David Bachman: UW Professor, Leading China Watcher and Scholar (June 21, 2012)
David Bachman ( 白恪满 ), professor of Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, is one of those I would call "hidden dragons and crouching tigers" in China watching. I have wanted to interview him since 2005 when he served as president of the Washington State China Relations Council and I was writing a book about the Council.
Ever since 1984 when he received his PhD from Stanford University in Chinese politics, Prof. Bachman has been teaching, from East Coast to West Coast. He has written books on China's late leader Chen Yun, the Great Leap Forward, and introduced to American scholars writings of China's insider reformer Yan Jiaqi. He has also published numerous articles on China, its leadership, military and defense, and other issues.
But how did a young David become interested in China in the first place? How does he see Mao's decisions and responsibilities in the Great Leap Forward? And what does he think of Bo Xilai's downfall in China or Chen Guangcheng's arrival in the U.S.? Find out and more in this interview I did with him on June 21, 2012, in three parts:
Part 1: Hooked on China at Swarthmore Watching Nixon Land in Beijing
Wen: Where did you grow up and what was your boyhood like?
Prof. Bachman: I grew up on both coasts. I was born in San Francisco and lived there till I was 3. Then we moved as a family to Portland, OR and lived there till I was 9. From 9 to 18 I lived in New York City suburbs. My father worked for Westinghouse Broadcasting. So he was working for KPIX, which was a TV station in San Francisco. Then he became the general manager of a radio station in Portland, KEX. But then Westinghouse sold that to another broadcasting company. They didn't keep my father on it. He went back to New York where he was involved in managing a cable television network in New York City back in the early days of cable television. So I have been sort of on both coasts.
Wen: Did you hear or read anything about China before college?
Prof. Bachman: There was a little bit about China in my social studies classes in junior high and high school. I can remember during the Cultural Revolution, in 1967, there were stories about the Wuhan rebellion. I heard on the news. Sounded like there was military rising and rebelling against Mao. I remember thinking, for no particular reason, but it always stuck with me, that it didn't sound right. Actually it was right, but nonetheless, I started to think about China. Let's see, 1967, I was 14 years old. It was the Vietnam War, so we were thinking about China, Vietnam, and the United States in Asia. But it was a little too early for me to worry about being drafted. So in that sense, it was on the periphery of my consciousness I would say. I occasionally thought about it, but not seriously. Who is thinking anything seriously at 14? When I went to college, I had no real intention of doing China. I was thinking about science. But then I discovered that science wasn't for me.
Wen: Why did you go to Swarthmore and major in history? What did Kenneth Lieberthal and Lillian Li tell you about China, as you mentioned in one of your books, that hooked you on China for life?
Prof. Bachman: I went to Swarthmore because I was looking for a small college that provided a rigorous education. All the places I applied to were small, liberal art colleges. To me, it turned out to be the right choice. I went to college in 1971. I do remember the summer before I went to college, turning on the TV and seeing Nixon announce that he was going to China in early 72. And I do remember in 1972, one of the people living in the hall, his father had been a journalist in China during the World War II. So I felt like an insider when he told me that it was not Chou Englai, it was Zhou Enlai, and so on. I didn't watch very much television. People didn't have much television time at Swarthmore in 1971 or 72. I do remember Nixon coming down the stairs at the Beijing airport, shook Zhou's hand. So that was part of the time.
Then the draft was a more serious issue for me, and sort of thinking about how I felt about Asia and so on. I began to take courses in history because I had always liked history, also political science. And I took a course in the spring of my sophomore year with Ken Lieberthal. It was a course of revolutions and China of course one of the cases. There were some absolutely gripping readings and he was a very effective and entertaining teacher and lecturer. It just really caught my interest and fancy. I just decided, well, I would take more courses on China. So I went into an honor's program at Swarthmore and took courses that were offered on comparative communism and East Asian history. Lilian Li came to Swarthmore in my junior year. So I took her seminar on East Asia history, which was Japan and China comparison from 1800 to I guess 1950, I forget the end date. I enjoyed reading about it, engaged with it.
Swarthmore didn't teach Chinese at the time. So I graduated from college, in fact missed graduation to start summer intensive Chinese at Columbia University, as my graduation day was the first day of class. Ken Lieberthal told me if I missed the first day of class, that would only be the equivalent of missing half a week's worth of work, or something like that. So I started Chinese in the summer between college and graduate school and then went to Stanford and continued with my Chinese studies.
Wen: You received your MA in political science from Stanford in 1977. Where were you in 1979 when the U.S. and China normalized the diplomatic relations?
Prof. Bachman: I spent 77-78 studying Chinese in Taiwan because Americans couldn't go to China for study. So I was back at Stanford and applied to go to study language and do research in China, finished my preliminary examinations for my PhD degree. Stanford was opening up its own exchange with China to send us students. One of my good friends was selected. I didn't go. He's been in China ever since, doing business. But I did end up going to China then [from Taiwan.] In 78, China had just begun to open up tourism. So from Taiwan, you can get a second U.S. passport, from the then U.S. embassy, travel to Hong Kong and go on first of some of their early tours of the PRC. So in the summer of 78, I managed to get on a three-day tour from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. And later in the summer, I took a twelve-day or fourteen-day trip. Started in Hong Kong again, then we went to Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing and came out. So even before normalization, I got a chance to go. After tourism opened up, I managed to go much more regularly. But I never spent another solid year in China as I had in Taiwan. So I go for conferences, I go for some research, I go to see friends, I go escorting groups, providing academic background. But I haven't spent a long stretch of time in the PRC.
