»  National Review Online

April 19th, 2001

  Beware the China Boosters

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In yet another display of that selfless humility for which I am well-known, and with the generous permission of our noble editor, I once again direct my readers' attention to a piece far superior to any of my own meager offerings. This one is by John B. Judis in the current (issue date 4/23/01) issue of The New Republic. Its title is Sullied Heritage, and it deals with our Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao; her husband, the Republican Senator from Kentucky Mitch McConnell; the Heritage Foundation; and the influence of Chinese money on American politics, most especially conservative politics. It's a long article, but well worth the effort for anyone who cares about the principled conduct of public affairs. If you're not sure you want to work through 7,000 words of fairly dense, factual reporting on this topic, just sample the last section on web page 3, headed: "The Integrity of the Conservative Movement."

I am not equipped to comment on the validity of Mr Judis's charges — for example, that Elaine Chao, during her nomination process, failed to disclose, as required by law, that she is on the board of directors of Multacom, a firm 51 per cent of which is owned by the government of the People's Republic. I do think, though, that we need to take a very close look at the China boosters and their effect on the political life of the U.S.

The central concern is, of course, corruption. This is a topic difficult to talk about to Westerners, because they cannot grasp the sheer stupendous scale of Oriental corruption. In the events leading up to the Opium War (1840-42), the Emperor in Beijing sent a high official down to south China to see what was going on. The Chinese merchants of the south coast, who were all up to their necks in the opium traffic, pooled their resources for a bribe, to ensure that this official would send a good report back to the capital. The bribe was so huge that it perceptibly raised the world price of silver. That is Chinese corruption.

It arises from a long tradition, bound up with the values of a despotic society.

The values of the empire are essentially political, not economic; a career is to be made by power over people rather than by producing something cheaper or better. Wealth is much less a means to power than power is a means to wealth. Although trade was fairly important in the early T'ang period [i.e. 7th-century China], there is record of but a single person of merchant origin who became an official, and merchants were always insecure unless they enjoyed official connections.
              — Robert Wesson, The Imperial Order

This remains true today. No large commercial concern in China is simply a commercial concern. To thrive, or even just to survive, an entrepreneur must establish and maintain strong political connections. "Doing business with China" means doing business, through at one remove, with Chinese politicians — the sleeping partners in the ownership of every Chinese company.

It follows that any American doing business on a large scale in China must, if he is going to prosper, at a minimum take pains not to offend the Chinese government. If necessary, he must be willing to make himself a tool of that government. This is a state of affairs quite different from doing business with other countries. If Boeing enters into a plane-making joint venture with British Aerospace, the chairman of Boeing feels no need to button his lip on such matters as Northern Ireland or the proper way to manage foot-and-mouth outbreaks. The Chairman of a U.S. company doing business in China who said out loud that he thought Taiwan ought to be independent could measure the remainder of his chairmanship in nanoseconds.

They all know this, of course, and make the necessary adjustments. In most cases, a businessman need only keep his mouth shut. You don't have to offer any opinions about Taiwan, after all. Many business figures have no opinions about China anyway. They come to that nation as (to borrow an image from Mao Tse-tung) blank sheets of paper, on which their hosts can draw beautiful characters. This was probably the case with Pat Robertson, who on Monday night told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that in their population-control policies, the Chinese were "doing what they had to do." Some others come to the China market already well-disposed to the Chinese point of view, for philosophical reasons, and need make few adjustments. I think Henry Kissinger falls into this category. I find I disagree with much of what Dr. K says about China, but he does not strike me as dishonest, and he is certainly not ignorant.

More serious than the possibility that businessmen will turn themselves into China shills to further their own interests is that they might import Chinese-style "crony capitalism" into the U.S. Corruption is awfully contagious. There has always been corruption in Western societies, of course. The United States has never been free of bought judges, policemen and politicians. In some localized jurisdictions, corruption has been chronic. Recall Paul Johnson's remark, on hearing that Bill Clinton was running for President: "Nobody who has five times been elected Governor of a state like Arkansas can possibly be an honest man." At the national level, however, this country has been very clean by the standards of the rest of the world. At least, that was true until the 1990s, when China decided to come seeking favors from the federal government. Only then were the bought judges, bought governors and the occasional bought Congressperson joined by a bought President.

