Don’t give up hope for China’s democrats


CHINA’S TRANSITION, by Andrew Nathan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, 313 pp., $19.50, 13.50 British pounds (paper).

China is like Chernobyl, Andrew Nathan writes. The more you learn about it, the worse it gets.

Nathan, once described in an open letter signed by Chinese scholars, writers and activists as a “lackey of imperialism” who employed “degenerate and dirty methods,” continues his ideological assault on China in this collection of essays.

They are a mix of insightful anecdotes, personalized accounts, treatises on social science methods, carefully crafted survey research and a grocery list of specific changes on how to improve the Chinese system of governance.

Nathan makes no apologies for the thrust of his research — ferreting out the possibility that democracy can take root in China. After all, he cites research that blames 32 million to 60 million deaths on the communist system in China since 1949.

For example, Nathan tests several cultural variables that he and his survey team have isolated as essential for the emergence of a functioning democracy.

One, that citizens believe their government is relevant to their lives; two, that people believe they have the capability to understand and engage in politics; and three, that citizens must be tolerant of differing political viewpoints.

Unfortunately, China fails on all three fronts.

Seventy-two percent of Chinese citizens think both their local and national governments have no effect on their daily lives, about 79 percent of Chinese citizens said they had poor or no understanding of either national or local level politics, and the percentage of Chinese who tolerate the expression of radical political views, such as sympathy for the Gang of Four, in the speaking or publishing arena, was in the teens (10 percent to 17 percent).

It’s no wonder that China cracks down on its dissident intellectuals — the vast majority of its 800 million rural residents (read poorly educated peasant farmers) couldn’t care less what the government does and are intolerant of new political viewpoints.

But Nathan does not give up on China’s chances of becoming a democracy.

He does a good job describing how Taiwan, which shares the same cultural roots, was led by a strong leader, President Chiang Ching-kuo, to lift martial law, legalize opposition parties and free the print media from censorship — “all substantial moves in the direction of democracy.”

Nathan shows convincingly that a party committed to the rule of law and the implementation of democracy can, under the right circumstances, transform itself.

However, many of those circumstances, such as “high per capita income, relatively equitable income distribution, high educational levels, and a high proportion of citizens identifying themselves as members of the middle class,” sadly don’t exist in China.

“Eight hundred million Chinese rural residents live on about half as much arable land as about some 5 million farming Americans,” Nathan writes. “Eighty to 120 million, depending on whose figures you choose, are stuck in poverty that is irremediable unless they move, because their soil, water and transport services are too meager too support them.

“Many workers in the cities are also underemployed or unemployed. The streets are filled with peddlers and bicycle- and shoe repairmen. . . .On the Gate of Heavenly Peace, a soft-drink vending machine is staffed by two young women who take your coins, drop them in the machine and hand you the can. The reformers are like Buster Keaton on the railway tracks: No matter how fast they run, the population keeps gaining on them.”

For those who make it out of grinding poverty, it is clear, business is run on a handshake and “guanxi,” or a reliance on personal connections rather than the rule of law; government, business and criminal activity are one and the same.

“China doesn’t have a Mafia like Russia because in China the Communist Party is the Mafia.”

Nathan lays out a series of proposals for reforming the Chinese system of governance: shrinking the National People’s Congress from its hulking 3,000 to a manageable number to allow debate; reducing the all-encompassing powers of the Communist Party; and invigorating the election process by improving the quality of candidates and having competitive campaigns, among many others.

Nathan suggests releasing political prisoners and allowing the judiciary to be independent of party influence to help improve the status of human-rights in the country.

He says the U.S. should press China to treat its citizens in a way that conforms with international rights agreements, rather than having the U.S. imposing its moral views on China.

“China today understands the U.S. human-rights policy as one of hostility, restriction, containment and punishment. The policy should instead be articulated in a way that conveys that the U.S. accepts China’s legitimate security and other needs but wants China to play by the international rules.”

Nathan’s suggestions and the diligent research he has undertaken to determine whether they will take root provide valuable insights into the current workings of China and some of its devastating past.

Despite his optimism, however, he clearly shows that China is very far from attaining democracy, and that it flouts the standard of human rights he espouses.