Kishore Mahbubani Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

America and the World: Conversation with Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yee School of Public Policy, Singapore; March 12, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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China

You bring your analysis to the most important in our national issue in the coming century, namely the world's relationship with China. You're suggesting that America, in a way, is [an] innocent -- in a positive sense, but to the point of being disruptive when [the world] sees China as an emerging power that must be contained in the way that the Soviet Union was contained.

Most Americans believe that America is not out to threaten or to subvert China. And clearly, most Americans have no desire whatsoever -- in fact, many of them celebrate and are happy with the success of China. If America's intentions towards China are benign, then clearly, the Chinese should develop a positive attitude towards America. But as I document in the book, the trend line in China, sadly, has been negative. I demonstrate this with one simple case study, the case study of the American bombing on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Every American that I've spoken to, including senior policy makers, keep telling me, "Pshaw, obviously it was an accident. We didn't intend to bomb the Chinese embassy. Why would we want to do so?" But when I speak to the Chinese, the Chinese policy makers are in agreement -- Chinese policy makers, Chinese mid-levels, lower-levels -- they're all convinced that this bombing was deliberate and a signal by America to China: Beware of American power. And that's something that shows a reservoir of suspicion in China towards America.

Many American presidents have begun in a truly naïve way to try to impose democratization on China, which I guess fits into this. In a way, it's a corruption of the power of American ideals of an earlier period.

The point to remember about the old democracy debate is that all countries in the world eventually will have to become democratic if they're to succeed, because only if you have an open democratic society will you allow your people to participate fully in the country's development.

So, the destination is not in doubt. The only question is how quickly can you get to the destination. In many American minds is the belief that you can take any society, flip a switch and they can go immediately from authoritarian rule to democratic rule. But history teaches us it cannot be done.

Certainly, the case of Russia demonstrates that if you flip the switch when you go to authoritarian rule to democratic rule, the society can suffer. As you know, there was an implosion of living standards in Russia in the 1990s because of the sudden switch. So, the lesson that China learned from this exercise is that, "Yes, we eventually have to get democratic but we have to do it slowly, gradually, at our pace, and after we have built up a strong enough middle class and a strong enough society in China." So, they find these American pressures on China -- "Hey, you've got to change immediately" -- not as a benign intention on the part of America, but rather as an effort by America to trip up China's development and maybe to replicate the problems and chaos that Russia experienced in the 1990s. They are obviously not going to welcome that for their society.

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