George Will

The phrase "regime change" is associated with the doctrine of preventive war as applied to Iraq. But another sort of regime change has been the crux of U.S. policy toward China through most of the 35 years since President Nixon's opening to that nation in 1972.

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the objective of U.S policy has been -- and often has been proclaimed to be -- the steady subversion of China's repressive regime. The cure for communism is supposed to be commerce with the capitalist world: Trade can turn China's potentially aggressive energies into constructive, pacific channels.

This faith in the power of trade to tame humanity's animal spirits has a 19th-century pedigree. Think of William Gladstone and others who thought wars would become too costly to contemplate because they would disrupt trade. In the 21st century, economic determinism (e.g., Marxism, a 19th-century dogma) is being focused on the last important regime founded by Marxists -- China.

The 19th century turned history into a proper noun -- History, a living thing with its own unfolding inevitability. Today, many see China through (perhaps rose-tinted) lenses of historicism:

Chinese leaders who oppose democracy are ``on the wrong side of history" and "just as eventually the Berlin Wall fell. I just think it's inevitable" (Bill Clinton). "The case for trade is not just monetary, but moral. Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy. ... Trade freely with China and time is on our side'' (George W. Bush). In China "there is an unstoppable momentum" toward democracy (Tony Blair).

The theory, which is more than wishful thinking, is that capitalism ineluctably brings about an ever-broader dispersal of information and decision-making, and requires an ethic of trust and a legal regime of promise-keeping (contracts). Those who subscribe to this theory can take some comfort from China's recent strengthening of protections of private property, which gives a sphere of sovereignty to individuals whose appetite for sovereignty, once whetted, might become a demand for a politics of popular sovereignty.

But suppose this is not so. Suppose James Mann is right to dismiss all this as the Soothing Scenario.

In his new book "The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression," Mann is of the Moynihan School: The late Pat Moynihan spoke acerbically of Western visitors who returned from China more impressed by the absence of flies than by the absence of freedom. Mann considers the Soothing Scenario's implication -- that American investment bankers doing business in China are necessarily freedom fighters -- a tad too convenient.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read George Will's column. Sign up today and receive daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.