Tocqueville and China's political predicament

By He Qinglian in December 2012.

[Partially abridged translation].

To this day, China's politics is still determined by those at the high level. The hobbies and interests of those people, including the books they read, therefore, become wind vanes that people use to guess what would happen next in politics. Wang Qishan's recommendation that people read L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution), a classic book on the French Revolution by the 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, has helped make it a bestseller.

Why did Wang Qishan make that recommendation?

Wang's recommendation wasn't just made recently. A few years ago there were already words that he recommended officials to read the book.

So, what was said in Tocqueville's book? Only when this is understood could we truly appreciate the real intention Wang has in making this recommendation.

About Tocqueville

Tocqueville published his book in 1856, only 67 years from the French Revolution that broke out in 1789. Born to an aristocratic family in 1805, Alexis de Tocqueville had a lifespan of 55 years that stretched across the First Empire, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, the Second Republic, and the Second Empire. These were the most turbulent times in the history of France, and Tocqueville once participate enthusiastically in various political activities and took up positions in the government right till 1851. After Louis Bonaparte founded the Second Empire, Tocqueville became increasingly disappointed with politics and gradually came to see himself as being more adept at thinking than taking actions. He began to settle down and write.

Of his works, Democracy in America is far widely known than The Old Regime and the Revolution. Were it not for the fear of a violent revolution that the upper class in Chinese politics and the middle class generally share, the book might not be drawing attention.

In The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville examined the causes and consequences of the French Revolution. He pointed out that the old feudal system collapsed because it was corrupt and unpopular; social unrest did not, however, bring about the results the Revolutionists expected. Whether it was the rulers or the people, they were all eventually consumed by the rage they harbored toward one another. Based on the analysis, Tocqueville came up first with a viewpoint—the Tocqueville Proposition—that in the process of economic development and democratization, the faster the economy develops, the more social conflicts would emerge. 

Tocqueville's discovery and the "Tocqueville Law"

After some comparative studies, Tocqueville discovered a paradoxical phenomenon—
There is one thing that looks surprising: the specific purpose of the Revolution is to wipe out everywhere system that is the remains of the medieval times. However, revolution did not break out at places where people suffered the most from the regime. On the contrary, it broke out at places where people suffered the least.
There are people who read the book and came up with a summary, a “Tocqueville law”, that the most dangerous time for a bad regime is not when it is most evil, but is when it begins to reform.

Wang's intentions

Wang recommended this book for years out of two purposes. First, he meant to remind those intellectuals who call for democratization that things might not turn out as they wish: what comes after the collapse of the Communist Party might not necessarily be democracy and order; instead, a more probable situation would be like that of the French Revolution, the country get trapped in the quagmire of populism; the purge of the rich and elites becomes the norm; the democratization that everyone yearns for could be just a repeat of the guillotine politics.

Second, he meant to warn the ruling clique that, according to the Tocqueville Law, reform might not be fun, “the most dangerous time for a bad regime is not when it is most evil, but is when it begins to reform”, the so-called “reform” is no different from seeking death. Those propositions of granting amnesty to corrupted officials to buy their support of democracy are presented to fool the people. We ourselves must not fall for it.

Of the seven new Politburo Standing Committee members, Wang is one who loves to read and think, and even he is taking this Tocqueville Law seriously. From this we could guess that for the next five (or even ten) years, China's political direction would be maintaining the status quo, making minor repairs here and there, insisting not to go back to the old path (Mao's path) or walk down the evil path (democratization).

Today's China and France before the Revolution

Is Wang Qishan giving alarmist talks about the French Revolution to scare the people? Not really so.

Let's begin with the economy. On the eve of the French Revolution, there was a continued population growth, a rapid increase of wealth, and the country appeared to be in a boom. Surprisingly, at that time there was already real-property frenzy, and a French commentator wrote:

The land is always sold at a price that exceeds its value because everyone is keen to own a property. In France, all savings of the bottom of society—whether lent to others or invested in provident funds—are used to acquire land.

Think about China's economy now and you'd see how strikingly similar it is to the French economy back then.

