This month’s edition of Prospect contains a range of perspectives on the meaning of the Tiananmen anniversay (see here and here). For our archive selection this month however, we revisit another crucial turning point in recent Chinese history: Beijing’s entry into the WTO in 2001.
More than any other event in the last decade, WTO accession signaled the emergence of China as an economic superpower. Indeed, over the subsequent eight years, the importance of that step for the global economy has only become clearer. Geitner’s discussions this week are based on the assumption that the health of the US economy is linked inextricably to China. America’s recovery will be China’s recovery.
Back in 2001, things appeared very different. The post-Soviet consensus in Washington was that economic reform in any communist state would lead inevitably to political reform and ultimately democratisation: that trade with China was a form of cold war regime change by other means. The end of history had been declared, and it was a matter of time before Beijing fell in line.
Kaplan’s essay in Prospect brilliantly and presciently dissects the flaws in this reasoning. As he argues, comparisons with eastern Europe and the USSR ignored the fact that China was in the midst of a boom, whereas Soviet bloc was in terminal economic decline. “If economic factors can be said to account for democracy’s most dramatic advance-the implosion of the Soviet Union and its satellites-surely the most important factor was economic collapse.”
The communist party’s refusal to base Chinese capitalism on the rule of law and property rights also strengthened its position in society, rather than weakened it. Chinese entrepreneurs and businesses know that their survival is ultimately dependent on the stability of the regime, rather than its overthrow. The fiercest defenders of communism are now the affluent, consumerist middle class, rather than the peasantry.
If democracy is eventually to reach China, it will certainly not be as a result of US trade policy.
Lawrence F Kaplan’s China and Freedom was published in Prospect in October 2001.