A Lacklustre Debate

May 20, 2007

This “heated debate” in the May 2007 issue of Foreign Policy between David Lampton and James Mann left me uninspired. Is this the best Foreign Policy has to offer on US policy towards China?

First, it was difficult to determine where they disagree. Mann argues that real democratic reform in China is not a high priority for the US. Lampton agrees. Lampton defends the track-record of US-based China scholars and Mann responds by saying he is not blaming China specialists for what ails China. Mann contends that China’s one-party political system is at the root of most its problems, yet Lampton wouldn’t disagree with the need for fundamental political change in China.

Even if I could identify why the two of them are so defensive in this article, the debate itself is weak. Lampton’s defense of the slow pace of political reform in China (“Move too quickly, and the likely result is disorder and backsliding on democracy and human rights, both of which we have seen in post-Communist Russia”) sounds like it came straight from a Zhongnanhai script. Mann’s argument that US businesses are key beneficiaries of US foreign policy towards China (“The claim that trade leads to political change was a rationalization used to line up support for U.S. economic policies that have proved beneficial, above all, to U.S. and multinational corporations.”) is stating the obvious and tells us nothing about why this policy is problematic.

I guess I’ll need to read Mann’s book to figure out the point of this exchange. Presumably, Mann believes that the US government should more vigorously promote human rights in China while Lampton doesn’t believe that the US government has the capacity or credibility to defend this foreign policy position. Yet, these respective policy stances are not new to the debate on Sino-US relations nor do they likely represent mutually exclusive positions for these two pragmatic China-hands.

Now, I love a good debate, but this one adds no value to the discussion on how the US should position itself towards China. Since both Mann and Lampton are distinguished China specialists working out of the same university, it seems that they would have plenty of room (literally and figuratively) to discuss creative ways for the US to contribute to positive institutional reform in China. (The China Development Brief is a helpful resource in keeping track of promising third-sector or multilateral partners in such an effort). This type of discussion might then spur a debate worth reading.

UPDATE:  As of July 2007, it looks like the China Development Brief is out of commission… not sure if its a temporary or permanent setback… check out their website for further info.

2 Responses to “A Lacklustre Debate”

  1. Philip Poon Says:

    I attended the talk last night by Dr. Harry Hardings, (since there’s no more MIPA class and suddenly I have plenty of time!) According to Harry, he expects the China issue for next year’s US presidential election would be on economy and trading. He also made some very interesting comparison of the two countries on issues like globalization, climate change, anti-terrorism and democracy. One question came out of my mind after I went home last night is that “Who is the US government?”, put in another way, who has the loudest voice when it comes to US’s foreign policy on China? the big guys in the White House? the media? the academia? MNCs like Goldman Sachs? critique? or the public poll? I guess the answer to this question would shape the ultimate US policy.

  2. lmcinhk Says:

    Good questions! The short answer is that the loudest voice varies depending on what the issue is under consideration — trade, human rights, environment, or security — and often times alliances on these issues produce strange political bed-fellows (like human rights activists and neo-conservatives teaming up to oppose “no strings attached” engagement.)

    Interestingly, in response to the apparent dearth of well-rounded specialists on China in the US, last year the National Committee on US China Relations (an important NGO on this issue) started funding a public intellectuals program to help groom more comprehensive China policy leaders to help lead the intellectual debate on Sino-US relations. Check out their website to learn more. http://www.ncuscr.org/index.htm

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