Wen: Did the normalization influence you in pursuing your PhD in Chinese politics?
Prof. Bachman: I was already committed to do that. I went to Stanford with the expectation that I would do Chinese politics. There was a great professor there, Harry Harding. It was China that interested me much more that political science as a discipline. And I remain fascinated by China. Political science is less interesting to me. It is actual nitty-gritty politics as opposed to more refined theories about politics that I find interesting and fascinating. So I always went to Stanford with the expectation of doing Chinese politics as a field. I did do Chinese politics as my field. There was never any real doubt in my mind about studying someplace else.
Part 2: From Studying Great Leap Forward to Teaching U.S.-China Relations
Wen: You published "Chen Yun and Chinese Political System" in 1985. You called Chen Yun "one of the giants of the Chinese Communist Party movement," "a specialist in economic affairs," and whose views were "the starting point for all economic reforms in China." Why did you want to write about Chen Yun? Could you explain his famous "bird cage" theory, if possible, in the context of China's economy today?
Prof. Bachman: I am not sure the "bird" and "cage" theory applies now. I was writing my dissertation on the origins of the development of the Great Leap Forward in China. So I was reading a number of Chen Yun speeches from the 1950s. And in the Chinese press, it became clear that there was a neibu or internal version of some of his speeches that had not been delivered publicly. So I was able to ask one of my friends to see if they could actually get this for me. If fact they were able to get it for me. There was a whole bunch of material there that gave me a lot of opportunities to examine his views in much more detail than texts available, publicly available material. So I started to read and think about it. I wanted again to investigate Chen's life and his connections. I ended up writing both this biography of his life at least up till 1983, 84 when I finished writing and explaining what I thought his economic ideas were or his broader views about economics and politics.
As you say, up through in the early to mid 1950s and in the late 70s and early 80s, this view attributed to him of "the bird and the cage" was one that was quite influential in guiding reforms. Now it's clear also that the view attributed to Deng Xiaoping, "crossing the river by groping the stones," or ?????? was in fact said by Chen Yun. So it was this willingness to experiment, to move away from the strict centralized planning system of the Soviet Union that Chen was talking about in the 1950s, and this idea of opening up certain possibilities, but keeping certain areas of control was central to his thought. That he, like Deng Xiaoping, was strongly committed to Party rule, Party monopoly of power. But both saw more opportunities in the Chinese economy to opening up. Deng ultimately did and was willing to go much further.
But I offer to say that there is still some resonance with Chen's views about what's going on today. I think the consensus seems to me and well informed American China watchers is that there has been a tightening up of the economy, since at least middle of the 2000s, first decade of the 2000s. There continues to be very high priority for state-owned-enterprises, that the central government continues trying to guide and direct many aspects of China's economic affairs. The system is geared to support the state sector much more than the private or collective sector. All of which you could fit into "a bird and a cage" type of framework. But I would say the market is much more advanced than I think Chen would have tolerated. China still remains much more open, he was uncomfortable with the degree of openness of the Chinese economy by the mid-1990s, just before he died. In one of his last writings, he did suggest that he was wrong about the special economic zones, being quite conservative about how deeply China integrated into the international economy. Whether that was a heart-felt change of views or whether he was really persuaded I don't know.
I never met him. I did meet some of his children. We talked about him and I shared the draft of "Chen Yun and Chinese Political System." I knew his daughter Chen Weili. Chen Weili shared the manuscript with Chen Yuan [his son]. I got some feedback about that from them, which I appreciated. They were useful. I still occasionally hear from Chen Weili.
Wen: In 1991, you co-published "Yan Jiaqi and China's Struggle for Democracy," in which you edited and translated Yan's writings. You introduced him as "China's foremost political scientist," and an "insider" reformer with positions of authority trying to influence the system from within. Yan headed the political structure reform group and advocated, among other things, the abolition of the Politburo. He also predicted after Tiananmen that the "Deng empire" would crumble in no time. Now 23 years later, Tiananmen is still a forbidden topic in China and the Politburo still going strong. So how effective do you think insider reformers like Yan Jiaqi were?
Prof. Bachman: Well it's not clear outside reformers are any more successful than insiders. For someone who studies and teaches about China, it seems to me it's necessary to try to divorce what we want to have happened in China with analyzing what is happening in China. So one of the reasons I was involved in that project about Yan Jiaqi is that I hoped that making his views known to a wider audience. That project started before Tiananmen, but it changed direction after June 4th. The original intention was simply to show to American China specialists and others who might be interested what a leading Chinese political scientist was saying about how he understood Chinese politics and nature of politics. But after June 4th, we put more in about his views about the political system. Some of his views may have been, undoubtedly were, colored by the shedding of blood on June 4th, his forced exile. He was fleeing for his life and fleeing from imprisonment that went after. He voiced some of the extraordinary amount of anger and bitterness that many people felt towards China's government in 1989.
