CHINA'S ANTI-SATELLITE missile test last month is merely the latest in a series of recent events that force us to question where the world's most populous country is heading. What will its political system look like in, say, 25 years?
This question will grow in importance as members of the new Democratic congressional majority -- and some presidential candidates -- take up the themes of economic populism. One Democratic candidate, John Edwards, has already said he doubts that he would support permanent normal trade relations with China if the matter came to a vote today. And China's future will be debated again during the Summer Olympics in Beijing next year.
It is possible to envision three scenarios for China. One can be called the Soothing Scenario: that China's authoritarian political system is bound to open up, or even that it is already evolving toward political liberalization.
Another scenario holds that China is so fundamentally unstable that it is headed for some sort of political cataclysm or economic nosedive, or both. Call this the Upheaval Scenario.
And then there is what I call the Third Scenario: that China's one-party political system will not change in any fundamental way. This view holds that China will remain an authoritarian regime over the long term.
The problem with the current U.S. debate about China is that, in public at least, political, business and financial leaders tend to talk almost exclusively about the Soothing Scenario. Some critics of our China policy warn about the Upheaval Scenario. But the Third Scenario gets far less attention -- even though it is perhaps the most likely. After all, China's authoritarian political system is the status quo, and there are powerful forces at work to prevent any far-reaching change in it.
The Soothing Scenario is rooted in economic determinism. Under this view, China's increasing prosperity, its expanding trade with the rest of the world and the massive foreign investment in the country will undermine its authoritarian system and lead inevitably to political liberalization.
That is what leaders of both political parties have regularly told the American people. Over the last decade, it has become virtually obligatory for presidential candidates to voice some version of the Soothing Scenario, usually concentrating on the reassuring premise that our trade with China will transform its politics. "Trade freely with China, and time is on our side," candidate George W. Bush declared in 1999. President Clinton told Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1997: "You're on the wrong side of history." Clinton maintained that economic changes in China would "increase the spirit of liberty over time.... I just think it's inevitable, just as inevitably the Berlin Wall fell."
The idea that China is inevitably headed for far-reaching change has become a staple of U.S. thinking in large part because it has served the interests of important constituencies. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, the belief benefited the U.S. national security establishment, which had aligned itself with China against the Soviet Union. The notion that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was reforming his country's political system helped defuse congressional opposition to U.S. military cooperation with China's communist regime.
In the 1990s, as trade and investment in China became increasingly important, U.S. companies were asked why they were so eager to do business with a regime that had, in 1989, ordered troops to fire on unarmed civilians. The Soothing Scenario offered an answer: Trade and the workings of "history" would inexorably liberalize China's political system, whether Chinese leaders wanted it or not.
But to believe that the spread of McDonald's and Starbucks will change China's political system is to indulge in the old mistake of thinking that the Chinese are becoming like us. Bringing in McDonald's has nothing to do with whether a government is willing to tolerate organized political opposition.
And to assume that China's emerging urban middle class will be the vanguard for far-reaching political liberalization is to ignore the fact that this is the one group -- beyond the Chinese Communist Party itself -- that has the strongest interest in preserving the status quo.
Proponents of the Soothing Scenario often argue that China will evolve from a repressive regime into a democratic one in roughly the same way that South Korea and Taiwan did two decades ago. But the comparison doesn't work. China has vast expanses far removed from the relatively open traditions of the country's coastal areas. Visitors who declare that China will develop like Taiwan and South Korea, based on their visits to Beijing and Shanghai, are like foreigners who travel only to New York City and Boston and conclude that the United States will behave like Western Europe.