At that time there were a great many social issues in France. Nonetheless, the country's prosperity was not affected. Tocqueville figured that there were two simple and yet very powerful forces at work to bring about that prosperity. First, it was the government that remained strong, maintaining order and stopped its dictatorial rule. Second, everyone was able to make a fortune as he wish.

At the same time, though, the people were feeling more perplexed. The public discontent grew, their hatred for all the old rules mounted.

Although the king still spoke as the master, he was in fact being guided by the public opinion, from which he kept making consultation. This phenomenon exists too in China today, gauging public opinion on Weibo is one of the examples. Unlike France, though, the Chinese government spent huge amount of money and manpower in a bid to rein in the public opinion, which is likened to a horse that has grown increasingly boisterous.

Tocqueville discovered that, in country that lacked liberal political system, the common people suffered the various downsides of the system and could not see any remedy to society. These people, therefore, had a high tendency to form an “either this or that” mindset: “either we put up with it all, or we destroy it all.”

The reason they had this characteristic could be attributed to the “abstract literary politics” of the Age of Reason. France did not have political freedom, the writers who studied the ways to govern a country and those who actually ruled formed two distinct groups. The writers did not have the experience and yet they were good at making statements.

The love of general theories might be a virtue for literati, but it was a disaster for politicians. There is similarity with the current state of China. Intellectuals, left or right alike, seldom think about the concrete issue of path dependence when they contemplate the future political blueprint. The general public of China today cannot be more different from that of France in the late 18th century. After decades of “revolutionary education” of the CPC, the thoughts that “exploitation is crime”, “rebellion is right” and that “the equality of results is a natural right” have been ingrained in the bottom of society of China.

It can thus be said that Wang is well-intentioned to recommend this book.

Whatever will come, will come

But the Chinese government, including its bureaucracy, simply owe the people too much and has never thought to repay, not even in installments. With widespread discontent among the people, the Chinese government is like sitting on top of a volcano. The astronomical amount of money spent on stability maintenance each year is precisely an indicator.

There are three directions that Xi Jinping decides to work on after his assumed office: anti-corruption, national renewal, and economic revival. With respect to anti-corruption, the campaign has by and large died down in less than a month; for national renewal, as I pointed out in <The Weak Links in China’s Great ‘Renewal’ Plan>, there is neither the material resources nor the popular support needed to make it possible; and as for economic revival, the main measure the authorities use, according to sources, is still “urbanization”. This means the authorities has run out of tricks in economic development.

Fear about a Violent Revolution

Although both the upper and middle class of China in general do not want violent revolution to take place, they are no longer confident that this could be prevented. Those frequently occurred criminal offenses are essentially the same to violent revolution: both target the rich and aim to rob from others.

In recent years there is an increase in the number of mass incidents which participants took out their anger. Some of them could easily take part in breaking the law and would almost definitely be involved in violent revolution where external conditions are met.

For now the CPC, a regime that established its rule through violent revolution, could successfully block any channel which opposition forces could use to come together and protect the middle and upper classes from the harassment of various criminals; the middle class could also protect themselves through community defense such as 24-hour surveillance that is practiced in some local communities.

However, with the spread of “hate the officials, the rich, and the police” sentiment, no one knows for sure what would happen the next day.

Which is the way to salvation? The CPC authorities is determined to maintain the existing political structure; the New and Old Leftists wish to go back to Mao's era; among the liberal intellectuals, there should be no problem that a consensus on the need for constitutional democracy exists. The thing these people don't agree on is “how to achieve constitutional democracy”.

In a bid to address this, liberal historian Zhu Xueqin wrote an article and explained his position, which is, in general, shared by other liberal intellectuals, including myself: A change is necessary. But we prefer to have one with limited impacts, one that does not cost too heavily.

How to prevent a violent revolution?

At present, China's political reform is already in a stalemate. The political elite see that “reform is asking for death” and exaggerate it, the liberal intellectuals see that “not carrying out reform is suicidal” and they continue to persuade [the authorities].

The Chinese government should learn from India and implement political reform step by step. This is much wiser that insisting with the arrogant attitude of “simply not going to change”; those “scholars” who exaggerate the drawbacks of India's democracy should cease making such irresponsible comments. However flawed India's democracy might be, it would still be far better the bad government of the CPC that drags the whole country with it as it falls.