As long as the Chinese Communist Party monopolizes power in China, as long as the public security and state security and PLA, the People's Liberation Army, are willing to follow the orders of the Party to suppress external reformers or external dissidents, there isn't much chance for there to be reform in China. It is quite clear that the Party learned after June 4th that it was going to suppress horizontal mobilization across China. They've done pretty well in doing that with some exceptions in Tibet and Xinjiang. But for the most part, they've kept the lid on. There have been lots of protests, as we know in China, lots of cases of political disturbances. But they've never been able to sort of work together and accumulate to pose a direct challenge to the regime. That is in keeping with the regime's interest.
So if that's not going to happen, [external challenges to overthrow the Party,] then we are left relying on internal reformers. You asked a very valid point. It's hard to see that internal reformers have gotten very far in the last 23 years. So we are waiting, as we face the new leadership beginning in the fall, whether some of these people might be more inclined to engage in reform or build coalitions and change the system. And it's not in their interest to tip their hand, if they were. I would argue that I think most people believe that there is really much more collective leadership, that views of Xi Jinping or Li Keqiang are not going to determine the overall direction. They may try pushing it in certain direction. But it really is a reflection of the seven or nine people who would be on the Politburo, the Standing Committee of the Politburo that will be selected.
So basically, those of us who want to see change in China are left waiting for something to happen, because it's hard to imagine viable ways by which, at least right now, external pressure forces political change or internal pressure forces political change. So one of the things people continually watch is the state of the economy. If the economy goes into a downturn, growth slows, the regime stops generating the types of jobs and incomes that have gone along with high-speed growth, will the Chinese people continue to put up with it? So that's one of the reasons why people are paying lots of attention to China in the global recession, China's own uneven pattern of economic development. And it's thought that something like that or some form of other shock to the system might tip the balance in different ways so that both reformers inside the Party, if there are significant ones, and people outside the Party demanding change, would be able to individually or work together to push the system in different directions. But right now, without something altering the status quo, it's hard to see how there is going to be major change in the next few years. But that may just be a failure of our imagination.
Wen:I read on the Internet that Yan Jiaqi recently retired to Florida with his wife.
Prof. Bachman:The situation of many of these people who left China in 1989--some adapted very well, others didn't. Older Chinese who came, people like Yan or even older, like Liu Binyan, they never really did learn English all that well, they never really were able to function all that well in the American society. After they were cut off from China in important ways, they were really cut off from their own lives. It was very hard for them. People like Yan remained relevant for a while, perhaps in part to our translation and another book that was also done of his writings; his views were influential in the early 90s, of course in China in the late 80s. But after several years here, he didn't have new things to say. There was lots of competition for voice among the emigre community. Sort of his influence faded. Well I don't know this for sure, since he is not a terribly happy person. Liu Binyan also sort of never really integrated into American life. While he continued to be a very prominent figure, he was increasingly isolated, too.
Students who left paid some attention to him for a while, but then they had to make a go of it themselves. And they've done better, I mean in terms of adapting to the American society. They learned English better. Many of them got advanced degrees. They went into academia or business. Some continue to work for political change in China. So they've integrated into American society somewhat better. But nonetheless, there's very large group of Chinese emigres from the late 80s and the early 90s who are struggling to figure out how to influence China and how to influence American views about China and American policy about China. There is certain amount of competition and lack of unity of views that undermines that effort, it seems to me.
Wen: In your other 1991 book "Bureaucracy, Economy, and Leadership in China: The Institutional Origins of the Great Leap Forward," you described how there were two coalitions in the Chinese government and how Mao, constrained by the economic bureaucracy, first wavered between the two and then went along with the one represented by Bo Yibo for "rapid" development over the one represented by Chen Yun for "stable" development. Were you trying to say that it was not all Mao's fault that led to the Great Leap disaster?
Prof. Bachman: No, I wasn't trying to say it was not Mao's fault. I was trying to say that many of the ideas behind the Great Leap Forward were not ones that Mao thought of originally. They were ideas that Mao borrowed or co-opted. They were ones where things were distinctively seen as Maoist policies that came out of the bureaucracy. But I would under no circumstance absolve Mao of any responsibility for the famine. In fact, many of the views with regard to the communes and free supply system in the communes, common dining halls, shifting to the idea that you can eat as much as you want, the over procurement of grain that led to the famine in the countryside, there is a very clear and direct line of responsibility straight up to Mao. More than anyone else in the system he bears individual responsibility. I would also say the system itself bears responsibility as a whole. I am sure you know very few people spoke out against the abuses. When they did, like Peng Dehuai, they were crushed. It was the system, it was both Mao driving the system, but it was also a system that rewarded lying and punishing people telling the truth. As Mao was the head of the system, the overall system, he bears responsibility for that as well as his own individual choices about what to do and what type of encouragement to give to officials, sanctioning punishment for people who told the truth and rewarding people who lied.
Wen: Did Mao make possible Bo Yibo's win over Chen Yun?
