Where Did American Scholars Go Wrong in Their Study of China?

December 31, 2018 Updated: December 31, 2018

News Analysis

The year 2018 saw the disillusionment of an entire generation of China specialists, and many former “panda huggers” have begun to admit that they got China wrong. Where exactly did they go awry?

Major Flaws

According to Cheng Xiaonong, a doctoral scholar on China’s politics and economy, the majority of U.S. scholars of China have ignored some very important facts about the country. In addition, the U.S.–China study circle tends to do research in a “closed way,” without comparing China with other countries, he said.

For example, Cheng argues in an article he wrote for the Chinese version of The Epoch Times that people failed to study how the enterprises of the 1970s and 1980s owned by “all the people in China” suddenly became enterprises that were owned by only a small number of people during the 1990s.

Some economists believed the “transformation” of state-owned enterprises was just to turn publicly owned properties into privately owned ones, and nothing else. However, the process of privatizing hundreds of thousands of state-owned enterprises involved the issue of privatizing a massive amount of state-owned wealth, while suddenly splitting dozens of millions of “state employees” into two parts: the laborers and the capitalists.

This process involved major issues such as the encroachment on state-owned assets, the right of the public to participate, and grave violations of social justice. Therefore, the evaluation of China’s economic reform shouldn’t be totally positive.

Cheng Xiaonong (The Epoch Times)

Cheng said that unfortunately, China scholars in the United States seldom study this important issue, and that failure leads to inaccurate views about the transformation of China’s economy. Because of this, these China scholars couldn’t see the serious social conflicts in China, nor could they form a good judgment about China’s future political direction.

According to Cheng, some American scholars also believe that an authoritarian government is more determined and powerful to push forward its policies and that’s beneficial for economic reform. Meanwhile, they ignore how the authoritarian government in China failed to defend its own interests.

For example, in order to turn state-owned enterprises into the property of a small group of people, former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji once closed down the State Bureau for State Property Administration. As a result, there was no oversight of the broad theft of state-owned property in the process of privatizing.

In this circumstance, the lack of oversight worked together with authoritarian repression to worsen social consequences.

But these concerns were overlooked by the American scholars who sang the praises of China’s authoritarian model.

Cheng also pointed out that many American China scholars hold that China is essentially different; their attitude can be summed up as, “China is China is China,” or “China is not just another nation-state in the family of nations.”

They are accustomed to treating China as a special entity that’s different from Russia and eastern European countries that are undergoing a transformation. Therefore, they lack a real international comparative framework for their study of China.

As a result, these scholars can’t see the forest for the trees, and some of their research conclusions won’t hold up, if measured against other international comparisons.

For example, many American China scholars believe that China’s gradual reform model is much better than the “shock therapy” of Russia and the former socialist countries in Eastern and Central Europe.

However, Cheng said, these scholars don’t really understand the content of the “shock therapy” of those countries. At the same time, they ignore the fact that similar phenomena also happened in China. Therefore, their conclusion that China’s gradual reform model is better goes totally against reality.

The fact is, in terms of price liberalization and comprehensive privatization, China also adopted “shock therapy.” The price liberalization happened in 1993–1994; while the comprehensive privatization happened from 1997 to 2002. And China’s “shock therapy” was much rougher than that in former Soviet bloc countries.

Democratization and Economic Transformation

Cheng said that some of the “panda huggers” in the United States tend to believe that the current “China Model” is the best choice for China, and that democratization isn’t necessarily suitable. On the other hand, some “China bashers” think that China should be democratized after it finishes economic transformation. For them, this is just “natural” and straightforward.

However, few people have studied the relationship between democratization and economic transformation via international comparison. Are democratization and economic transformation really “naturally born” twins that will always accompany each other in socialist countries?

As a matter of fact, Cheng says many “China basher” scholars aren’t aware that economic transformation could also snuff out democratization, and the so-called “China Model” is a typical example.

The “China Model” has proven that the privatization process was basically controlled by powerful “red” moguls, Cheng said. The result was a capitalist economic system controlled by these few. And this kind of capitalist economic system brought about by the “China Model” wouldn’t just block any political democratization, but also could be used to strengthen the powerful red moguls’ Communist tyranny.

Cheng said the powerful red moguls who had become industrial, financial, and real estate capitalists would try their best to block the democratization of China.

Democratization wouldn’t just mean deprivation of their political privileges, but also be a threat to their illegally accumulated wealth. Therefore, these red capitalists will hate democratization more than the conventional communists.

Not only that, these red capitalists don’t care about the future of China and its people, as they have transferred their wealth and family members to overseas countries. Some of them have even obtained foreign passports themselves. If anything goes wrong, they can easily buy an airplane ticket and abandon China.

So these red capitalists will seek to escape from internal social conflicts by making themselves aliens. They won’t seek political compromises for their own future in their own country, like the red elites of former Soviet bloc countries have done.

Lessons to Learn

There are at least three lessons to learn from China scholars in the United States, Cheng said.

One is that the scholars’ views are too narrow, with their attention only focusing on trivial changes in China, while overlooking the differences and similarities between the “China Model” and the experiences of other former socialist countries. As a result, they can’t benefit from international comparisons.

The second lesson is that they lack a deep understanding of the “China Model” and ignored the key fact that state-owned properties were seized by just a small number of people. Therefore a number of misunderstandings occurred. They couldn’t see the inevitability that political reform would only be blocked after the “economic prosperity.”

And the third lesson is that the scholars’ understanding of the progress of democratization is dogmatic. They have used their ideal to replace the inevitable reality and ignored the possibility that the Communist capitalism system would stop China from moving toward democracy.