Tocqueville in China

From Wang Guangyi’s “Materialist’s Art,” 2006

One of the most vibrant intellectual discussions in China this year began with a tweet on Weibo, China’s premier micro-blogging service and anointed online town square. Economist Hua Sheng had just met with Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, China’s anti-corruption czar, charged with fixing the country’s most important political problem. As Sinologist Joseph Fewsmith reported, Hua breathlessly tweeted after the meeting:

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 The Old 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.

Hua’s self-congratulatory reporting on social media would spur the cheapest propaganda campaign the Chinese government has instituted in years—one that is part of a tradition of intellectual suggestion by senior Chinese leaders, usually through sharing current reading lists. Wen Jiabao, China’s previous premier, popularized Marcus Aurelius’s The Meditations by revealing that he had read it over a hundred times. And since Wang plugged The Old Regime late last year, Tocqueville’s tome has been front and center at the bookstore of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, where China’s future leaders are trained. The curious and ambitious in China are reading it, too, making it one of the country’s best-selling titles in the last few months.

Wang is perceived as a frank, pragmatic, and highly competent and thoughtful leader. He made his name running the Beijing Olympics, dealing with the outbreak of SARS in 2003, and shepherding China’s economy in the last administration. It is somewhat surprising, then, that the discussion he engendered about Tocqueville and modern China has been so simple, only producing a couple uncomfortable yet ultimately straightforward takeaways.

The general consensus in China is that the book offers two main historical lessons applicable to the country’s tenuous domestic situation. One, the French Revolution burst forth not when France’s economy was at a nadir and the central government strong, but when there was relative prosperity and political reform. Two, it is the nature of revolution that those who carry it out become what they most despise once in power. Such aphoristic caveats against both reform and revolution have been repeated for the last few months and treated as novel and significant each time.

Still, reform-minded Chinese can take comfort in the fact that the new treatment of Tocqueville is so misguided as to be useless. Like France, China’s path out of feudalism involved the subdivision of land among the peasantry and the general enrichment of the underclass. New economic rights brought additional burdens like taxes, legal obligations, and a more involved civic role, though not necessarily a sense of civic duty. Political dysfunction stemmed from the monetization of government offices. (In France’s case, the government sold administrative positions and entrenched those who held them much more explicitly.) Rural elections were little more than a ritual, but peasants clung to them as an outlet for political action even as they gladly embraced centralization at the upper levels of government. Any democratic gains made by replacing birth with money as the passport to power met with great resistance from the traditional social hierarchy, at the top of which sat an increasingly irrelevant aristocracy.

But the differences are vital. The lack of a meaningful vote in China has pushed people at the grassroots to assert themselves through demonstrations and riots. Not all make international headlines the way an uprising in the village of Wukan did in 2011 because most do not result in the demonstrators’ demands being met. Still, compromises between villagers and officials are not uncommon and indicate a healthy demand for Communist Party accountability.

There is no shortage of influential voices calling for reform. However, the overwhelming tone is not righteous indignation in support of the disadvantaged but practical concern that a vastly unequal society will not survive.

And while the princeling class, comprised of the offspring of powerful Communist Party officials, may seem to be post-revolutionary China’s version of pre-revolutionary France’s aristocracy, the princelings are more evenly matched, both politically and socially, by a faction of cadres without prestigious family backgrounds. Neither group is immune from the uncertainties or demands of political life, and patronage within the CCP hierarchy can cross faction lines. Though from humble birth, Wang Qishan married into a princeling family and was mentored by his father-in-law. And princeling status by no means assures political survival. Bo Xilai, whose father Bo Yibo is one of the Eight Immortals in Mao Zedong’s original circle, was deposed in spectacular fashion last year from his position as Party Secretary of Chongqing and awaits trial.

This is not to say that a spirit of egalitarianism guides China. There is no shortage of influential voices calling for reform. However, the overwhelming tone is not righteous indignation in support of the disadvantaged but practical concern that a vastly unequal society will not survive. Even members of China’s liberal intelligentsia feel the need to constantly answer to the country’s pragmatic approach to reform. The pre-revolutionary French elite, however, for all their disdain for the lower classes, expressed a passionate sympathy for the peasantry. The revolutionary ideas of French intellectuals gained traction among an already receptive audience. As much as the Chinese Communist Party would like to believe that an unbridled love of liberty is the greatest threat to its existence, the truth is that many of its critics are also trying to protect against chaos.