Prof. Bachman: This was a political system, so Bo Yibo, Li Fuchun, the planners, packaged their program in ways they knew would appeal to Mao. Chen Yun and his allies also tried to package theirs in ways that would appeal to Mao. I think Bo's plan was closer to what Mao wanted or what Mao's values were. High speed was something that Mao valued very highly. The national power that came from heavy industry, from guns, from steel, from machine tools, was something that Mao valued. Things that would transform China into a great power that appealed to Mao, too. Bo and others convinced Mao that their plan was better than the other plan in being able to provide those goals, as opposed to a more stable, sort of more gradual plan for transformation, one that took greater stock of incentives for production and for marketing and so on. Mao and some of Mao's allies thought this leading to polarization in the countryside that some would get rich again, this would lead to restoration of classes. So ideologically the Chen Yun view was seen as suspect. Mao was angry at Chen and Zhou Enlai and some of the other officials for slowing growth down in 1956, 57 and became angry with them later on. So he basically refused to accept their plan and bought into and accepted the claims that Bo Yibo and others were making for an alternative plan for economic construction.
Wen: You wrote a number of articles on China's military affairs, from military modernization to the mobilization for China's border war with the Soviet Union. In 2009, you gave a presentation in Toronto on "The (In)Security of China under Mao: Grand Strategy and Defense Industrialization." Last year, at the UW, you gave a talk on "Types of Security Threats and National Strategies: An Exploratory Case of China under Mao." Have you always been interested China's military and defense issues? Is your next book on China's military and defense?
Prof. Bachman: I won't say I have always been interested. But it has been a strong interest of mine for a long time, the connections between foreign policy, grand strategy and military, military industrial complex. And yes, my next book, the one I am working on now, is about the history of China's military industrial complex from 1949-1985. The argument I am trying to make is at least through the 1980s, the defense industrial sector, the factories that made weapons, was extraordinary large part of the Chinese economy, particularly the state-owned-enterprises. We in the West have always tended to compare China and the Soviet Union and say that China wasn't nearly as industrialized as the Soviet Union was, it wasn't nearly as militarized an economy as the Soviet Union, and that's why China could pursue gradual reform and the Soviet Union couldn't. I think it is true that China did a gradual reform and the Soviet Union did not. But I don't think it is because of the structure of the military industrial complex. I've got an article coming out early next year about China's defense industrial base in 1985. That defense industrial base directly involved one eighth of all large and medium state-owned-enterprises in China and indirectly involved close to twenty percent of other major enterprises that provided major parts, equipment and key technology into the actual defense producers.
So China wasn't spending quite as much as we think as the Soviets were on the defense industrial complex. But China's physical plant, its factories were heavily geared to producing weapons. That had been a constraint on what China can do. China did try to convert many of these factories to civilian production, so factories that made fighter aircraft or bomber aircraft now collaborate with Boeing. Ford motor company's, one of its joint venture partners, was a former weapons producer. Many of the electronics departments that were producing radar, radios and sonar for the military were able to shift into more civilian types of production. But nonetheless, they grew out of this and they have to go through some wrenching changes. They lower the efficiency of the system and the system couldn't get rid of them. In many respects they still reflect a drag on economic efficiency. But the Party can't give them up because they want China to be more powerful militarily and compete with the United States and so on. All these things speak to a whole aspect of the history of the People's Republic of China that hasn't received that much attention. So that book is an attempt to bring into more light this suggest that we need to rethink some of these interpretations about what China could and couldn't do in the 1980s and into the 90s and even now.
Wen: Why stop at 85?
Prof. Bachman: In 1985 there was an industrial census so there was a lot of data that gives you information about output, number of labors, and the amount of investment what went into factories. So 1985 is a good stopping point I think because of that data. There is less data available going-forward. If you read the material on China's military now, there is a lot of contention about how powerful the Chinese military is, how big a threat it is. I can't address those questions. I don't have a security clearance. I am in no position to assess whether the J-20 fighters, so called the stealth fighters that came out that was unveiled in early 2010, whether that changes strategic balance or not, who knows? But people take very strong positions about this sort of issues. I am willing to confess that I am ignorant about how to assess this fighter or any other weapon system being unveiled now. And I don't find arguments that take extreme positions about things we don't really have much grounding to come to definitive conclusions about worth my time to do. I mean I have my positions. But it's not anything terribly original. It's not something I can research all that well.
One thing I discovered, trying to do, both following contemporary politics and back in 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, is that there is much more material one can find about those earlier periods, whether written by Chinese scholars themselves, or declassified by the Chinese government, or in archives. I understand, I think, that right now when we talk about Bo Xilai, we are seeing one or two percent of what really going on, tip of the iceberg. You can go back and look in archives and find speeches that weren't publicly available in the past that give you a much more complete historical record of what was going on. This is where my training is, as a historian sort of blend into my Chinese interest in these political and international relations type of questions. But I think that there is a very short half-life for stuff that is done about current political development. I think if we engage more archival work, if we go back an earlier period, there is an awful lot we don't know about the earlier part of the PRC that continues to influence the PRC today.
That's why I will continue to concentrate my major research and writing efforts on more historical periods. So I will write shorter pieces about contemporary affairs or talk about contemporary affairs. But again, I admit that I am not an insider. I read lots of things, but I don't have any claim to knowing what's really going on other than what the Chinese themselves are revealing. And in things like Bo Xilai, there remain these huge questions we aren't likely getting answered any time soon.
