French book tells only part of the story

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 2:40am

Americans have for generations read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Chinese are now told they should read his other, much darker masterpiece, The Ancient Regime and the French Revolution, according to a Post report this week. Boy, this doesn't look like a good sign!

My colleague's report on de Tocqueville conveys a sense of panic and anxiety among China's ruling elite. What I would point out is the context within which that French history book is being discussed.

There is an extremely vibrant intellectual debate on the mainland about its future and its role in the world. The de Tocqueville discussion is simply part of that. As Martin Jacques, author of the best-selling When China Rules the World, puts it: "This belies the widely-held view in the West that because China is not a Western-style democracy, serious argument and debate must be largely absent. In fact, the contrary is true. The arguments among Chinese intellectuals are, I would suggest, more interesting and more novel than is the case in Britain, or even the United States."

A good summary of these debates can be found in a nifty new volume, China 3.0, written by prominent mainland intellectuals, and translated and produced by The European Council on Foreign Relations. Liberal democracy or political Confucianism? Free-market capitalism or state-directed markets? Should China reshape the world system or play by its existing rules? Can the Chinese state be accountable and legitimate without reform? Think of a criticism of China and there isn't an angle these domestic debates have not covered. De Tocqueville plays just a small part.

Reviewing China 3.0, Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman wrote: "In some ways, these debates are more interesting than their equivalent arguments in the West. That is because the debates in Europe or the US are dominated by a broad mainstream acceptance of certain basic principles about democracy, capitalism and the international order. By contrast, Chinese intellectuals are still arguing about really fundamental issues."

An impending Chinese revolution? I say it's just open discussions in a maturing society and emerging superpower.