Perhaps it is thanks to the absence of such liberal fervor that The Old Regime was not disqualified for consumption by the normally hyper-sensitive party cadre—despite the book’s affirmation of liberty as the antidote to a rotting post-revolutionary society.


Fascination with Tocqueville’s book is curious in other ways as well. In its urgency to find a solution to China’s complex problems, the CCP fails to acknowledge that it occupies the same contemporary world and shares the same modern revolutionary tradition as those looking to overhaul or depose it. If reform jitters had the leadership looking for possible sources of revolution within Chinese society, it did not have to look further than China’s own past. Why reach for a reference as distant as Tocqueville?

What most distinguishes modern China from Bourbon France is the Communist Party’s staunchly conservative and technical approach to reform. Tocqueville marveled at how France’s pre-revolutionary government, “which was so overbearing and despotic when all was submission, lost its presence of mind at the first show of resistance, was alarmed by the mildest criticism, and terrified at the least noise.” The government was so enthusiastic about reform that, in the thirty to forty years leading up to the French Revolution, it invested heavily in public projects, leading to debts to outside contractors that could not be repaid. Laws were loosely enforced to stave off popular resistance. The government remained functional and absolute at the highest levels, but organizational friction severely hampered the activities of day-to-day administration. Frustration with dysfunction grew into a more serious objection to injustice as government continued to offer moral rationales for its policies.

In contrast, the Chinese government is known for its administrative prowess, given credit for much of China’s economic growth. The central authority tightly controls the core economic indicators by managing resources, policies, and, in some cases, national projects with an eye toward pursuing growth efficiently. At the provincial level, there is flexibility and policy experimentation, with successful results sometimes adopted nationally. The bureaucratic infrastructure that runs the country undergoes reorganization when administrative functions need to be streamlined. Most recently, the National People’s Congress in March reduced the number of ministries under the State Council, China’s cabinet, from twenty-seven to twenty-five. Among other changes, the controversial (and corrupt) Ministry of Railways was split into two to separate oversight of trains and railways from the government’s commercial interaction with the industry. According to Xinhua, China’s chief news agency, the latest round of restructuring is the seventh in the last three decades.

This is not to say that the bureaucracy is robust: corruption significantly retards government functions on all levels, and the legal and regulatory infrastructure tends to play catch-up with new social and economic developments and demands. Still, the country’s leaders are on the whole confident they will make the structural adjustments necessary to remain on track for economic preeminence by 2030.

Such faith comes from a belief in the Chinese governance tradition rather than the institutions themselves. Pan Wei, a leading scholar of Chinese politics with a traditionalist bent, sums up the sentiment nicely, writing that meritocracy is

[t]he greatest contribution that China has made to the political civilization in the world…Today, both the government and party officials must go through this process of examination and evaluation. As to accountability, this meritocracy is not inferior to electoral democracy.

When naming the virtues of their current system of governance, the Chinese make sure to mention that Voltaire was a great admirer of Imperial China’s centralized system of rule by the mandarinate, which shares much in common with the meritocracy that the Communist Party aspires to be. Tocqueville, who also appreciated a well-run authoritarian system, was of a different mind. To him, the Imperial Chinese system

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.”

And yet, judging by his nostalgia for an enlightened and civic-minded aristocracy, the Chinese might wonder if Tocqueville would appreciate the current incarnation of what he found unimpressive the first time around. He strongly implies that if an enlightened sovereign had been at the head of state, France’s reform program would not have been so thoughtless and therefore disastrous. It is a testament to their self-doubt that the Chinese have not identified themselves as this special case despite their pride in the governing infrastructure they’ve built over the last thirty years.

