Andrew Nathan on important trends in China

Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. His teaching and research interests include Chinese politics and foreign policy, the comparative study of political participation and political culture, and human rights. He is engaged in long-term research and writing on Chinese foreign policy and on sources of political legitimacy in Asia, the latter research based on data from the Asian Barometer Survey, a multi-national collaborative survey research project active in eighteen countries in Asia.

Nathan is chair of the steering committee of the Center for the Study of Human Rights and chair of the Morningside Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Columbia. He served as chair of the Department of Political Science, 2003-2006, chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 2002-2003, and director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, 1991-1995. Off campus, he is co-chair of the board, Human Rights in China, a member of the board of Freedom House, and a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch, Asia, which he chaired, 1995-2000. He is the regular Asia book reviewer for Foreign Affairs magazine and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Contemporary China, China Information, and others. He is a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, the Association for Asian Studies, and the American Political Science Association. He does frequent interviews for the print and electronic media, has advised on several film documentaries on China, and has consulted for business and government. 

Nathan received his education wholly from Harvard University: a BA in History, an MA in East Asian Regional Studies, and a PhD in Political Science. On October 7, 2016, he spoke with Chuyi Sheng CMC ’17.

Photograph and bio courtesy of Professor Andrew Nathan and Columbia University's Department of Political Science:

Many countries in the world have severe violations of human rights and the United States itself is also facing many human rights challenges. However, human rights issues in China are more frequently brought up and more widely criticized. What do you think about this phenomenon? 

Why is China criticized more than some other governments? Of course China is not criticized by everybody in the world. It is criticized by the US, the European Union, civil society groups and human rights movements, but not criticized by a lot of third-world countries, which are more likely to criticize the US instead. If you take the whole global pattern of human rights discourse, you might find that the US is often criticized and some other governments like Sudan or North Korean are criticized even more than China. However, I agree that human rights are a big and persistent issue between China and the West. There are several reasons why China gets more attention than the rest of Asia. First of all, China is extremely big and very strategically important in the world and what happens in China matters a lot to the global security vision of the West. Second, China’s human rights violations are quite severe, considering the level of the development of the country and its political stability. China has made a lot of progress in the category of economic, social and cultural rights, like health, employment and education. And China has made progress in holding people equal before the law, like non-discrimination and women’s equality. But at the same time, the country has very bad human rights practices surrounding political dissent and minority issues, like arbitrary governance in Tibet and Xinjiang.

In your opinion, to what extent is human rights a moral imperative, and to what extent is human rights a diplomatic tool or even a political weapon for governments?

Human rights are both, as a matter of fact. There is also an international law aspect of human rights.
First, these rights are a moral imperative that is recognized by most Chinese people when you speak about such rights as the right to social security, health, individual personal freedom, and not to be tortured and enslaved. However, throughout history these rights were not always recognized as moral imperatives, and torture and slavery were once common practices. Moral thinking changes and evolves. These rights have now become a global moral consensus. 

Second, human rights are a matter of the international law, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Convention against Torture, and the Convention against Genocide. China has signed a lot of these treaties and accepts the UDHR as customary international law, so China should comply with them. 
Third, human rights are a political weapon that is used by the West against China and China against the West. They enter a political battlefield in the Human Rights Council in Geneva and in public opinion around the world. 

Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and China argue that the universal human rights are the creation of Western countries for their own interests. The Chinese government emphasizes that human rights issues are domestic problems and should be decided by the government, not the outside world. At the same time, human rights are culturally relative concepts and they are not an international norm. What do you think about the fundamental difference in these two understandings of human rights?  

There are three aspects of the question: one is about history, the next about law, and the third about culture.

First, historically, it is true that universal concept of human rights was the creation of Western countries. The concept emerged in the form that we know today with the UDHR in 1948. The idea was largely created by the US, which came out of World War II as a dominant power, to prevent future atrocities like the Holocaust. These Western countries saw human rights as a broad strategic vision for a more stable and peaceful world going forward. The concept emerged from a long history of Western ideas like natural law, constitutions, the anti-slavery movement, and the woman suffrage movement. These ideas formed over hundreds of years of Western history and finally came to be the idea of human rights in 1948. 

