Reading Tocqueville in Beijing
The old regime fears a revolution

Reuters

A man walks past portraits of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong (L-R), Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao at the Revolution museum in Jinggangshan, Jiangxi province, September 20, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Does Alexis de Tocqueville have anything to say to the current generation of Chinese leaders?

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  • China’s economic growth that for 30 years helped keep hopes high and dampen social tensions is slowing dramatically.

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  • Many Chinese leaders worry about the future – not just for their country but also for themselves.

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  • Some in China seem to feel they have extracted all the lessons one can from the fall of the Soviet Union.

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Does Alexis de Tocqueville have anything to say to the current generation of Chinese leaders?

In recent decades, the case study of political change of greatest interest to Chinese leaders has been the passing into the dustbin of history of the Soviet Union, that most powerful of all Communist regimes. Some analysts blame Mikhail Gorbachev for political reforms that precipitously undermined the government’s hold on power; others point to the sclerosis that overtook the Soviet system and the failure of its leaders to adjust socialist principles to new circumstances; others still—good Communists to the end—see the hand of the West at work, manipulating internal weaknesses to bring down America’s superpower rival.

Interest in this question is more than academic. For the Chinese -government and its supporters, the overriding concern is to head off a similar fate for their own Communist party. But as a new generation comes to power, many increasingly doubt they can avoid such a turn. Major protests throughout the country continue to alarm and bedevil the government and the party, and with good reason. The economic growth that for 30 years helped keep hopes high and dampen social tensions is slowing dramatically. University graduates struggle to find good jobs, even as nouveaux riches proliferate. The party’s ubiquitous slogan, “Social Harmony,” is at odds with what everyone sees. Corruption remains pervasive, elites secrete their wealth overseas, and party “robber barons” appropriate land from farmers only to turn it over to the developer who promises the middleman the biggest cut. Add to this the environmental disasters China faces and the looming demographic crisis (too few females; too few younger workers to support a rapidly aging population), and it is no wonder that so many Chinese leaders worry about the future—not only for their country but also for themselves.

Given these challenges, some in China seem to feel they have extracted all the lessons one can from the fall of the Soviet Union. Which brings us to Tocqueville, who, according to the Economist, has “been enjoying an unusual revival in bookshops and in the debates of intellectual bloggers.”

Even high-ranking officials are now reading Tocqueville—apparently including Li Keqiang, China’s new premier. Feng Chongyi, a Chinese academic teaching in Australia, recently wrote in the Australian Financial Review that many Chinese government officials, “including two members of the all-powerful Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party,” are studying The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville’s other classic, a book that analyzes the causes of the French Revolution and which is barely known to most Americans. Chongyi observes that while “it sounds bizarre that such a book published more than 150 years ago on the history of a seemingly remote country would become popular among top leaders in China at this juncture, .  .  . a lot of strange things are taking place in China nowadays.”

Strange indeed, but Tocqueville’s Old Regime may be exactly the book for this moment in Chinese history. As Tocqueville himself explains, his aim in writing about that bloody and ultimately disastrous revolution was “to discover not only what illness killed the patient, but how the patient could have been cured. .  .  . My purpose has been to paint a picture both accurate and instructive.”

Some major themes of the book cannot help but remind the Chinese of their own circumstances. For a Chinese reader, the revolution of 1789 is neither the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the last imperial dynasty and established the Republic of China, nor the Communist revolution of 1949, but the revolution they wish to avoid in the future by achieving a successful transition from their current situation to a more stable order. This reading suggests, paradoxically, that the Chinese are still living under the Old Regime.

In Tocqueville’s account, the Old Regime in France went through two major phases. In the first, France had a feudal monarchy in which power was widely dispersed and many institutions of local government existed. In the second phase, modernizing French kings undermined the government’s traditional foundations—slowly at first, but at a gathering pace during the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. These monarchs sought to eliminate the last remnants of feudalism in an effort to establish greater control over French society and promote what they believed to be progress. In effect, this second phase of the Old Regime was the harbinger of the revolution. According to Tocqueville, the errors of this second phase sowed the seeds of the disaster of 1789.

