Nixon and Mao
Action Speaks!, the panel discussion series at Providence art space AS220, continues its fall run with a conversation about the increasingly dependent relationship between the United States and China.
The series, moderated by Marc Levitt and produced by Cheryl Kaminsky, focuses on underappreciated dates in history as a springboard to conversation about current events.
This time it’s 1972 and President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, which marked the start of the nations’ modern relationship.
Panelists for the chat, slated for October 21 at 5 pm at AS220, 115 Empire Street and free and open to the public, include Howard W. French, a former New York Times reporter; Crys-tal Jiang, an assistant professor of management at Bryant University’s Business College; Robert George Lee, chair of the American Civilization department at Brown University; and William H. Overholt, a senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and author of Asia, America and the Transformation of Asian Geopolitics.
We caught up with Overholt for a Q&A over e-mail.
YOU HAVE ARGUED THAT ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT MUST COME BEFORE DEMOCRACY IN CHINA. WHY?
Successful democracy works best in educated, middle class societies, where most voters understand the issues and a majority of voters share common interests. It works least well in the poorest countries, where very few voters understand the issues and where society is divided between a wealthy elite, which has money and organization and gets elected, and an impoverished peasantry, which does not get elected. The most vigorous and stable third world democracies are those of South Korea and Taiwan, which meet the criteria. In the Philippines and India, the elite has done very well but the pov-erty stricken majority has done very badly and economic management has been severely impaired. China has the additional problem that, into the 1990s, there were 100 million state enterprise workers; this constituted history’s largest and most powerful interest group, both numerically and in terms of its dominance in funding and organization, which would have defeated economic reform and thereby led back to political instability and radicalism.
But every stage of economic success requires political reform. China’s politics today bears no resemblance to pre-reform erratic, ideological rule by one man. The progress of law, of freedom of speech, of personal freedom more generally, and of transparency and accountability have been, like the economy, gradual and imperfect but remarkable, echoing what happened earlier in South Korea and Taiwan. Chinese leaders know that further economic progress will require further political reform.
YOU HAVE ARGUED THAT THE RISE OF CHINA IS GOOD FOR THE UNITED STATES. WHY?
China’s successful focus on economic development has led it to join the economic system and the major institutions that we created — IMF, WTO, World Bank, etc. It has ended the period when a frustrated China promoted instability all over the world and sought to change other countries’ politics into Maoist communism. It has created a China that has made peace with its neighbors, peacefully resolving most land border disputes and suc-cessfully promoting “friendship diplomacy.” This new China promotes stability and sees US bases and (before and after but not during the George W. Bush administration) alli-ances in Asia as promoting needed stability. It has lifted more people out of poverty than any other development in human history and has contributed to economic advance worldwide, even energizing sub-Saharan Africa’s hitherto stagnant economies.
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