American Illusions about China

WILLIAM PFAFF

November 08, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- Perhaps the most significant change in America's outlook on the world in recent years is the shift of attention from Europe to Asia. So long as the Soviet Union seemed strong, Europe was where Americans saw their strategic challenge.

Today the focus is on economics. Japan now is the principal supposed threat to American interests. There is at the same time assumption that China will eventually rival Japan as the great power of Asia, and that China will be easier to deal with, more malleable, even friendlier, than Japan.

Ex-Secretary of State Alexander Haig's recent outburst in Beijing against American human-rights pressure on China reflected his belief that the United States must help China become ''a superpower'' to balance Japan's influence. The argument within the Clinton administration over most-favored-nation trade treatment for China takes for granted that China in another few years will be crucial to American national interests.

Some are convinced that China already is a superpower. The International Monetary Fund in Washington recently changed its calculation of China's GNP (by changing its method of calculation) so as to make China appear to be perhaps the third-most powerful of world economies. Previous estimations of Chinese GNP (those of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the World Bank, etc.) held it to be not much larger than the GNPs of South Korea, the Netherlands and Sweden (and much less developed).

There is a fairly consistent record of American overestimation of China's power. This was true for Nationalist China in Franklin Roosevelt's day. In the late 1950s, Communist China's ''Great Leap Forward'' (''backyard blast furnaces'' for making steel, and all that) provoked nervous CIA re-estimations of China's industrial potential. In the 1960s, China was perceived as a global threat by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which believed the Vietnam war the first act in a global program of Chinese aggression.

There is no doubt that economic liberalization under Deng Xiaoping has produced explosive industrial development in China's coastal provinces. The reported growth is the most rapid in the world. However, as Jonathan Spence wrote in September in the New York Review of Books, this same China sees its people making desperate attempts to flee, with violence and hunger in rural regions.

He quotes a study by Vaclav Smil, of Manitoba University, which says that China's seeming prosperity rests on decades of ''ecologically disastrous agricultural and industrial practices, is inherently fragile, and faced with a host of interlocking challenges that are apparently insuperable.'' Professor Smil argues that between now and 2010, it will be possible only to modify China's decline, with no chance of halting or reversing it. (His book is ''China's Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development.'')

To this I can add the testimony of an American who is an executive of one of the great Hong Kong trading houses and who works in mainland China. He said to me last week that the coastal provinces' boom is due to the relocation to low-wage China of Hong Kong and Taiwan industries, but that the rest of China -- which Westerners rarely see -- is worse off than it was before. Much of the slender capital of rural China, as well as the official funds made available for its development, was diverted into speculative investment in coastal China, particularly into a real-estate boom that now has gone bust. There are, he says, seed shortages and food riots in hidden China.

It is important to recognize that the American inclination to overestimate the importance and potential of China is an old prejudice. The American link to China goes back to the days when American shipbuilders built the first fast clippers and Yankee and Baltimore traders bid for their part of the profitable China trade -- demanding that the European powers provide an ''open door'' to China's markets.

New England missionaries followed the sailors and traders, to install Christianity and democracy among China's ''teeming millions.'' Japan, on the other hand -- stubbornly self-sufficient, hostile to foreign intervention -- always provoked a certain American suspicion, which Japan's aggressive wars and colonial expansion in the first half of the 20th century confirmed.

The shock produced in American domestic politics by China's ''loss'' to communism in 1949, and its subsequent intervention in the Korean War, plunged the United States into the bad years of McCarthyism and eventually into the Vietnam War. Part of the motivation was an American sense of having been betrayed by the Chinese. But American optimism has proved indefatigable. It's again believed that as soon as China's old Communist leadership dies -- which will be soon -- a friendly and potentially democratic nation will finally emerge.

And perhaps it will. I doubt it, but I am a pessimist. I think my skepticism about China's future is worth reiterating today because a recent stay in Washington has left me with the impression that Americans, more than ever before, are making their business as well as their policy decisions on the basis of good intentions and a series of hazy and unproven assumptions about where the world is going. I hope I am wrong.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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