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  • Will China Democratize? ed. by Andrew J. Nathan, Larry Diamond, and Marc F. Plattner
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Andrew J. Nathan, Larry Diamond, and Marc F. Plattner, editors. Will China Democratize? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. xx, 311 pp. Paperback $26.96, isbn 978-1-4214-1243-6.

A professor of political science at Columbia University, Andrew J. Nathan is keen on the tenacity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to survive and stay in power, by its selective responses to the demands of certain sectors of Chinese populace and expedient reforms and relatively democratic ways within the government—all are, to him, indications of the authoritarian resiliency of the CCP. A senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, Larry Diamond sees the countries of the world as heading increasingly in recent decades toward democratic ways as if such a trend is inevitable (but also unpredictable). His yardstick for measuring democracy, however, is primarily one of national election, Western-style, while China “remains one of the very few countries in the world today that does not even pretend to choose its leaders by popular election” (p. xi). The vice president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Marc F. Plattner represents an organization whose definition of democracy is much more stringent in its demands with criteria of democratic inclusivity (as shown in a short essay by its funding officer, Louisa Greve, cited below).

Will China Democratize begins with a composite introduction to the topic by all three editors (Nathan, Diamond, and Plattner), followed by thirty articles by [End Page 145] both Chinese and Western authors carefully selected from the Journal of Democracy (coedited by Diamond and Plattner). These were published in recent decades from the journal’s inception in 1990 to 2013. Among them, three are by editor Nathan and one by Greve, who managed NED’s China grants program for fifteen years. Richard Madsen (“The Upsurge of Religion in China”) is the only sociologist. He underscores the independent and uncontrollable nature of religion, especially those beliefs outside the purview of the five official religions in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, he notes the strong control in China of all organized activities, which includes religion, particularly Christianity. The latter has the option only to follow the directives set by the Communist Party, while trying to carve out space for its own authentic Roman Catholic and Protestant selfhood amid overbearing constraints. The epilogue includes two articles by 2011 Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo posted on a Chinese website in 2006 and translated in the Journal of Democracy in January 2011. Liu was the principal drafter of “Charter 08,” patterned after Czechoslovakia’s “Charter 77,” calling for democracy and respect for human rights. “Charter 08” resulted in Liu’s imprisonment and eventual exile from China.

With so many different and conditional views on the prospects for democracy in China, there is little agreement, but there are significant areas of overlap between them. They all anticipate the need and inevitability of change in the political system of the People’s Republic. Because of the manifold contingent forces both within and outside of China, they cannot be certain as to when and how change will come about. However, it is possible to group several of the articles as falling into the general realm of Nathan’s authoritarian resiliency, which has the longevity of an indefinite future. The other grouping can be understood according to Diamond’s world trend toward democracy. If we do not limit democracy to only the official election of leaders on the national level and as the main criterion, then we can accept the fact that democracy can have many different forms.

Minxin Pei (pp. 99–113) admittedly “sides with the skeptics in rejecting authoritarian resilience” by accepting the classical view that autocracies, by the very nature of having absolute power and unchallenged privileges with no checks and balances, inevitably lead to looting and corruption. With uncontested power, members of the ruling party behave in a ruthless manner that results in sowing the seeds of their own destruction. This is despite the...


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