However, once the international regime of human rights was created, it quickly ceased to be only Western. Many countries around the world have recognized the UDHR as customary internal law and have signed and acceded to many human rights treaties. China participates and so do Malaysia and Singapore. China contributes to human rights dialogues and has a chapter of its constitution on citizen rights, which are very similar to human rights. The Chinese even have one article in their constitution stating that China respects human rights. 

Second, human rights are part of international law. As international law, human rights laws do not violate sovereignty but are created by sovereign states. The fact that China signs a human rights treaty means the country is exercising its sovereignty. At the same time, the treaty represents a limitation on sovereignty. Any treaty that a country signs, whether it is trade or disarmament or on another topic, represents a voluntary agreement by a state to limit its future actions in exchange for similar limits undertaken by other states that sign the treaty. However, the treaties for human rights are rather vague. For example, they will say citizens have freedom of speech, but what exactly is freedom of speech, freedom of religion, slavery or torture? The terms in those treaties are not clearly defined. In reality, theses treaties do have certain definitions because there are UN Treaty Bodies and the European Court of Human Rights and other international bodies that specify what these terms mean. Even so, a government can say that it respects this or that human right, but that it interprets and implements that right in its own way. It is also true that international human rights law allows states to criticize one another for human rights violations. So the relationship between human rights law and sovereignty is complicated. But bottom line, it is not true to say that nobody outside China has a right to concern themselves with human rights inside China. Other countries do have the right to do so. 

As to the cultural aspect, most rights have become widely accepted among cultures, such as the rights not to be tortured or enslaved. It is true, however, that some other rights are understood differently in different cultures. An example of a right that is understood very differently in different societies is freedom of religion. As you know, the right to freedom of religion is extreme in the US. Anybody can call any system of belief a religion.  In China, the idea is five official religions. France has the concept of secularism. In Britain and Israel, there are official state religions. In Iran, freedom of religion is considered compatible with theocracy. Iran officially tolerates certain religious minorities, like the Jews, but not other minorities, like the Baha’i. So there are cultural differences in understanding and applying human rights, but at the same time these rights are also an international norm. 

In one of your interviews, you commented that “China in general plays a negative role [in promoting the international human rights norm.]” Can you elaborate on the statement? 

China has joined a lot of treaties. It is active in the Human Rights Council. It has promoted a lot of economic and social rights at home. Those are good things. 
What I mean by saying that China plays a negative role is that China is not interested in the further development of a human rights regime. Chinese diplomats are cautious and try to narrow down the scope of action of human rights institutions. They make sure that the human rights dialogues China conducts with some other countries are confidential. I would like to see a stronger and expanding human rights system. However, China likes to slow down the development of the human rights regime.  

Many political scientists believe that the collapse of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is inevitable and China will soon become a democratic country. However, the Party is still in power today and firmly controls 1.4 billion people. You published an article entitled “Authoritarian Resilience” and discussed the future of the authoritarian regime. Considering the slowing economy and increasing social discontent, what is your opinion on the future of the Party and China now?

Many political scientists predict that the CCP is going to collapse, because Chinese people are under so much strain and stress. The country went through the Cultural Revolution. A lot of people suffered and became ideologically confused. Under Deng Xiaoping, China experienced incredible modernization and people’s lives changed so much and so fast. Though the change is generally a good thing, the new experiences are confusing and disruptive. Cities become bigger and more crowded; lives get more stressful; peasants’ land is taken; there are environmental pollution and food safety problems. The social stresses are now further intensified by the slowing economy. For example, some people don’t have enough pension support and face high health cost. The migrant workers complain about salaries and lack of access to social security. 

However, I’m among those who still perceive the regime as being able to survive at least for some time. When I published “Authoritarian Resilience” in 2003, I thought it was remarkable that the regime had not collapsed in 1989. Thirteen years later, I still see a similarly resilient system. I have talked to a lot of Chinese people. They say they are fed up with the government but do not plan to do anything about it. I don’t know when, but some crisis will take place that will cause either the regime to dissolve from the top down or discontented elements in the society to break out like in 1989. Think about how East Germany collapsed all of a sudden. The timing is unpredictable, but the event happens sooner or later. However, at this point I do not see imminent signs of such a crisis despite all the social stress and dissatisfaction.

In your article “The Puzzle of the Chinese Middle Class,” you explain several factors that prevent the middle class from actively promoting democracy. Can you summarize these viewpoints?

I proposed four factors that prevent the Chinese middle class from actively promoting democracy. 

