04 January 2010

Article: Andrew Nathan on China and democracy

In 2008, Brookings Institution Press published "China's Changing Political Landscape: Prospects for Democracy", edited by Cheng Li:


From the publisher's description: "While China's economic rise is being watched closely around the world, the country's changing political landscape is intriguing as well. Forces unleashed by market reforms are profoundly recasting state-society relations. Will the Middle Kingdom transition to political democracy rapidly, slowly, or not at all? In China's Changing Political Landscape, leading experts examine the prospects for democracy in the world's most populous nation."

Among the most interesting contributions to this volume is Andrew J. Nathan's chapter titled "China's Political Trajectory: What Are the Chinese Saying?" (pp. 25-43).

The book is fully searchable on Google Book Search (including list of contributors and table of contents). This link will take you directly to Nathan's chapter:


Having studied what leading intellectuals and political actors in China publicly and in private say about democracy, Nathan finds that
"[s]imilar-sounding ideas may mean different things in different institutional and intellectual contexts. [...] Persons of influence in China who call for democracy are not advocating competitive elections for top posts. The governance reforms under way or proposed for the future aim to make the authoritarian system more fair, more effective, and more – not less – sustainable. [...]

"Many believe that systems based on political competition foster division and reward selfishness. [...] Whatever one calls this set of beliefs, their implication [...] is that the Chinese actors who currently hold influence are not likely intentionally to steer their system toward what most in the West call democracy, for the simple reason that most of them do not believe in it."

Whatever may happen in the future for any number of internal or external reasons, "[w]hat is knowable is that for the time being the wind in China blows but weakly in the sails of the democratic idea."

Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.

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