Newspapers and magazines have recently been filled with reports of the surprising popularity in China of Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution (旧制度与大革命) which was first published in 1856 and has now reached Chinese best-seller lists.
Tocqueville, of course, was the French political historian whose best-known work is the classic Democracy in America, a staple of American high school history classes that is not only remarkably astute but also a delightful read. China Daily reports that The Old Regime is featured front and center in the bookstore at the Communist Party School, where China’s current and future leaders study for several weeks each year. Supplementary materials – with titles like “A Guide to Reading the Old Regime and the Revolution” and “Why Do We Read the Old Regime and the Revolution?” – are sold alongside it.
The Old Regime and the Revolution analyzes French society before the French revolution (1789-99) and, as Naliene Chou Wiest writes in Caixin, “seems to speak to opinion leaders of every stripe [in China]. Tocqueville’s emphasis on order and conservative suspicion of the crowd argues for maintaining the status quo; while his ideas of equality and civil society appeal to the liberals. Shared by both camps is his dark anxiety of facing a brewing crisis.”
The aspect of the book that most analysts have focused on is this threat of a brewing crisis, or what is sometimes called the Toqueville Paradox: that the most dangerous period faced by a governing regime is not when the people are most repressed, but when reforms are underway and life is getting better – as has been the case in China now for some years.
“It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed,” China Daily quotes Tocqueville, “but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable.”
Many writers then go on to speculate that China’s leaders are, essentially, afraid of getting “smashed” by those whom they have permitted to “breathe.” But James W. Ceaser, writing two years ago in an AEI Online essay called “Why Tocqueville on China?” notes that Tocqueville occasionally referenced China – four times in Democracy in America and once in The Old Regime and the Revolution, if you are wondering. China, in Tocqueville’s eyes, was the consummate “symbol” of a fully centralized administrative state. Many of Tocqueville’s contemporaries saw this as a positive; this was an era in which certain French intellectuals – known as the “physiocrats” – promoted China as a model of near-perfect government. (This idea had strong roots in France, where Voltaire (1694-1778) – who worked in a study with a portrait of Confucius on the wall – argued, “One need not be obsessed with the merits of the Chinese to recognize . . . that their empire is in truth the best that the world has ever seen.” Voltaire admired the absence of a feudal aristocracy and a powerful priesthood and the fact that civil servants were highly educated scholars – like himself – chosen by exam.)
Tocqueville, however, saw little to admire in the Chinese system – or in the French physiocrats’ fascination with it. He argued, according to Ceaser, that highly centralized administration of the sort that China had then (and now) “sapped a society of its movement, creativity, and energy–to a point, as he once half joked, of dampening the erotic spirit…It produced subjects rather than citizens. The consequences extended far beyond the political realm, creating a society characterized by ‘tranquility without happiness, industry without progress, stability without force, and material order without public morality.’”
Tocqueville’s ideas are certainly interesting food for thought – especially if you are a Chinese leader presiding over a nation in which the legislature (National People’s Congress) has 83 US$ billionaires who inhabit an increasingly rareified world in which, as Evan Osnos notes, even the air they breathe is specially purified, while ordinary citizens live in a capital where air quality indexes regularly reach the hazardous range and lung cancer rates are exploding.
The person who brought Tocqueville’s work to the attention of the public is apparently Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Wang is a pragmatic, talented, no-nonsense politician who is known for successfully tackling big problems. He handled a major banking crisis in Guangdong in the late 1990s and in 2003 was made mayor of Beijing in a damage control situation during the SARS epidemic. He directly managed the 2008 Beijing Olympics and oversaw the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. His current job as chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection may be his most challenging yet as he aims to combat corruption within the Party. We heard Wang speak when he was mayor of Beijing and were impressed by the frankness of his off-the-cuff remarks, which included a passionate lament on the crisis of faith in China and an envious aside as to how much easier it is to run a country that has religion, like the US. Because Wang is known for being both competent and blunt, he has credibility – while any book recommended by a high-level leader is going to find readers (the Meditiations of Marcus Aurelius became a bestseller in 2008, after then Premier Wen Jiabao revealed that he had read it more than a hundred times) but Wang’s recommendations are of particular interest to ordinary intellectuals, as well as to cadres wishing to impress their superiors.
Joseph Fewsmith writes in China Leadership Monitor that word of Wang ‘s interest in Tocqueville was first revealed by the economist Hua Sheng, who tweeted: “I went to the sea [海, an apparent abbreviation for 中南海, the seat of Communist power] to see my old leader. He recommended I read Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime and the French Revolution. He believes that a big country like China that is playing such an important role in the world, whether viewed from the perspective of history or the external environment facing it today, will not modernize all that smoothly. The price the Chinese people have paid is still not enough.”
It may take more than Tocqueville to keep the Chinese people from paying an ever higher price – but at least the widespread recognition of a problem, and the willingness to address it by learning from the great thinkers of history, is a start.