First, the middle class is a new social formation in China. Most members are first generation middle class persons. They spend a lot of their time learning how to be a member of the middle class. It takes several generations for a person to know fully the self-respect and sense of rights associated with being a middle class person. 
Second, the middle class in China is a minority, with only about 23 percent of the Chinese population. In the West, members of the middle class constitute the majority and they feel that they are the mainstream. In China, the middle class feel that they are the elite of the society and are surrounded or even threatened by people below them who are jealous of their social position. They look to the political stability of the regime to protect their own interests. 

Third, most middle class are dependent on the government. Either they are civil servants or they work in public institutions like a university, hospital, symphony orchestra or museum belonged to the government. Even if people work for private enterprises, these companies still need to maintain good relationships with the government to succeed. 
Fourth, the Chinese middle class are not allowed to develop a robust civil society life. There are some civil society groups, but they are not allowed to spread beyond the local level. The government supervises these organizations closely.

Due to the four reasons listed above, members of the Chinese middle class are absorbed in their own lives and are not very political. Moreover, the middle class is risk averse and familial responsibilities keep these people away from politics. 

Growing social resistance and demonstrations have forced the Chinese government to devote more resources to maintaining stability. In your opinion, what are the sources of these protests and turmoil? Are they caused by economic concerns and challenges (like environmental pollution) or inherited institutional problems of the CCP (like the lack of the rule of law)?

The social turmoil in China has its deep historical roots in rapid development and the disruption of people’s norms, expectations and faith in the system. Even when change produces benefits, it also produces a sense of confusion and rootlessness. And not all change is beneficial. The rapid pace of economic growth has produced a lot of problems like environment pollution and consumer product safety concerns. People are looking for improvement and finding channels to discuss their issues. Then they face the lack of rule of law. Sometimes people can go to court or complain to local newspapers. However, these channels seldom work for citizens because the CCP, particularly the local party secretaries, interfere in the process. The petition system called Shang fang also does not work well. People cannot express their demands through competitive elections. Since most channels to express personal demands are blocked by the government, it is tempting for people to demonstrate. 

The government has a huge propaganda apparatus and it promulgates nationalism. When it comes to the formal ideology of “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought, the Harmonious Society and the China Dream,” people don’t believe in those ideas. Consequently, people are looking for other belief systems like Buddhism, Christianity, Falun Gong, Western Liberalism, new authoritarianism or the revival of Confucianism. In view of social dissatisfaction and ideological confusion, the government is afraid of instability, surveils the whole society to prevent anything from happening, and devotes increasing amount of resources to “stability maintenance.” 

Scholars observe that President Xi has revived some aspects of Mao’s era, like nationalism, to legitimize the rule of the Party. Though he clearly does not want permanent class struggle and mass mobilization, to what extent might Xi’s Maoist tendencies endanger Chinese stability?

I disagree that Xi will launch a really authentic Maoist transformation from the top down. He respects Mao as a great leader who accomplished many things despite making some mistakes, and who had the right vision for Chinese greatness. Xi wants to use the image of Mao Zedong as a part of his propaganda strategy for pride in China and for the theory that Chinese people should have an authoritarian government that can perform well. Though Xi is using Mao’s image to legitimize his own rule, he does not believe in the extreme elements of Maoism like class struggle and the planned economy. Xi is a modernizer in essence, who believes in science, technology and finance. 

It is true that Xi wants to reduce inequality in order to reduce social dissatisfaction, but he does not want the kind of extreme inequality that China had in Mao’s era. This policy thrust is not new with Xi. The preceding Hu and Wen leadership had policies like cancelling the grain tax, increasing mandatory education to nine years, and creating a retirement system and national health insurance system that were all supposed to help reduce inequality. The government is trying to create a modernized social welfare system, which is a complicated and time-consuming process. I would not call these policies Maoism but socialism, similar to the practices of countries like Sweden. Such policies do not endanger the stability of the Chinese society. I would not call them extremism, but gradualism.

Chuyi Sheng CMC ’17Student Journalist
Featured Image Source: “Cyclists heading to the office, westbound in front of the Forbidden City, Beijing. The slogans on Tiananmen (‘Long live the People's Republic of China" and "Long live the unity of the people of the world’) are written in Simplified Chinese from left to right.” by Peter Morgan from Beijing, China — Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons —
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