Wen: You have been teaching for many years, from Stanford to Princeton to UW. This year, 2012, as I checked on UW website, you teach Issues in International Studies, Asia and the World, Government and Politics of China. What is the relationship between your research and your teaching, or is there a relationship?
Prof. Bachman: There clearly is a relationship. But that's not the most recent courses I taught. Other people put those on the web I think. I am teaching courses like U.S.-China Relations, Chinese Foreign Policy, courses on Chinese domestic policies, at the graduate level. I teach a big lecture course called Making of the 21st Century, which is required for all Jackson School students. You know in engaging with what people have written about U.S.-China relations, about security issues in the relations, I introduce some of my research findings as part of the content of the course. I engage with existing scholarship and present my views, help me sharpen the type of argument that I want to make in my writings. So at that level for the graduate seminar and on U.S.-China relations, there are a lot of connections with research that I am doing and on ongoing basis about security issues, about Chinese political economy, and so on.
On the sort of broad introductory course, my own research doesn't filter in all that much. What it does, it forces me because these are courses geared essentially for freshmen and sophomores to be very clear about my own understanding of the events, about what my frameworks of analysis are, how I can convey those to students, how those frameworks may help to explain ongoing developments, both in China, in Asia, and globally. So I think by doing those introductory courses, it has helped me sharpen my analytical framework for the upper level courses. It's also allowed me to refine my own views in terms of arguments I make in my writings, in public appearances.
Part 3: On Chen Guangcheng, Bo Xilai, Northwest Coal to China, and More
Wen: About Chen Guangcheng and China's human rights. You were quoted in the Seattle Times as saying, "even if you agree it is the most important issue, how does the United States affect it when there is no doubt the Chinese Communist Party is committed to remaining in power and willing to treat dissent harshly." So, by helping Cheng Guangcheng leave China, how has the U.S. affected human rights in China?
Prof. Bachman: I would argue it hasn't affected human rights in China. I think facilitating Chen's leaving China improved Chen's situation. In that sense, it improved his human rights, and human rights of his wife and children. But the downside of that was it removed a powerful figure, at least symbolically, from being part of any discussions in China. So that weakened human rights in China in some respects. That Chen was being treated extraordinarily badly, harshly, he couldn't play much a role. But the fact that the Chinese government, or at least elements of the Chinese government, were treating him so badly, was known among a number of different people in China, which was a rallying cry for external human rights organizations and some Chinese domestic advocates. So by his departure, he isn't the rallying figure that he was.
There was a case that broke in Shaanxi this week or last week about local officials forcing a woman who was seven months pregnant to have a forced abortion and they were forced to apologize. So maybe that's a marginal change. But in terms of the ability of people to organize, there has been no change. There's certainly not been any change in the one-child policy, so-called one-child policy, although there may be some attempts to make it again less harsh. But there have been these periods in the past where one-child policy was enforced much more strictly, and other periods where it was enforced loosely. So we can simply be going through sort of a cycle again.
So it would be hard to argue that Chen's departure changed anything. I think it's partly a problem with the way that human rights policies get articulated and argued in U.S.-China relations. At one level, the United States and most Americans have fundamental disagreements with the stands of the Chinese government about democracy, rule of law, human rights. There is a widespread consensus among most Americans that China should be democratic, it should observe and practice human rights as in most places, and it should have the rule of law.
But that is at a high level of generality. It often takes one brave individual, whether it is Chen Guangcheng, or Liu Xiaobo, or in earlier times Wei Jingsheng, or Harry Wu, or others, to sort of personalize the issue and be a magnet for support, to galvanize support, to raise the issue. But the problem is of course that makes them easy targets for the Chinese government. So Harry Wu and Wei Jingsheng were sent into exile. Liu Xiaobo is back in prison. Chen Guangcheng is in theory studying in the United States, but whether he will be able to go back to China is an open question. So becoming so prominent gave them some protection because international community would look out for Chen Guangcheng being the best case, and Wei Jingsheng being forced into exile being another case. But it means the Chinese government can easily deal with this problem by forcing them out of China. Their voices are lost or at least greatly weakened by being abroad. They lose their audience in China or it's much harder for them to connect to audiences, and much harder for them to be in touch with what's going on in China by being abroad. So in that sense, by becoming so prominent, you almost guarantee the Chinese government is going to do something to reduce their prominence. If they are harsh, they put them in jail. If they are not so harsh, they force them into exile. But it doesn't, it seems to me, fundamentally address the issue how you improve Chinese human rights.
While the United States can try to, for example, help train judges, expose more Chinese to American culture and American ideas about human rights, democracy and law and so on, the real impetus for change is going to have to come from within. As we said earlier, it's hard to imagine right now how that's going to happen. Again, there is lots of protest going on. There's lots of ways that it would be easy for someone in China to say that we could get rid of lots of these protests if we, for example, were cracking down on corruption, if we made property rights more secure, if we sort of were more transparent in our governments, if people felt the legal system really would protect some of their rights. So there are good logical reasons why you could advance certain types of reforms that would improve the living standards, the living quality of most Chinese people that would advance the agenda. But it's very hard to see that much of that is taking place right now. Now maybe with the new leadership there may be more possibility there. Who knows?