America's obsession with race is not helpful here. I repeat: I have no idea whether Elaine Chao lied on the financial disclosure report she submitted to the Office of Government Ethics on January 29th. One thing, however, I know for sure: Mr Judis is going to be called a "racist" for suggesting that she did. This was certainly the case when people began criticizing John Huang, President Clinton's favorite fundraiser in the 1996 election. "But he's a naturalized U.S. citizen!" we were told indignantly. Yes: a naturalized U.S. citizen who maintained close business and personal links with front companies for the Chinese military and intelligence communities.

Whether corrupt or not, though, whether dishonest or not, the China boosters are all, by definition, self-interested. There is an important difference between the following two statements.

Here is the difference: The first statement is a theorem in political science, which we can test against evidence and reason. The second is a paid advertisement.

And what about that theorem? There is, after all, a political case for China-boosting. China is a huge country with a vast population, and it's not going to depart from this planet any time soon. It is true that China is a dictatorship, but the state ideology is nationalist, racist and introverted — in a piece in this week's print National Review I have, fairly I believe, called it "fascist" — not universalist and world-claiming, like Marxism. It is very important — it's hard to think of anything more important — for us to find a way to get along with China, if there is a way, and to make China more inclined to get along with us. Free trade seems an obvious way to do this. If, by appealing to China's economic interests, we can keep relations stable and open for a few decades, it is possible that our political ideas will seep in, softening and transforming the dictatorship. Fascist dictatorships have been transformed in this way: think of Spain.

But then again, think of Wilhelmine Germany, a fully participating member of the international trading system up to the very outbreak of WWI (and indeed beyond!) On the historical evidence, it seems clear that while economic openness may be necessary for constitutional progress, it is not sufficient. It's not even clear, in fact, that it's necessary. For the entire duration of the Cold War, the U.S.S.R. was a negligible participant in world trade, yet the dictatorship collapsed at last.

And the case of Wilhelmine Germany reminds us that whether or not economic openness encourages constitutional change, it certainly does not prevent war. Illustrations from history are legion. Athens and Sparta were trading very freely up to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. ("Thucydides, well aware of the economic factor in the conduct of the war, does not consider it a cause." — A.W. Gomme in The Oxford Classical Dictionary.)

We must always hope for the best, and China boosterism, once you have subracted out the self-interest factor (and on the charitable assumption that the result of this subraction is greater than zero), is a laudable expression of traditional American optimism about the world. Yet after watching and writing about China, in an amateur sort of way, for twenty years, I personally feel more pessimistic than I ever have. Twelve years ago next month Chinese students were building a facsimile of the Statue of Liberty, defying their own government with an assertion of American political values. If any Chinese students did that nowadays, there would be no need for their government to act: the sculptors would be torn to pieces by a howling mob of their own classmates. In 1989 Chinese intellectuals were calling for a Bill of Rights. Today, after twelve years of that wonderful "economic openness" that is supposed to be the balm for all international ills, they are shrieking for war against the Great Hegemon. Perhaps, indeed, trade will bring China to democracy one day. At present, however, all the trend lines seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

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Follow-ups.

Several readers of my Wednesday piece A Love Letter wanted to know what happened to Margarete Buber after the war. I confessed that I didn't know, but one of the enquirers later came back to me with an outline biography on the website of Hessischer Rundfunk, a German TV station. If you can't read German, here is the relevant passage in translation:

 •  Margarete Buber-Neumann, 10/21/1901 – 11/6/1989:

 … By 1946 she had published her memoir Under Two Dictators, which was translated into numerous languages and later filmed by ZDF [another German TV station]. After her bitter experiences under the great 20th-century dictators, Buber-Neumann involved herself in the building of democracy. In 1950 she took part in the founding of the "Liberation Committee for the Victims of Totalitarian Despotism" which aimed to arouse resistance against communism in West Germany. The committee existed to the end of 1952. In the years 1951 and 1952 she also founded and led an "Institute for Political Education," to make young Germans thoroughly familiar with the fundamental principles of democracy.

So in spite of seven years in the camps, Greta Buber lived to be 88. What a tough old bird she must have been! Heinz Neumann seems to have been shot soon after his arrest in 1937. Buber was officially notified of his death in 1961.