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Chinese Democracy by Andrew J. Nathan (Knopf: $22.95; 336 pp.)

October 06, 1985|Jay Mathews | Mathews, former Peking correspondent of the Washington Post, is co-author of "One Billion: A China Chronicle." and

Good cultural relativists that we are, American reporters and scholars have usually skirted the question of democracy in China. Who are we to say our political system has any relevance in a dirt-poor land of 1 billion people?

We write of political prisoners and harsh justice in Peking but try to place it in historical context. The emperors were usually rough on free thinkers. Peasants in Guizhou have little knowledge of or interest in the Magna Charta. Chinese advocates of truly free elections have always been a fringe group, no more influential than the Communist Party is in the United States.

Nonetheless, Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University professor and one of the best of the new generation of China scholars, plunges into these deep and dangerous waters and emerges with unexpected treasure. In the process, this thoughtful and original book reveals how intriguing and moving his topic can be to an American reader, once rid of the need to apologize for the wealth and luck that have brought us a free press, an independent judiciary and a stable two-party system.

I believe we have the best political system on earth. I also believe there are no better people than the Chinese--energetic, family loving, considerate. But can the one be applied to the other?

The history of China since the last days of the Qing dynasty a century ago frustrates the student looking for a theme, a star to guide on. There is too much going on--foreign invasion, political upheaval, technological transformation, cultural ferment. Nathan tells the story from just one angle, the Chinese flirtation with the principles of Western thought best summarized in the American Bill of Rights. This makes the story much clearer.

He goes to great lengths to be fair to those Chinese who think their current political system has merit, to the point of saying in his introduction that China "is widely viewed as a model of democracy." A United Nations diplomat might be able to twist the word that much without blushing, but the notion renders democracy almost meaningless. Nathan fortunately wastes little time defending this sort of double think, which lets even East Germans and North Koreans claim democracy as their own.

Instead, we are treated to a deft lesson in recent history, including some remarkable illumination of the ill-fated "democracy movement" of 1978 to 1979. Nathan strips away the slogans the Chinese have used to cloud the issue and leaves us a bare, but vaguely hopeful truth: From the brilliant turn of the century writer-politician Liang Qichao to the now imprisoned worker-editor Xu Wenli, a small core of Chinese have argued that democracy might work, even under the Communists, if given two essential tools--competitive elections and an independent press.

That they have gotten neither may in part be their fault. Nathan says in an inspired final chapter on "China and Western Values": "Confucius once said, 'Is virtue a thing remote? If I desire to be virtuous, virtue will be at hand.' To the democrats, pluralist reform was similarly a matter of making up one's mind as to its desirability, and so they concentrated on demonstrating the benefits of their proposed reforms, as if this were all that was needed to make the case for adopting them. By default, they left the task of evaluating their ideas' practicality to those who feared . . . that society was still too backward to allow the people to hold real power."

Having inherited a well-founded horror of disorder, deprived of the several centuries of trial and error in power-sharing with which Western Europe had been blessed, burdened by a language that stymied mass education, the Chinese came into this century ill-prepared for the friendly, informed competition that made the Western systems work, but some of their best minds, Nathan shows, got the idea and spread it.

His account of the way Chinese embraced the independent, if beleaguered, press of the early 20th Century punctures the old argument that the Chinese just don't want such an American luxury. One writer compares the 1896 publication of Liang's journal "News of the Times" to "the explosion of a large bomb, which woke many people from their dreams." By describing the small reforms of the post-Mao era in exhaustive detail, Nathan inspires hopes that bits of democratic practice--electing shop foremen, for instance--may gradually wear away the old Chinese fear of competition and checks on central power. Even the party-controlled press, a depressing institution to all but the dreamiest optimists, does allow some investigative reporting and has given a majority of Chinese the habit of looking for concrete proof of government claims.

Nathan's fascinating interviews with recent Chinese emigrants, analyzing their reactions to their own press and gauging the breadth of their information, suggests the raw material for a more democratic society is there. Those who hold to the dreams of Liang and Xu are very quiet now, but Nathan's book shows that they are there, and for the moment that is enough.

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