But right now, the U.S. human rights report, most external monitors of Chinese human rights situation have seen retrogression in Chinese human rights practices of the last five to ten years rather than improvement. So we will see. The argument of course in the United States is that as the Chinese people become more prosperous, the middle class is created, that middle class will be more demanding of freedom and protection. I hope that view is right. Right now, it looks like the middle class is more afraid of a loss of status and supporting the regime in cracking down to prevent widespread peasant migration to protect the middle class from the implications of what democracy might mean. The majority will rule perhaps, and the majority might not support the types of economic activities or the types of corruption and insider activities that made many people quite prosperous. So whether in fact until middle class grows considerably larger, the middle class is really pro-democratic as opposed to pro-regime remains to be seen. Lots of surveys have been done of the middle class that suggest that they are not all that democratic, at least right now.
Wen: A related question. China said that the U.S. interfered in China's internal affairs by helping Chen Guangcheng get in the American embassy. What do you think? What would you have done if you were the ambassador in Beijing and a Chinese dissident had contacted the embassy for help?
Prof. Bachman: I am never going to be ambassador in practical terms. Theoretically, I think I would have done the same thing. Here was Chen who was being badly victimized by the system, who was trying to use the formal rules of the system to address the abuses of human rights, a person himself who was disabled, who clearly has been victimized by the system. So I would like to think if I had been in the situation, I would have facilitated his arrival. In a technical and legal sense, I think the Chinese government was probably right. It is probably interference in Chinese internal affairs that U.S. diplomat goes out to a location in Beijing and helps to smuggle a dissident into the U.S. embassy compound. On the sort of facts of the matter, I think that is interference in Chinese internal affairs. But I will turn around and say, you know, if you hadn't so violated his human rights, this wouldn't have happened. So if you live up to your own Constitution and laws, this won't happen again.
Some of this, of course, the Chinese government is going to complain about things it doesn't like, that's sort of par for the course with diplomacy. I think frankly the Chinese government, as I said earlier, wasn't all that unhappy to see Chen Guangcheng leave. Once it had become this huge international issue, drawn all the attention, the Chinese government agreed that better to let him go and not worry about this, his effect would be limited after he goes to the United States.
Yes, in a formal sense, the United States interfered, but the Chinese government I don't think is unhappy with the results. To the extent that it involved so many U.S. government diplomats and high officials to resolve this issue, I am not sure the United States government would do it again for almost anyone else, maybe for a few others. But I wonder what instructions the State Department has told Ambassador Locke now. Would he or the State Department in Washington authorize U.S. diplomats to get someone secretly into the U.S. embassy? I don't know. I can see arguments either way that the United States would not unless it is extraordinarily well known a public figure, such as Liu Xiaobo or one or two others, they probably wouldn't do it. But again, this is just speculation on my part. So in that sense, I think it is going to be a very rare occurrence where the U.S., whether it was Fang Lizhi or Chen Guangcheng, will facilitate the arrival of very high-ranking Chinese activists/dissidents into the U.S. embassy, because it does leave the obvious question of how do you get them out of the U.S. embassy.
Wen: Since you wrote about the Great Leap Forward, you are familiar with the Great Famine following it. Like Tiananmen, the Great Famine has also been a forbidden topic in China. But recently, in May, Southern People Weekly published a cover story with 18 pages examining the tragedy. Do you think it is an opening in China in terms of political reforms?
Prof. Bachman: I would certainly hope it was. I haven't seen much follow-up, so I am a little skeptical about this. It is a significant development to have that major expose come out in the Chinese domestic press. But as I say I haven't seen the follow-up to see whether this has started a gradual movement to address some of these forbidden issues. It's a very interesting development. What it means other than what facts of the case revealed in the article, I don't know. I think everyone is sort of looking around to see what's going to happen next. Right now, it's like the early periods of the Hundred Flowers where you occasionally got these bold statements, people were sort of "what's going to happen?" "who's going to do what next?" So if we see another major expose come out about the Cultural Revolution or about other forbidden topics about Gao Gang, or maybe the socialist education campaign in the early 60s, we may see something about Mao's purge of Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping's father, which hasn't received all that much coverage, either. Who knows? Now the next step hasn't been taken, everyone sort of is holding their breath and waiting for the next step to be taken, but no one seems to be doing it or the publication aren't willing to publish again.
I am sure there are many academics, in fact, or scholars or government officials, former government officials, who would like to tell their memoires, who would like to address some of these issues, who, particularly for the older ones, want to speak the truth and not be bound by official lines on some of these subjects. But whether they get the chance, who knows. Hong Kong's reversion to the Chinese control has opened some things up. We have the memoires of some of the generals who were around Lin Biao. We have inklings that some Chinese scholars know that the official line on Lin Biao was just wrong, that there wasn't really a coup attempt, that Lin fled because he was afraid of Mao, that Lin was a much more complex figure.
As I say memoires from some of these people published in Hong Kong, with some editing also published in the PRC, so there has been more examination in military history, in political military history than there has been of things where Mao centrally involved, or Mao's role, seen as casting real doubts about his image in the PRC. There's also Western academics have been very thorough with it, trying to uncover these things. They expose Chinese students in their classes to the scholarship, lots of Western scholarship on China being translated back into Chinese. So there is more knowledge of these things than we often suspect even when there is a forbidden zone in the Party press to talk about the details of the Great Famine or aspects of the Cultural Revolution. The knowledge is accumulating.
