Question: Will an open Chinese economy lead to a more open government?
George Mitchell: In 1986, I was part of a delegation of U.S. Senators that went to Moscow to meet with the then new, young leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. And on the way, we stopped at a couple of other Eastern European countries, and I asked everybody we talked with, “Do you believe that you can give people free choice in economic affairs and deny it to them in political affairs?” Their answer was yes. Well, they weren’t right in those cases. That doesn’t mean the Chinese can’t do it, but in my view, it’s very difficult, particularly with modern communications and the desire for people to become involved, not just in their communities, but in a broader society. And so, I think it’s very tough. We’ll see what happens in China, but I don’t think I’ll live to see it, but you might. I think if you open up the economy and you give people free choice in economic affairs, inevitably, some kind of choice in political affairs becomes essential. I
++think the reason the economy is now so important to the Chinese leadership is that most governments in history derive their legitimacy from Divine Right-- that was monarchs and, to a lesser extent, dictatorships, and in the 20th Century, ideologies. We believe, in our system, that the only appropriate source of legitimacy for any government is the consent of the governed. Well, the ideology of Communism is a failure. I once wrote a book on the triumph of democracy and the fall of Communism. To me, it’s obvious in retrospect that it was doomed to failure from the beginning. Nobody-- I don’t think anybody- believes in it anymore, including the Chinese. They’re about as entrepreneurial as you can get. So, how does the government hang onto power? Well, they hang onto power by delivering economic growth, for over a decade, maybe more, spectacular economic growth. And I think that they are invested in growth because it is the sole remaining source of their legitimacy. So I think they have to continue to promote economic growth, which means joining the World Trade Organization, trade with the United States, buying American bonds, all the rest of it, and I think, inevitably, that’ll open them up in their political processes.
Question: Do you foresee conflict between the U.S. and China?
George Mitchell: Obviously, no one can look at human history and say war is impossible. On the other hand, it is surely not inevitable. Why can’t we have a conflict of economic competition? Of ideas? We are a different country from Canada and Mexico, and yet you don’t ask me whether war with Canada or Mexico is inevitable, even though they’re right next to us. And nobody asks- we’re a different country from France and Germany and Britain, and nobody thinks that a war there is inevitable. Why should a war be inevitable with China? I don’t believe it is. I think-- I don’t remember where I read this, but Truman was once asked about that aspect of Communism that stated or suggested that human affairs are decided by large, impersonal economic events, and Truman’s answer was, “Men make history, not the other way around.” And, of
course, the politically-correct answer today would be, “Men and women make history,” but the reality is that what happens between the United States and China will
+++ be decided by Americans and Chinese, and it is not inevitable that there be a conflict, and we ought not to get ourselves caught into those terms which suggest that conflict is inevitable. The one conviction I have, coming out of Northern Ireland, is that there is no such thing as a conflict that is inevitable or can’t be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. And I don’t think you ought to begin with the mindset of conflict. What you should begin with is a mindset of, how can we create a circumstance in which both can exist, competing economically in the world of ideas and so forth, without conflict. I think it’s not only possible, but highly feasible, although, as I said, if you look at history, which is filled with wars, and also filled with tremendous repetitive errors in judgment by political leaders, that led to conflict.