Columbia Forum
Andrew Nathan on China
Building Morningside Heights
The path to The Seven Storey Mountain
Rosalind E. Krauss: Picasso/Pastiche
The artwork of Burton Silverman

Nathan on China
From Totalitarian State to Police State


"The reason I got into China studies is that I knew nothing about it," admits Professor of Political Science Andrew Nathan. His subsequent work not only has remedied that situation but also has made Nathan, author of last year's The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress (co-authored with Robert Ross) and China's Transition, such a potent critic of Chinese human rights abuses that he recently was refused permission by the Chinese government to visit the country. In this excerpt from a session, "China: Threat or Partner?" at Family Weekend on campus in October, Professor Nathan discussed the state of human rights in the Peopleâs Republic of China.

There are quite a few international organizations interested in the human rights issue with China, but probably the two biggest are Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. (By biggest, I mean the amount of trouble they create for China.) I serve as chair of the advisory committee of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, so Iâve been in the thick of that. Some of my writing deals with that....

The real problem lies in civil and political rights.

The trend [on the human rights issue] has been similar to what I have described for some of the other issues. The Chinese government has said: "This is a foreign pressure on us. Itâs interfering with our sovereignty. Weâre not interested in it. We handle these things our own way." Slowly, step by step, through a combination of foreign pressure and internal developments, they have begun to get on board. I think one of the major dynamics there was that after the Tianenmen incident, the human rights issue began to cost them something in their foreign policy. They were sanctioned by the G7, and while those sanctions were pretty light if you look at them from our point of view, from the Chinese point of view they were rather important. 

One of the most important things was that the American president would not meet with the Chinese head of state from 1989 until Clinton met with Jiang Zemin in 1997. They were in the diplomatic doghouse and it mattered to them for various reasons-international and domestic legitimacy reasons. So they got together and said, "What are we going to do about this?" And the advisors said, "Hey, we have a great human rights record. You know, we feed our people, and so on. They are all in our constitution. We donât have to go around with our tail between our legs. Letâs go out and do Madison Avenue about how great our human rights are."

So they re-entered the game of international diplomacy around human rights, and they have played that game very skillfully. Recently, as you know, they signed the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights and then, most recently, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which have yet to be ratified by the National People's Congress. When they ratify them, they'll probably do what many countries do, which is to say "nothing we have signed here contravenes anything we have in our domestic law."

If you look at their domestic law, they have a constitution that gives everybody all these rights, but how is that constitution really implemented? Now we get into the nitty-gritty, which again is a mixed picture. As for social, economic and cultural rights, they have fed, educated and provided work for a vast population. Social, economic and cultural rights generally in the U.N. system are viewed as programmatic rights-you know, things that you're aiming for. And the Chinese certainly are aiming for those things.

There's been a certain amount of backtracking connected with economic reforms. You put people out of work. Your socialist enterprises collapse. You're not providing socialized medical care. Education is compulsory on the books for nine years, but a lot of students don't go. So in many ways, the social, economic and cultural rights situation is worse than it was under Mao. But the whole economy is better. Worsening social and economic rights might be a stage on the road to improved rights, if they can succeed in making a transition. They're certainly trying to build up a modern social welfare system.


The real problem area lies in civil and political rights, which are by and large illusory. The totalitarian system under Mao has disappeared, so there is a widening sphere of privacy, and in the private sphere people even can talk about politics and have opinions. Taxi drivers can grumble to foreigners and stuff like that. But as soon as it becomes any type of a threat to the very tight vision of national security that the government has, the crackdown is there. They have a vast police system. They've basically moved from a totalitarian state to a police state. So that if you want to publish an article criticizing the government, if you want to demand human rights or have a number of people sign a document to demand human rights, or if you want to form a political party, you get arrested.
After you get arrested, the local police have a lot of leeway. They may interrogate you and release you. They may put you into something called labor re-education, which the police can do [by themselves]. It's not a criminal sentence; there's no court trial. Or they can take you to trial, have a rigged trial with a pre-judgment, and send you to jail with a long sentence. All those things have happened to a lot of people. Lately, they've been leaning more toward interrogating people and then letting them go. That's progress, but it's a very insecure type of progress because all the cards are in the hands of the government.
Another area that we often include in the human rights ambit is Tibet, which is only partly a human rights problem-it's also a big political problem. The human rights piece of it is relatively easy for us as human rights activists to identify. That's the part where you throw people in jail for the peaceful exercise of freedom of speech and then beat them up in jail. Those two things clearly violate human rights, and they do them a lot. And the reason they do them is because of their fear that if they don't crack down very hard on the Tibetan independence movement, that movement will gain a certain momentum.
The rest of the Tibet problem is a much bigger area that's really not about human rights, I would say, though some people might disagree. That is the fact that the Chinese government, which predominantly represents people of Chinese ethnicity, has sovereignty (it's recognized by every country) over this big piece of territory that traditionally was occupied by a different ethnic group-the Tibetans. And the Chinese won't give it up. They're keeping that control by military means, essentially. They have, as you know, a garrison there. They're using military force against the will of the local people, as I think pretty much everyone will agree.

And they're engaged in a rapid economic development in the hopes of winning away the loyalty of the local people from the Dalai Lama. They're sending in, or allowing the natural inflow via the economic magnet, a lot of Chinese people into that territory so there's a demographic tipping taking place. We don't consider these issues to be human rights issues. They don't violate any UN document. The Tibetan movement overseas, however, considers a lot of that to be a human rights issue.

No progress really has been made on the whole package of Tibet issues--the human rights piece and the other piece--despite its being of great concern to the outside world. The reason is that the Chinese believe they are holding a winning strategy here. They say, "If we just keep this up, we're going to win. The Dalai Lama is going to pass away." The Chinese have control of the Panchen Lama. In the Tibetan system, the Panchen Lama, who is now a 6, 7, 8-year-old kid the Chinese are educating, gets to pick the next Dalai Lama. So it's a very long-term strategy. But the stakes are tremendous for the Chinese. Just look at the map....China could lose a big hunk of what you now see on the map as China, and it's a very important hunk. No Chinese government will ever willingly give that up.