The Old Regime, then, is a pep talk more than a warning. Tocqueville’s conservative admiration of a learned aristocracy with a healthy sense of noblesse oblige is ultimately a validation of the party’s pride in (still maturing) modern Chinese governance—which it considers to be its greatest strength and ticket to holding power in perpetuity. The lesson the Chinese leadership wishes to learn is that as long as they prevent themselves from becoming the bumbling administrators that pushed France toward revolution, all will be well. This message could not be more welcome as the Chinese have watched communism, whose authoritarian regimes looked briefly like the future in the middle part of the last century, cede its revolutionary mantle to liberal democracy.


Still, the worry of collapse persists. China’s insecurities are sustained by the feeling that while it lives by the mantra that universal political truths should not exist, the international consensus is that they are in fact inevitable. Mao Zedong never shared Vladimir Lenin’s conviction that communism should be spread throughout the world and the proletarian dictatorship hastened. Aside from an initial bout of enthusiasm for foreign revolutionary groups in the 1950s and ’60s, China’s active support for international communism has been motivated more by anti-imperialist sentiment. Its involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars were defensive measures against perceived geopolitical encroachment by the United States. Its consistent courtship of rogue and Third World countries reveal just how its leaders perceive its relationship with the international community and, by extension, its vision as a country. In a speech given in 1943 on the dissolution of the Comintern, the international communist organization devoted to facilitating worldwide revolution, Mao stated,

Revolutionary movements can be neither exported nor imported. Despite the fact that aid was accorded by the Comintern, the birth and development of the Chinese Communist Party resulted from the fact that China herself had a conscious working class…The internal situation in each country and the relations between the different countries are more complicated than they have been in the past and are changing more rapidly.

On a visit to Mexico in 2009, President Xi Jinping echoed the same commitment to non-interference: “Well-fed foreigners have nothing better to do than point fingers at China. But China does not export revolution; we do not export poverty and hunger; and we do not interfere in the affairs of others.” A significant part of China’s opposition to Western liberalism, then as now, is based as much on ideological disagreement as it is on the presumption of universality.

A significant part of China’s opposition to Western liberalism, then as now, is based as much on ideological disagreement as it is on the presumption of universality.

Nevertheless, more than ever, China’s government has a long-term interest in not casting itself as the alternative to the West, lest it acknowledge and validate the momentum of liberal capitalism. Even as China’s leadership encourages nationalism, it believes that a foreign policy based on balance of power is far preferable to aggression. It hardly matters that the global elite have turned their gaze eastward as liberal-capitalist democracy suffers from political and economic stagnation. The China Model, a blueprint for successful state-controlled capitalism, has its admirers outside of China. Few Chinese, though, seriously suggest that other countries should try to imitate it.

Not that a similar exercise hasn’t been tried recently: former U.S. president Bill Clinton met in 1999 with European leaders for a conference entitled, “Progressive Governance in the 21st Century” to discuss the “Third Way,” the middle ground between socialism and capitalism. Slavoj Zizek’s lament on the proceedings still rings true today:

The true message of the notion of the Third Way is that there is no Second Way, no alternative to global capitalism, so that, in a kind of mocking pseudo-Hegelian negation of negation, the Third Way brings us back to the first and only way.

Liberal capitalism looks all the more permanent as it remains impervious to serious reform and rebuffs critics and protest with seemingly little consequence. Doomsday scenarios are merely used to stock the cocktail armory of the Davos Man. The workers in Solidarity, the opposition Green Movement in Iran, the salaried bourgeoisie in Tunisia and Egypt, the jobless in Spain and Greece, the rioters in Bangkok, and the protesters at Tiananmen—among many others—rose up to obtain what they felt they were owed. But with few exceptions, their demands have been assimilated into a cry for more liberal democracy—for a rightful place in the global capitalist order, not socialism.

In the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008, a chorus of pundits joked that China may be the one to save capitalism, and they weren’t so wrong. China finds itself in a position not unlike that of its geopolitical foes at the advent of widespread communist revolution: questions abound about the country’s place in history and foreign values that are anathema to its traditional way of life. China’s elites view liberal democracy with the same wariness and disdain that many Western capitalists felt for communism in the latter’s heyday. The CCP may be quite happy to replicate the outcome of that rivalry.


Rebecca Liao is a corporate attorney and critic based in Silicon Valley, founder of The Aleph Mag, and contributor to the Atlantic, the LA Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle, Tea Leaf Nation, and the New Inquiry.