Ten years ago the journalist James Mann published a book called The China Fantasy, in which he criticized American policymakers for using something he called “the Soothing Scenario” to justify the policy of diplomatic and economic engagement with China. According to this view, China’s exposure to the benefits of globalization would lead the country to embrace democratic institutions and support the American-led world order. Instead, Mann predicted, China would remain an authoritarian country, and its success would encourage other authoritarian regimes to resist pressures to change.1
Mann’s prediction turned out to be true. China took advantage of the growing potential of unrestricted global commerce to emerge as the number one trading nation and the second-largest economy in the world. It is the top trading partner of every other country in Asia, not least because of its crucial position assembling parts that have been produced elsewhere in the region. Sixty-four countries have joined China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiative, which was announced in 2013 and consists of ports, railways, roads, and airfields linking China to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe—a “New Silk Road” that, if it succeeds, will greatly expand China’s economic and diplomatic influence. Twenty-nine heads of state attended Beijing’s OBOR conference in mid-May.
Meanwhile, China has remained an authoritarian, one-party state that is backed by an increasingly powerful military. China’s military budget has risen at the same rate as its GDP for the past quarter-century, from $17 billion in 1990 to $152 billion in 2017—a 900 percent increase. This has allowed China to acquire aircraft carriers, sophisticated missiles, advanced submarines, and cyberwar capabilities that challenge American military dominance in Asia. It has vastly expanded its naval presence in what it calls the “near seas” around its coast, and even into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
China has attained this new position of power while mostly complying with the rules of the World Trade Organization, which it joined in 2001. Still, in 2016 Western governments found it necessary to renege on a commitment they made when China joined to give it full “market economy status” after fifteen years of membership. This status would have made it harder for other WTO members to sue China for “dumping”—selling products at less than market-price production cost to drive out competitors—but the promise to accord that status had been based on the expectation that China would turn into a Western-style market economy.
That has not happened. Instead, the state has continued to control the Chinese economy in its effort to expand the market share of Chinese enterprises both in China and abroad. Beijing has carried out industrial espionage to acquire advanced Western technology, forced the transfer of technology from Western to Chinese enterprises through joint ventures and merger agreements, and, for a time (although not now), suppressed the exchange value of its currency in order to stimulate exports. Since 2006,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.