "engage for freedom" argument: For the scenario to unfold smoothly, an authoritarian regime has to systematically abet its eventual demise, something authoritarian regimes aren't known for doing.

Interaction Effects
The spy plane incident arguably illustrates the point. Though reason eventually prevailed in China, the government's handling of the affair was peppered with a kind of belligerence that some observers attributed to reactionary elements in the Chinese government, including the military. These elements may be energized partly by the correct perception that the capitalist West, in "engaging" with China, is basically sending it a Trojan horse. Thus, the "engage for freedom" dynamic may complicate the "engage for peace" dynamic by giving some in China's ruling elite cause to sabotage concord with the West. (But note that American China Hawks also aid China's reactionary elements by recommending policies—such as vast arms sales to Taiwan—that help the reactionaries depict the West as hostile. And President Bush no doubt gave Chinese reactionaries a boost with his recent off-the-cuff remarks about defending Taiwan.)

There is a second sense in which the "engage for peace" and "engage for freedom" dynamics may work against each other. The "engage for peace" scenario assumes that leaders rationally follow China's self-interest. But growing political freedom within China could empower popular nationalism, forcing Chinese leaders to behave less rationally. In fact, we may have seen glimpses of this dynamic during the spy plane incident—another possible explanation for Chinese belligerence. (The common assumption that a democratic China would automatically be pro-American is naive, as Thomas Friedman noted in a recent New York Times column.)

Summary and Conclusions
The "engage for freedom" argument has been much caricatured. It is depicted as implying that normalized trade relations will immediately and smoothly translate into Chinese freedom and democracy. And the manifest failure of that to happen is depicted as refutation of the argument. But the sophisticated version of the argument for engagement is actually not so sanguine about the future, for it envisions a natural backlash against the people's liberation (a backlash from, among other forces, the People's Liberation Army). Engagement, contrary to stereotype, is not a policy for the squeamish. 

In short, the basic effect of engagement is (as someone once said in a related context) to "heighten the contradictions"—in this case the contradictions of a government that seeks both authoritarian control and national prosperity during the information age. One interpretation of the belligerence shown by China during the spy plane incident is that the contradictions have already reached a pretty high level.