Part of the problem though is that young Chinese don't really care that much about what happened in 1950s and 60s. The current generation of people in their twenties, born after Mao died, they have lived their lives with what seems to be increasingly meritocratic system, where you get good grades on the college entrance exam, you get into college, you make your own career, this very comfortable life, they have seen their life when they were children, teenagers and college graduates improve, their standard of living has improved, so they are not necessarily deeply concerned about the past. It's a hard sell here to talk to twenty-year olds about why they should worry about what life was like in the depression in the United States, or other things "you know, this was before I was born, this was before I was thinking about things, so should I bother?" So where the demand will come?
I am hoping the older generation, retiring officials, will be at the forefront of trying to do this, I think. Chinese historians, some Party historians, are increasingly concerned about professional reputation and they do want to approach some of these forbidden zones. So I hope to see some gradual easing of some of these constraints and more legitimate and honest discussions. As you probably know that you had people like Yang Jisheng, who has written this book Tombstone, or
??, which is about the Great Leap Forward famine. He is a former official. He went to many many counties. He had many contacts. They opened up archives about population and things. So he has about a 1,000 page book in Chinese detailing the famine almost county by county, has been able publish, not in China, but in Hong Kong. His work is going to be translated, is in the process of being translated into English so that it could be given to students here and so on.
Wen: In 1992, in your article "The limits to leadership in China," you pointed out that China's power was no longer vested in individuals but in established structures of authority. Prof. Perry Link has a new piece in the Foreign Policy magazine, titled "Party like it is 1989," and talked about China's institutionalized succession, which he said had been planned by Deng Xiaoping. The structure you talked about and the institutionalized succession he talked about have been working, as we have seen in Hu Jintao and will hopefully again in Xi Jinping. However, there is now the Bo Xilai scandal. How do you see Bo Xilai's downfall in the context of this structure and institutionalization you two mentioned?
Prof. Bachman: I think what we both meant was that the system had moved away from one dominated by a single powerful individual, whether it was Mao or Deng Xiaoping, that it's much more a collective leadership, that Hu Jintao is a much weaker leader than Jiang Zemin who was much weaker than Deng Xiaoping. So in that sense, there is not the type of individual power vested in the system that can lead to wildly crazy type of developments or otherwise can break through vested interests and move China in a more open and reforming direction. There are losses as well as gains in this sort of institutionalization. You were right to quote Perry Link to say the succession was sort of institutionalized in 92, it was re-institutionalized in 2002, and it probably will follow institutionalized positions in 2012.
But now this raises a big question about what was Bo Xilai trying to do? This was what my earlier remarks were about, well, who knows what Bo Xilai was trying to do, what his motives were. From people I've talked to, who've met him and I haven't met Bo Xilai, Bo Xilai was more like an American politician than any other Chinese politicians they've met. He was comfortable dealing with people and crowds, very charismatic, he was confident when he went out in the public, he wasn't wooden, he was comfortable speaking off the cuff, it seems like. In that sense, his natural inclination was to be a more open Western style politician to engage in political campaigns.
Why he did this is not clear, and there was a good chance, not an absolute chance, he would be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee if he had simply managed Chongqing reasonably well, seems to me. Yet his sort of overly up-front attempt to set agendas to push himself forward alienated, it seems to me, many in the Politburo Standing Committee. So he violated some of the norms that I think they had expected of people who were candidates for the Politburo Standing Committee. In that sense, the way he pursued power alienated some. There were some, like Wen Jiabao, who also were alienated by what they saw his message being about, singing red songs, pursuing more statist type of policies, or sort of neo-leftist type of policies. They didn't like the fact that neo-leftists were grouping or supporting Bo. That also contributed to some of the opposition to him.
For me, I was shocked when I read that Gu Kailai had a Singapore passport and thought that here was the wife of a member of the Politburo, with access to secret and highly sensitive information, whose wife had a foreign passport, the mind boggled to me. How could this possibly happen? I don't know what to make of it. I think that Bo was an ambitious person. He had good people skills for the most part. He was a natural politician in the way very few Chinese leaders had been. And he was trying to leverage that into a position of greater power and influence. But it looks like he overreached, he alienated many, for someone who was supposed to be reasonably smart, why he didn't see this, why he didn't anticipate he might be alienating as many as he was winning over, I don't know.
There were many revelations about the corruption involved, that's probably true of almost any Chinese leader, I don't think the fact that he may or may not have a fortune of $100 million separates him at all from anyone else in the leadership. Obviously the connection to the murder of the British citizen is appalling and should be basis for, assuming they can prove the case, that Gu should be jailed for life if not executed for murder, depending on the circumstances. It's hard to imagine that he wasn't in some ways complicit with that. He too should be subjected to judicial process. The whole thing is full of mystery. Why Wang Lijun went to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu? Why if there was this strong relationship between the two of them, Bo and Wang, that Wang was in fear of his life? Why Bo didn't protect him? Why Wang couldn't stop the investigation Wang had undertaken supposedly of people at the center of the government? All these things are mysteries to me. So we got a lot of gossip coming out, lots of rumors. But it would be a very long time before we know the real truth.
