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  • About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China from Nixon to Clinton
  • Edward Friedman (bio)
James Mann. About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China from Nixon to Clinton. New York: Alfred Knopf; distributed by Random House, 1999. 433 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 067945053X.

James Mann's new book could turn out to be the most important study on Beijing's foreign policy since Donald Zagoria's The Sino-Soviet Conflict, 1956-61 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961) established that the Moscow-Beijing alliance was in deep trouble. Mann claims that the curious thing about Beijing Washington relations since Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon first began the process of normalization is how well the relationship has served Beijing's interests and how poorly it has served Washington's.

Mann has assembled more meaningful data than any previous analyst to detail the military ties between China's military establishment and both the Pentagon and military contractors in the United States. Despite Mann's claim that America gave the store away to China, in fact, "The Pentagon remained cautious about what it would permit China to purchase, worrying about the impact on Taiwan, Japan and other neighbors" (p. 142).

Mann's thesis, therefore, is not persuasive. Indeed, he concedes that the "opening to China helped to minimize the negative impact elsewhere in Asia of the eventual American defeat in Vietnam" (p. 51). It facilitated regional prosperity and a wave of democratization. It is also possible that Washington's ties to Beijing made Moscow bid higher to win cooperation with Washington, thus strengthening the forces that eventually ended the Cold War. Mao, who worried about American motives, tried to prevent Washington from leaping "at Moscow by way of China's shoulders" (p. 70). Mann cannot see why it is that American presidential candidates like Carter, Reagan, and Clinton—who were not naive—promised to be tougher on Beijing, and then, once in office, continued the policies initiated by Nixon in the belief that the United States had much to gain from broad engagement with China.

Yet Mann's vision of a self-wounding American policy toward China unifies a major, illuminating work whose detailed account is of the highest value, no matter how one assesses its overarching thesis. Journalist Mann's research puts the work of most academics to shame. He has dug up key documents, interviewed major actors, and told a story that is rich, powerful, and coherent. Sadly, however, he makes China's ruling groups into omniscient geniuses, which they have not been, as proven by everything from their disastrous invasion of Vietnam in 1979 to their arrogant alienation of their Asian neighbors at the beginning of the twenty-first century, initiating a backlash that has impelled those neighbors to seek a counterweight in the United States. [End Page 490]

Mann's striking thesis is that Washington has allowed Beijing to get away with murder, that China received American intelligence, American weaponry, and a condoning of human rights violations that Washington has not allowed any other nation. He contends that American policy has stupidly been premised on the mistaken assumptions that China was going to be run by a new generation of all-out reformers whose priority of economic growth would "over the long run, lead to freedom and democracy" (p. 236) and that China would become an open, liberal, and cooperative partner. Instead, a Leninist tyranny has entrenched itself, has relegitimated itself through nationalism (a red/brown alliance), and is promoting hegemonic goals in the Asia-Pacific region that challenge vital American interests, including democracy, security, and independence among America's friends in Asia. There has been a sudden awakening in America at the end of the 1990s to the consequences of China's economic and military rise—a rise that is presented as the result of more than a quarter century of, at best, American gullibility.

My own contrary view is that China's rise is part and parcel of the general ascendance of Asia since the 1960s. To be sure, the rise of China in Asia—like that, say, of Japan in 1905—has become a true challenge, but the cause...


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