Dr. Andrew Nathan has been a professor of political science since 1971. He became one of the first Western scholars to study Chinese politics at a time when the West had virtually no information about the “Middle Kingdom.” Philip Hsu sat down with Dr. Nathan to discuss China's recent history and what is expected from U.S.-China relations under Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.  

As China gradually opened up to the world following Mao Zedong’s death, Dr. Andrew Nathan’s scholarship on Chinese political participation and human rights gained prominence. His book, Chinese Democracy, published in 1985, profiled Chinese conceptions of democracy more broadly and the Chinese grassroots democracy movements during the late 1970s. In 2001, he co-edited The Tiananmen Papers, a series of anonymous insider accounts and documents detailing the Chinese Communist Party’s suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989.

As a result of his contributions to The Papers, Dr. Nathan was banned from travelling to China in 2001. Undeterred, the Chinese regime’s (in)security remains the centerpiece of his scholarship. His most recent work, China’s Search for Security co-authored with Andrew Scobell, was published in 2012. Dr. Nathan is a board member of Human Rights in China and a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch, Asia, which he previously chaired. He also chairs the steering committee of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

This interview has been edited for content and length.

How did you first start pursuing China studies?

People didn’t really study China in the 1960s. While an undergraduate at Harvard in September of 1960 I decided that, being at Harvard, I should take a more unusual class. So I enrolled in an East Asian History class. I loved that course, and that’s how it all began.

Is that when you decided to become a professor?

I didn’t really make a rational, considered decision to pursue a career as a professor in this field. I kind of just followed the advice of my advisors. After declaring a major in Chinese history, I won a Harvard fellowship to study in Hong Kong. Back then there was no internet or means of researching what next steps I should take. So I returned to Harvard to pursue a master’s program studying Chinese policy since my advisors said there were already enough people studying Chinese history.

And the rest is history?

It worked out well for me, but I always tell students not to act like me [laughs]. Think about what you’re doing rather than always putting one foot ahead of the other.

What I mean by that is my situation worked out well for me through luck rather than through planning. But when I see the experience of many others, I observe that luck is not always going to be so favorable. It is better to think seriously about the career one prefers, and plan for it instead of moving ahead blindly and just hoping things will work out.

On the topic of Chinese democracy, the title of your 1985 book, was there a serious belief that China would democratize after Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping began opening the Chinese economy in the late 1970s?

I seemed to remember that China watchers were quite surprised by the brief pro-democracy movements of Deng’s early reform era, known as the Democracy Wall movement. We had substantial belief that the Maoist model provided good lessons for modernizing countries to learn from, especially during a time of a governability crisis for democracies, not the least in the United States due to the effects of the war in Vietnam. But as Deng’s reforms continued, we did come to believe that economic reform and market economics could lead to modernization, urbanization and education that would give rise to democracy in China.

And the events at Tiananmen in 1989 dashed those hopes?

At first, the protests were seen as a vindication of Western views that the Chinese demanded democracy and that the crackdowns would spell the end of the Chinese Communist regime as a bankrupt ideology. This belief was compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Soviet Union itself during this time. But the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP, proved to be resilient. Deng issued an ultimatum that demanded growth and reform with the motto “fazhan caishi yingdaoli” (development is the only hard principle), and the Chinese economy began to rebound from 1992 forward.

By 2003, I’m swimming at the Y and realize it’s 2003 and China’s still there! I wrote an article on this topic in the Journal of Democracy titled, “Resilient Authoritarianism,” that became quite famous. Leadership and succession planning showed that the CCP wasn’t going anywhere. It became a puzzle whether China would democratize or how the authoritarian regime was surviving even though our theories said it shouldn’t.

There is the idea that Hong Kong and Taiwan are the last bastions of Chinese democracy. In response, Beijing conducts disinformation campaigns against them seeking to undermine civil society, political rivals, and dissention against the CCP.

The People’s Republic of China conducts disinformation campaigns not only in Hong Kong and Taiwan but also in Australia and the United States, where it supports overseas Chinese interest groups to advance the CCP’s political agenda.

What is China’s goal in these campaigns?

My argument is that China treats these places along a continuum from Hong Kong, which is China’s own territory, to America, a sovereign nation, from a defensive standpoint. What they care about is defending the regime against loss of face, organized political challenges, insults, or perceptions that the People’s Republic of China is weak in its territorial claims. They are not trying to export a Chinese political model abroad like they have in the past with Maoism.

What challenges do China’s “regime defense” campaigns face?

The CCP believes people respond to economic incentives and uses economic levers to drive their policy, but they have a weak understanding of the value of identity to people. I find this to be paradoxical given the strong role of identity in Chinese nationalism as promoted by the Communist Party.

The CCP have become materialists and believe people will behave rationally. If Beijing can make Tibetans or Uighurs in Muslim-majority Xinjiang province rich, why should they give a damn about superstitions such as Tibetan Buddhism or Islam? Hong Kong identity or Taiwan identity are worthless compared with how much China can enrich you economically. You can have your stupid-ass academic freedom in Australia and the U.S., just don’t talk about Tiananmen and Tibet.

This approach isn’t working too well because the CCP doesn’t really understand what motivates the other side.

What impact does this have on U.S.-China relations?

It’s so hard under Trump to really understand what’s going on. I would characterize it as a mix of cooperation, competition and conflict―the three C’s. I have an article in the current New York Review of Books where I write that the two really red line issues in the relationship are the strategic clash over military influence in the South China Sea and Taiwan and Chinese intervention in freedom of speech and academic freedom in the West.

I don’t see a big risk of war between the U.S. and China, which is a pretty good relationship for two major powers. The relationship has been dominated by a clear sense of national interest on both sides, but it’s definitely a mixed relationship.

Until Trump came along… Well, the relationship will probably fundamentally stay the same since there is a lot of gravity in the issues that Trump can’t just change with his stupid rhetoric.

If he wants to launch a trade war with China or nuke North Korea, that would, of course, alter the course of U.S.-China relations significantly.

Despite oppression by President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party, human rights advocates and lawyers organize to uphold the rule of law, the Chinese constitution, and personal freedoms in China. Why is the Chinese government so sensitive to issues of human rights?

I think it goes back to the Tiananmen moment in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which gave the Chinese Communist Party leadership a sense of defensiveness. They feel that they’re surrounded by enemies, both internally and externally, as they attempt to lead multiple segments of society towards their vision of China’s future.

Now, the human rights or weiquan lawyers don’t believe in communism and don’t believe in party dictatorship, yet claim to believe in the law of China and the constitution of China. From a party leader’s standpoint, they “know damn well” activist lawyers are “just saying that,” when they’re really trying to overthrow party rule.

The Party is trying to develop China. But at every turn, human rights lawyers are filing suits against the discrimination of Hepatitis B patients by banks [and] against the construction of railroads and chemical factories, activities crucial in the view of the Party to China’s development. In the Party’s view, human rights lawyers are just trying to open up a crack to overthrow the system that depends on keeping the lid on a crazy, turbulent country of more than 1.4 billion people impatient for more material wealth.