Wen: Did Bo Xilai put some doubt into the structures you talked about?
Prof. Bachman: I think it was a challenge to the institutional precepts of what you were supposed to do about campaigning or advancing to power. In some ways, maybe his downfall makes that system stronger. If there are people like him in the system who think they can try and do an end run about the rules, this may convince them no, they have to work within the system. The downside of that is, of course, it means that people will play the conformity game. They will do what they expect their superiors to want, they will perform well in their jobs. But will they have any imagination, will they go out on a limb to take new policy stances, will they be critical of the existing system? It will probably discourage people from doing that. And that I think would be bad for China, too.
Certainly succession has been a very flawed process in China that Mao dismissed any number of successors, often to the end of their lives. Deng Xiaoping also got rid of a number of successors, which provided instability in the system. So all these things were bad from overall perspective how the system worked. Since that time, there's been much more stability with regard to succession. The rumors were, Hu Jintao wanted Li Keqiang to be the general secretary, he didn't want Xi Jinping. But within the Politburo Standing Committee, his views were overcome. So there seems to be some understanding about how the process works. But that process, as I say, doesn't lead to bold new initiatives, at least now. But we would have said the same thing about the Soviet leadership, about Gorbachev becoming the Soviet leader, yet he had bold new initiatives.
So again, even though I studied China for a long time, my ability to predict future in China really isn't any better than anybody else's. We don't have anywhere near complete information. We don't have good knowledge of personal interrelationships among these people. We don't know who is really supporting who else. So it's informed speculation, that should be taken with a grain of salt or huge teaspoon of salt. So many things in history are contingent on other things happening. We can't imagine all of the contingencies. Now if China can't get this economy going again, if China has an earthquake like Japan had last year, how is this going to effect, like China had in 2008 for that matter. There are all sorts of things that we can't build into our predictions about what is going to happen in China. So we do the best we can, but the record of China watchers is pretty bad about predicting China's future. I can tell you what I think is going to happen. Many other people can tell you what they think is going to happen. It's all to the extent we thought about it, it's worth listening to, but I wouldn't, if I were investor, I wouldn't put money on the projections. In that sense, it is really quite limited what we can do in terms of foreseeing what's going to happen in China."
Wen: You served one term as president of the Washington State China Relations Council, which promotes business and trade with China. Americans have been complaining about China taking away a lot of jobs. Now there is a possible opportunity to create jobs in the Northwest: proposals of building coal terminals in Washington and Oregon to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to China. Considering China's need for coal and America's need for jobs but also clean energy, especially Seattle and Washington that have been championing clean energy, what would be your position if were still president of the Council?
Prof. Bachman: It's a tough call. I mean it's a very hard issue. I mean the last thing we want to do really is encourage China to burn more coal. Coal is the major source of greenhouse gases from China, their major energy source, it is by far and way the dirtiest of the hydrocarbon based energy sources. I'd be more comfortable urging China to adopt much more green technology, solar, wind, geothermal or anything. I guess my bottom line is that the Council or any organization is not in the position to impose its views on companies or city governments or ports, whatever. If they decide to do it, they are going to do it. There has been news report in the last ten days or so saying that the estimate of China's greenhouse gas emissions were twenty percent understated. I don't know when was the last time you were back, but the air is so bad in Beijing and other places that China is reaching limits of sustainability. If I were to predict, China really is going to face an environmental catastrophe in twenty or thirty years, which will be disastrous for China. The more they burn coal, the more they don't do much more dramatic things to conserve energy and to use it more efficiently. It is only to make China's future worse.
So there is not a particular reason why American firms should take a high moral position and let Australian or Canadian or other firms sell the coal, they undoubtedly will. But I wish, if I were head of the Council, prefer to talk to the Chinese government and say, you got to break this addiction to coal. You got to move away from it. The sooner the better. It's your choice, of course. But the consequence of continuing down this path with coal is going to prevent China from rising. It's going to prevent China from being a strong, influential, respected member of the international community. I personally have no doubt that China really does face very dire environmental challenges. While I think the leadership is much more understanding of what those challenges are, they have not put in place the types of policies that would even begin to address that. Until they do, it looks bad for China.
Wen: A bonus/fun question: Are your daughters influenced by your interest in China in any way?
Prof. Bachman: My older daughter just graduated from Stanford. She graduated last weekend, with a BA in human biology. She did take a course in Chinese history, but she finds science more interesting than she does social science. So she may end up going to medical school, being a doctor. She likes the more definitive answers that come from science perhaps than social science or history. That's fine. She likes Chinese food. It [China] didn't, I would say have profound impact on her other than that.
Wen: Where is younger daughter?
Prof. Bachman: Younger daughter went to Swarthmore College. She just finished her freshman year. I went to college there, too. She didn't take Chinese in Mercer Island High School. But she did start taking Chinese at Swarthmore College. She is working part time as an intern at the Confucius Institute upstairs. She has been interested much more in politics and social science, less interested in science. She is thinking about a career in international affairs maybe. She will take second year Chinese next year. She is thinking about going to China next summer for more language work.
Wen: She is following your footsteps. Thank you so much, Prof. Bachman.