Understanding China
by George Koo
Mountain View, California
Asian Week op-ed, 1/29/98

Three former presidents, all six living former Secretaries of State, nine former Secretaries of Treasurer and ten former Secretaries of Defense had to rally their support for renewing most favored nations to China last year in order to prevail over a balking Congress. By virtue of the offices they held, former presidents and cabinet officers understand which side represents national interest. Congress, on the other hand, does not always see national interest clearly and certainly did not understand China.

The House of Representatives could hardly wait for Jiang Zemin's U.S. visit to end so that they can pass a bushel of self-gratifying, feel-good resolutions with the intent of dictating how Chinese officials should behave--great for newsletters to send home, but they obviously do not understand China.

A CNN/USA Today poll of Americans taken on the eve of Jiang's visit revealed that 36% of Americans believes that China is unfriendly or is an enemy, only 25% see China as friendly while 39% have no opinion. An easy case can be made that 75% of the Americans do not understand China.

Yet no bi-lateral relationship today is as important for the future of America and the world as the U.S.-China relationship. It should not be a relationship that undergoes annual contortions driven by ignorance and irrational thinking.

Of course, mainstream media has not been exemplary in contributing towards an even-handed relationship. According to Henry Rowen, former senior official in the Bush Administration and now Senior Fellow at Hoover Institution, news articles in the mainstream for the five and half years from January 1991 ran 12 to 1 against China.

Fortunately, 1997 could well mark the turning point in the U.S.-China relationship. With the death of Deng Xiaoping in February, Hong Kong handover in July and Jiang's visit in October, the media has plenty of substance to report on. Consequently, the American public has been given important hard information on China to digest.

A recent release that adds to this relief is the book on "Understanding China, a guide to China's Economy, History, and Political Structure" by John Bryan Starr. Clear and concise, yet comprehensive in scope and leavened with dry, understated wit, the book is written with the general public in mind. In other words, it is an easy read. Liberally sprinkled with facts and data along with dates and historical milestones, this book is a highlighter's delight.

"To understand China is not necessarily to love it, but understanding China is a prerequisite to dealing with it effectively in the years ahead," Starr writes in the last paragraph of his book and is his raison d'etre for writing it. Virtually every aspect of China's economic, political and social structure is examined in cool and detached prose. His judgment is unfailing critical and his conclusion of China's future relentlessly gloomy. However, readers expecting inflammatory tirades and tabloid logic, frequently found in commentaries on China, will be disappointed. Starr does not rely on polemics to make his point.

Looking into the future, Starr concludes that the current government and leadership will not be able to cope with a myriad of problems coming to a head in the none too distant future. In his view, difficulties confronting China's future include collapse of state owned enterprises leading to massive unemployment, widening income gap between the urban and rural population and steady deterioration of the environment in face of runaway development. He believes that unrest of the work force could lead to the eventual downfall of the central government already racked by rampant corruption. Ultimately, he expects the People's Liberation Army (PLA) having to step in and take control, not at the behest of the Beijing government but in their stead.

Thankfully, the author does not impose his conclusion by hammering it home in every page. Instead, he offers objective and factual observations and analysis that leave room for the readers to draw their own conclusions.

Taking the opposite approach have been Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro in their book "The Coming Conflict with China," released early last year. They artfully build the threat of the Chinese military into a book-selling sensation. To bolster their thesis, the authors placed great importance on the vast number of side businesses that PLA operates and thus adding hidden revenue to supplement their official (but modest) military budget. Conveniently overlooked by these China watchers is the widely recognized backwardness of the Chinese weaponry.

In contrast, Starr points out that PLA managed factories in the civilian sector often incur losses and that any income generated is needed to augment skimpy military pay that has not kept up with the booming economy. Lastly, Starr points out that running businesses in the civilian economy takes time, energy and management resources away from building a fearsome fighting force.

On Americans in the U.S.-China contention over human rights, Starr observes, "In looking at conditions in another country, Americans often measure real conditions abroad against an idealized vision of conditions at home, and thus seem blind to violations of human rights in their own society..."

He also points out that the student protest on Tiananmen Square had nothing to do with a desire for democracy, perception of the West notwithstanding. The students were airing grievances related to school life, quality of education and practice of favoritism in post graduation job assignment. The event would have gone unnoticed had not been for the fateful visit in May, 1989 of Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing with all the foreign reporters and cameramen in tow. (Even though he did not expand on this point, others have concluded that the western media, inadvertently or otherwise, reinvigorated a movement already wound down culminating in the tragic confrontation with the PLA in the early hours of June 4, 1989.)

As with other issues, Starr does not equivocate his judgment of America's level of understanding of China. "Although we have tried hard over the years to change China after our image, we have never succeeded in doing so...there are more elements of grassroots democracy in the political system today than there were when American political influence was at its height in the 1930s and 1940s... All of these changes, however, have come about as a result of Chinese decisions to change, not because of American pressure on China to change." He concludes, "China is neither the utopia we thought it was when we "rediscovered" it in the 1970s, nor is it the unmitigatedly evil place we sometimes think of its being in the 1990s." (In fact, the disillusionment from the revelation that the utopia never existed has turned many Sinophiles into Sinophobes.)

The value of "Understanding China" lies in the breadth of coverage. The author, a Sinologist and academician, discusses just about every aspect of China's society: economy, political organization, military, rural and urban dichotomy, education, religion, arts, environment, population control, foreign policy, Hong Kong, Taiwan, forces of disintegration, and more. He does an admirable job of reducing the complexity of China into various contending elements. This breadth is also a weakness for those that wish to delve deeper into a particular issue; although a generous bibliography accompanying each chapter offers partial remedy. But for those wishing to quickly get a comprehensive understanding of today's China, this book is almost ideally suited.

However, in one important respect the book is incomplete because the author acknowledges but chooses not to discuss or explain the causes of China's recent economic success coincident with its deviation from a planned economy. Consequently, his gloom is not mitigated by any hopes of redemption. For that and to round out one's perspective on China, the reader need to revisit "The Rise of China" by William H. Overholt, published in 1993.