American Diplomacy
Letters from Readers

June 2010

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Author’s Response to Reader Comment on “Responding to the China Challenge”
From:  Michael Hunt


Steven Levine's comments, cast in his always-trenchant style, raise issues rich enough to justify a seminar. Let me focus for the moment on one basic point: how thinking about the state might illuminate at least some of our differences over China policy.

Let's take the disputed relationship between the Mao and the Deng eras. No question about Mao's excesses. James Scott's Seeing Like a State makes a compelling case for the serious, even horrific damage concentrated state power can inflict as its seeks to conduct surveillance upon, shape, and mobilize its citizen-subjects. But on the other hand, shouldn't we consider the entire record of the strong state, not just its excesses? In that fuller context we can see that Deng's economic success depended on the achievements of the state that Mao created in securing a monopoly of force, extending bureaucratic control down to the grassroots, breaking foreign constraints on decision-making, and restoring and defending border areas. No strong state with all its potential for abuses, no means to implement reform or embark on a dirigisme economy.

Evaluating the Chinese state should also allow for comparisons not with some ideal polity but other states in the post-1945 developing world. Most have been weak or captured by self-serving elites. They have produced human suffering comparable in degree if not kind to China's strong state excesses, only with this major difference -- little if anything appears on the positive side of the ledger to balance the social misery and chaos that results from an absence of authority and vision at the center. The Philippines is a good case in point. A predatory elite has kept the state weak. It has produced relatively poor growth and spawned endemic social discontent. The considerable material advantages of the Philippines relative to China at mid-century have vanished as the state apparatus in Manila failed to promote education, develop physical infrastructure, apply a long-term development strategy, and generate a widely shared national identity.

Hunt's collected online commentary "on Washington and the world" can be found at http://www.unc.edu/~mhhunt/washworld.html


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