The China fantasy

Marketplace Staff Mar 8, 2007
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The China fantasy

Marketplace Staff Mar 8, 2007
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KAI RYSSDAL: McDonald’s said today sales were up almost 6 percent last month. Burgers and fries were especially big sellers in Asia, China in particular. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s over there today. I have no idea what he’s eating, but he’s urging the Chinese to open their markets to more foreign competition.

Everybody wants to do business in the world’s biggest market. Americans included. Commentator James Mann suggests we’re not thinking about it the right way.


JAMES MANN: Don’t worry, be happy. That’s what we’re told when anyone asks about China’s repression of all organized opposition. Our trade with China will change its political system.

It’s a tack Bill Clinton took when he said the opening up of China’s political system was inevitable. George W. Bush continued it, telling us we should trade freely with China, since time is on our side.

Well, perhaps it’s not. America’s trade deficit with China was $15 billion a year when President Clinton took office, $70 billion a year when George W. Bush came to the White House, and more than $230 billion last year. Meanwhile, there’s no sign of Chinese political liberalization.

In recent years, China’s authoritarian leaders have provided important support to other repressive regimes around the world — to Zimbabwe, to Burma, to the leaders of North Korea and Sudan.

This idea that our trade with China is going to change its political system is one part rationalization and one part vanity.

It’s a rationalization for American companies that want to do business with China and don’t want to be bothered with questions about political repression.

It’s a kind of vanity for the American people who tend to believe that everybody else wants to become like us. But democracy doesn’t necessarily follow just because McDonald’s and Starbucks arrive.

Instead, we should look at trade in strictly economic terms, examining its costs and benefits without phony arguments that it will transform China’s political system.

And we should look at the broader picture with China, too. How will China deal with the world a few decades from now, when it’s far more powerful than it is today? What if, contrary to what our presidents have told us, time and history are not on our side?

RYSSDAL: James Mann’s latest book is called “The China Fantasy.”

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