Last weekend I ran through James Mann's new book, The China Fantasy.
His point is pretty simple. China is ruled by a repressive, single-party system. And, despite what George Bush or Thomas Friedman might tell you, there's a pretty good chance that may not change anytime soon.
The bulk of the book walks through Mann's arguments against past and present American accommodation of the current Chinese regime. His main villain is the common theory that China's boom in economic development is almost certain to act as the catalyst for democratic reforms. Mann says maybe, but maybe not.
I won't go any further unpacking his argument. (If you're interested in learning more, you can borrow my copy of the book. It's short enough that you can burn through it on a bus ride from DC to New York City, as I did last Saturday. Or you can get a taste of Mann's argument by reading an Op-Ed he wrote for the Washington Post last month.) But one interesting thing I would like to share is this prediction Mann throws out near the book's ending. I'm curious to watch this play out in the media next year in the run up to the Beijing Olympics.
Before the summer Olympics, as visitors are preparing to come to Beijing, Chinese leaders will undoubtedly tell the world that change is coming, that their political system is opening up. They will, in fact, probably take some tantalizing actions, ones that hold out the prospect for far-reaching change. In the spring of 2008, China's newspapers and other news media may, for a time, be permitted unprecedented freedom. At Chinese universities and think tanks, intellectuals will launch new explorations of the concept of checks and restraints on the power of the ruling Chinese Communist Party -- for example, by increasing the power of the National People's Congress, China's toothless legislature. In general, as the Olympics approach, there will probably be a period of greater tolerance for dissent and for political opposition.
This is the China that will be on display for tens of thousands of visitors who come to Beijing for the Olympics. China's leaders will want the visitors to see a country that is enlightened, open-minded, and on the verge of far-reaching political change. The first test for the regime, as mentioned previously, will be whether it can protect its image during the games by keeping its citizenry under control. If things work out right, the foreign guests will never see or know how hard China's Miinistry of State Security is working to prevent anything untoward -- a large-scale political demonstration, for example -- from disrupting the games.
The real test, however, will come not in the summer of 2008, but in the year or two after all the visitors go home. How many of the changes in China's political system hinted at on the eve of the Olympics will actually be implemented? How much of the predictable Beijing spring of 2008 will last until 2009 or 2010?