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  • Chinese Culture and Democracy
  • Edward Friedman (bio)
China’s Transition. By Andrew Nathan. Columbia University Press, 1998. 313 pp.

For a quarter of a century or more, Andrew Nathan’s research has centered on China’s capacity to democratize. His 1976 book Peking Politics investigated the aftermath of the 1911 revolution against the monarchy, asking whether Chinese culture made for a kind of nepotistic factionalism that ruins democratic breakthroughs. His work on Chinese factionalism led Nathan into an extensive and illuminating dialogue with the University of Chicago’s Tang Tsou on the nature and consequences of factionalism in China.

In 1985, Nathan made a huge leap in his research on democratization efforts in China, publishing Chinese Democracy, a study that analyzed the positivist nature of Chinese constitutionalism since 1898. Nathan went beyond careful textual analysis, utilizing interview data and concluding that China’s ‘obsession with political order and national strength’ had blocked democratic mobilization since constitutional reforms began in 1898. His focus increasingly was on political crafting, even as he kept mulling over the conundrums of cultural facilitation.

Equally important, Professor Nathan became involved with Chinese who promoted democracy and human rights. He has continually given his time and energy to that cause, helping with journals and conferences and building a welcoming haven at Columbia University for Chinese interested in studying constitutional law and peaceful change.

Following the bloody suppression of China’s great nationwide democracy movement in the spring of 1989, Nathan’s book China’s Crisis (1990) probed what its subtitle called ‘Dilemmas of Reform and Prospects for Democracy.’ By this time, Nathan’s work was enriched by deep personal acquaintance with leaders of the effort to promote peaceful democratic progress in China. He also found a brilliant [End Page 170] collaborator, Yangsun Chou, with whom he studied the democratization taking place on Taiwan. Nathan’s reach became broader, his grasp surer. He wrote lucidly and powerfully, addressing questions of general interest to all concerned with the global fate of democracy. He was no longer just a China specialist. He had become a leader in the field, one of the very few senior specialists in command not only of the dramatic details of political vicissitudes on both sides of the Taiwan Strait but also of the powerful theoretical literature on democratic transitions.

Nathan saw democratization on Taiwan as putting to rest the debate over whether Confucian cultures can democratize. Actually, democ-ratization in the Republic of Korea even more persuasively negates the claim that Confucian culture blocks democratization, for Confucianism is far more awesome, orthodox, hierarchical, and patriarchal in democratic Korea than on the mainland of an undemocratic China. In any case, one might have thought that Japan’s stable democracy, rooted in the fledgling democratic achievement of its Taisho era, would have made the claim that Confucian culture blocks democratization unsustainable from the outset.

By 1990, Nathan seemed optimistic that China would democratize. He took on the then popular view of Chinese intellectuals who, disheartened by failed democratic openings in 1898, 1911, 1919, 1946, 1978, and 1989, concluded that Chinese culture blocked democratization. Nathan believed that unless ruling groups made an opening to democracy, stability and economic success would not be likely. Democratization seemed a project soon to find a place on China’s political agenda.

China’s Transition, which contains chapters coauthored by Tianjian Shi and Helena V.S. Ho, respectively, offers new data and analysis about how China’s successful economic rise affects its prospects for democracy. Nathan is more certain than ever that Chinese culture is compatible with democratization, as proven by its peaceful achievements on Taiwan. While most commentators might dismiss Nathan’s doubts about the success of Chinese economic reform after 20 years of the world’s fastest growth, I think that he is on solid ground. The process of shucking off Leninist trammels is a prolonged and difficult one; only in the last year, prodded by Asian financial turmoil, has Beijing begun to confront such vital matters as a virtually bankrupt banking system and an increasingly money-losing and burdensome state-owned sector. Beijing may ultimately succeed in its economic reforms, but not without confronting serious problems such as these.


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pp. 170-172
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