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Reflections on Iran and China

By John K. Fairbank

Contemporary events offer a constant workout for the enterprising historian. American installations and American arms have bulked large in the modernization program for Iran in recent decades, but the program has been unexpectedly upset by a social revolution in a religious form. Meanwhile, after thirty years of estrangement, American business is now undertaking to assist modernization in China, where the social revolution of Mao Tse-tung has already occured. Iran and China could hardly be more different, but the American approach to the two places may have certain similarities worth pondering.

Teng Hsiao-p'ing (Deng Xiao ping) is no Shah and undoubtedly knows as much about villages and villagers as he knows about cities and technicians. The cult of Mao in its day had religious overtones, but the Chinese people on the whole seem capable of seeking happiness without benefit of revealed religion. This is what made them so interesting to philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment. Fanaticism is not their normal state of mind. Under Mao they carried through a very considerable social revolution and the Chinese leadership in coming years is not likely to forget about it. Chinese common sense is also reinforced by Chinese poverty. They have not suffered the affluence derived from great oil exports. In short, their social revolution has kept ahead of their technological revolution, somewhat the opposite of the Iranian experience.

In the January 12 Harvard Gazette, Richard N. Frye, Aga Khan Professor of Iranian, gave us a succinct account of how the Shah "wanted to bring his country into the 20th century quickly but in doing so disrupted all aspects of society": the aristocracy and middle class invested in industry and many became rich, while their children got educated abroad and sometimes became disaffected. Peasants crowded into the cities and agriculture declined. The priorities were quite wrong. "The United States and Europe contributed to the terrible mistakes made under the Shah's rule because American and European businesses were just interested in making money...the U.S. had no concern for the people of Iran."

The question for Americans that emerges from any comparison of Iran and China is whether we can learn from experience. One can assume that the American approaches to China and to Iran will be a good deal more similar than the conditions in those two very different countries. For example, both countries figure in our grand anti-Soviet strategy, just as both figure in the expansion of American business and technological activity abroad. We may assume that socialist China is less corrupt than Iran was under the Shah. But contracts for billion-dollar installations in foreign lands easily lend themselves to some degree of corruption or private self-seeking. The American tourist trade, available especially to our more affluent fellow citizens, is also unlikely to strengthen socialism except perhaps by the power of negative example. How can China install thousand-room tourist hotels without creating latter-day echoes of the foreign concession areas where the Western and Japanese visitors enjoyed a glimpse of Chinese culture and society before the Revolution? One can only conclude that the forthcoming American assistance in the modernization of China will be indeed a test of the continued vitality of the Revolution. The Chinese leadership will have to set close limits on the influence of American money, and police the projects for which they are enlisting the help of American firms.

They will also, no doubt, be well-advised to set limits on the contact of sincere American intellectuals with the Chinese people. Even American students of China who in their own minds associate themselves with a counter-culture are likely to find that in fact they come to China as part of the expansion of American life. For example, the American penchant for asking the individual Chinese citizen how he feels about things and how he would criticize the situation, etc., may not fit into the Chinese cultural environment. Visitors to China are supposed to stay out of local politics, but how can one expect red-blooded Americans to refrain from promoting human rights? Our 19th century promotion of Protestant Christianity in China made its contribution, and the spirit of proselytism for the American way is still latent in most of us. Experience abroad tends to draw it forth and we almost inevitably find ourselves as Americans announcing to our foreign friends how the individual should have his rights vis-a-vis the state. The Chinese may observe that we in America stand firm for habeas corpus even when we are being mugged in the streets. Their mixture of rights and duties is different from ours.

The best way to approach the new China and its new policies of modernization is with a sense of historical perspective, beginning with perspective on ourselves. But more than that is needed. Why can't American firms working in China conduct their own impact studies to find out what effect they are having, perhaps unintentionally? If they are to make massive material changes, they should be able to afford a sinological capacity to study Chinese society and its problems. We are smart enough now to demand that the whole environmental picture be looked at, when business firms expand their installations in the U.S.A. If this is worth doing at home, why not abroad?

Finally, if we take it upon ourselves to monitor the state of human rights in foreign lands to which we send aid, why should we not with an equal sense of responsibility try to monitor the social and other impacts of our business activities there?

John K. Fairbank is Higginson Professor Emeritus of History.

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