The China Fantasy

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

The Air Force graciously sent me to Army infantry school back in 1982. My roommate for my five and a half months at Ft. Benning, George was a young, brand new Army Lieutenant who happened to be a Chinese linguist. He had taken Chinese in college and spent time in Taiwan. He trained to be a combat infantry officer, but the Army has used him for most of his career to watch developments in China. He recently sat a China intelligence desk somewhere in the backwoods of Virginia.

Whenever I want a good scare or need a topic for a column, I give my old roommate a call and ask him to tell me something unclassified about China. This time I found something on my own. I was in the library at the Air Force Academy when I spotted a small, rather thin book called The China Fantasy ( It was written by James Mann, a former diplomatic correspondent and foreign affairs columnist of the Los Angeles Times, who was in Beijing from 1984 to 1987.

Fantasy is his third book about China. This book was not a war story with graphic details about all the bad things that happen in China to the Chinese people. Fantasy is about the misconceptions and political mistakes the US and most other western nations have made and continue to make when it comes to dealing with the Marxist-Leninist, Communist government of China.

You know, that place we use to call "Red China," but now we just call it the second home of Wal-Mart. (As a side note, did you know that approximately one out of ten of those big ocean going shipping containers that leaves China is headed to North America for Wal-Mart?) Since the Berlin Wall fell, you hardly hear the word "Communist" used anymore. It was considered so derogatory from 1945 on that now if you use it the liberals accuse you of hate speech. However, good old hard line communism is exactly what China’s one party government is.

Nixon opened the way into China, but it has always been opened only as far and as deep as the communists were willing to let us go. My wife and favorite mother-in-law took a guided tour to China. They got to see Beijing, Shanghai, the Great Wall, the Terracotta Soldiers, Tiananmen Square and lots of factories with busy Chinese workers. What they and most of the west did not see was the majority of the Chinese people living in the interior of China and not enjoying Starbucks and McDonalds like the folks in Shanghai.

We had an expression when I was stationed in Alaska: “fish-on”. This was when you told a great big old lie to someone and it sounded so good (they are “hooked”) they either believed it or wanted to believe it. I would suggest that “fish-on” is exactly what the communist Chinese government has been pulling on the US and every President since the fall of Chiang Kai-shek. Communist China and its one party system is not, repeat not, going to change of its own accord.

With all the billions of dollars worth of trade between China and the US, the latest false belief is that the economic prosperity of China will bring democratic change that cannot be stopped. If you take the ten largest cities in China and add up all the Starbucks drinking, upper class city folks, they still only make up a fraction of the population of China. This new middle class is just as afraid of the poor masses in the interior of China as is the Chinese Communist Party. If you gave every Chinese the vote, the majority of the people would vote the Communists out of power and this would negatively impact the big city, new rich.

I am not attacking Mr. Ping the poor, arthritic rice farmer from the interior or his cousin Mr. Ying the costal fisherman eking out a living when I say China must reform. I mean the communist leadership of China must make this happen. However, it is not going to happen as long as the US and the western powers fail to force the change. Thirty years from now, with no change in China, they will be an economic powerhouse so entwined in the world economy that no one could afford to force them to change. China says change is coming and I say “fish-on.”

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Copyright 2008, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.