This second phase is the one in which China finds itself today. The Chinese constitution opens by noting the modernizing achievements of the revolution of 1911 and the Communist revolution, which completed China’s “democratic” turn under the “benign” guiding hand of Mao Zedong and the dictatorship of the proletariat. No one in China of a certain age needs to be reminded of Mao’s attempts during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution to purge China of any vestige of traditional attachments to family, village, and religion. As Tocque-ville explains—in an analysis that could easily apply to Mao’s China—these successive efforts at modernization and control created “an immense empty space” between the government and the people, in which there were no intermediate institutions to allow the people’s voices to be heard or to mitigate the government’s control. Any remaining notion or practice of citizenship had been squeezed out.

Chinese readers of The Old Regime might also consider Tocqueville’s analysis of how the French government’s policies under the modernizing monarchy gradually robbed individuals of any role in public life. Self-governing villages and parishes, not uncommon in medieval times, were slowly deprived of their privileges as power moved to the despotic center. As a result, important parts of the population lost their knowledge of the most minimal practices of self-government. This loss was a key reason why the French Revolution, when it came, lacked the restraint that marked the American Revolution and Founding. A Chinese reader of Tocqueville, seeing the daily reports of violent protests across his own country today, might well worry that the next Tiananmen Square will be even more explosive and deadly than the last in the absence of meaningful village elections in rural China or the growth of national-level nongovernmental associations.

The Chinese reader will almost -certainly also be alarmed at encountering Tocqueville’s theory of the “revolution of rising expectations,” which outlines the dangers that accompany the process of change. In France, paradoxically, the relief of feudal duties and land-ownership reforms during the modernizing period increased the French peasantry’s resentment of the remaining taxes and obligations: “Every abuse that is then eliminated seems to highlight those that remain. .  .  . the evil has decreased, it is true, but the sensitivity is greater.” Meanwhile, the aristocratic class no longer played a role in governing, but lived as pampered courtiers at Versailles. Who in China today would not hear echoes of the French peasants’ grievances as they survey their own country, a population relieved of the worst abuses of Mao’s rule and used to rapidly rising incomes, but now facing an uncertain economic future while “party princelings” and their families continue to make millions through connections to the governing and party elite?

Tocqueville, in addition to writing about France and America, actually had a few things to say about China, which might provide another cache of insight for Chinese leaders. For Tocqueville, China epitomized the modern centralized state, with an army of administrators able to control and direct the population. A good many 18th-century intellectuals wanted just this model for France. To them, the rational regime was enlightened despotism. The French, they thought, would accept such a system on the grounds that it met the modern test of “democratic” legitimacy: Under the banner of equality, political power would be wielded in the name of the people, if not by the people—a ruse well understood in the People’s Republic. As Tocqueville knew, this type of despotism might seem at first progressive and benevolent. Consider Thomas Friedman, writing about China today: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people . . . it can also have great advantages.”

This Chinese model, though never fully realized under the French monarchy, was exactly the system Tocqueville thought had contributed to the excesses of the French Revolution; and it is the system he feared for the future. It saps people of energy. They grow accustomed to relying on administrative agencies to make decisions for them rather than deciding for themselves, either in local communities or as individuals. 

Tocqueville expressed his hostility to enlightened despotism in his comments on economist Guillaume-François Le Trosne’s book on French administrative and tax reforms, De l’administration provinciale et de la réforme de l’impôt. Le Trosne argued for the superiority of prerevolutionary France over England because the French kings could institute reforms unilaterally and “transform in an instant the condition of a country.” Tocqueville wrote in his private notes, “What ignorance! .  .  . What inexperience in practical politics!” For Tocqueville, it was simply false to assert that an executive order could so easily alter a population’s moral dispositions and the “ideas of which the habits of mind are formed.” More alarming were the measures to which a despot might turn where gentler methods did not suffice to alter a people’s mores.

Tocqueville’s intent, as he made clear in the preface to The Old Regime, was to diagnose what had destroyed liberty in France. An autopsy is for the sake of the living. His analysis of what went wrong in France’s transition to modernity was meant to provide readers with an understanding of the keys to a different future—a future, ironically, the Chinese will contemplate more fruitfully if they combine their study of Tocqueville’s Old Regime with attention to his more famous account of a successful political transition, Democracy in America.

Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. 

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