Wang Qishan

Tocqueville's advice on French revolution captures Chinese leaders' attention

The argument that revolutions occur in times of rising prosperity and growing inequality has caught the attention of China's leadership

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 9:26am

"What they read might reflect what they think," a middle-aged man said as he picked up a book recently recommended by the new head of the Communist Party's discipline watchdog.

"I am really keen to learn what Wang Qishan is thinking and what he wants officials to learn from the book," the man, a civil servant, said at the Wangfujing Bookstore in Beijing.

The book is Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the Revolution, the French historian's treatise on the French revolution that started in 1789. A saleswoman at the shop said it had been unusually popular recently, following reports that Wang had recommended that officials read a Chinese translation published in 1994.

"Wang Qishan's recommendation reflects the Chinese leadership's sense of crisis, as the book provides a realistic way of thinking to analyse the current situation in China, though it might not necessarily help in finding [a] solution to its problems," said Gu Su , an expert on Tocqueville at Nanjing University, who is retranslating the book and compiling a collection of Tocqueville's other works.

Wang is not the only senior leader to have read The Old Regime and the Revolution, with a party insider saying that premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang mentioned it in a recent speech to cadres. Early last year, at the height of the Bo Xilai scandal which rocked the party, Wang began recommending that officials read the book.

After he became secretary of the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in mid-November, Wang formally made it a must-read for party officials.

Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote his book in 1856, six decades after the French revolution. More than 150 years later, China's communist leaders are trying to make sense of his observations.

Tocqueville analyses the causes of the French revolution by examining social conditions under the "old regime". He wrote that when the revolution erupted, the "old regime" of Louis XVI was at its most prosperous, but that prosperity had fuelled social disparity, leading to the revolution. He offered an explanation as to why prosperity did not prevent a major revolution but, on the contrary, fomented one.

Wang Qishan's recommendation reflects the Chinese leadership's sense of crisis, as the book provides a realistic way of thinking to analyse the current situation in China

Although China is the second-largest economy in the world, with its people enjoying unprecedented wealth, polarisation has also reached an all-time high. Its Gini coefficient, which measures income disparity, is 0.61 - way above the internationally recognised danger threshold of 0.4. On the scale, 0 means perfect equality and 1 maximal inequality

Tocqueville also believed that not all the revolution's legacies were positive, even though it overthrew the old regime and took France into a new era of equality and democracy. After overthrowing the autocratic monarchy by violent means, socials ill reappeared after undergoing a makeover.

Economist Hua Sheng , the president of Yanjing Overseas Chinese University, recalled on his blog recently a comment that Wang made about the book.

"For a country like China, with substantial weight in the world, historical and contemporary experience shows that its transformation towards modernity will not be smooth. The Chinese themselves have not paid a sufficient price yet," Hua quoted Wang as saying when advising him to read the book.

Analysts said Wang's remark reflected the fear among leaders that a revolution - the price to pay for modernisation - was looming in the world's last major communist-ruled nation.

The factors that contributed to the French revolution and the waves of revolution that reverberated through North Africa and the Middle East in the past two years can be seen in today's China. These include widespread discontent caused by despotism, corruption, social inequality, social injustice, unemployment and inflation, along with the rise of the middle class. Public protests in China, officially described as "mass incidents", have recently exceeded 100,000 a year.

"This is exactly why Wang and other senior leaders wanted officials to study the book, because what Tocqueville saw in France two centuries ago has an almost exact replica in today's China," Gu said.

One of Tocqueville's observations, Gu said, was particularly pertinent to China's leaders: that great revolutions did not occur during a time of poverty. Instead, they took place when economic development had brought about acute polarisation. At such times, conflict between social classes was easily incited, with those at the bottom of society turning their anger into the flames of war.

Another of Tocqueville's conclusions was that a regime with centralised power actually intensified tensions between social classes. The French political system had placed executive, legislative and judicial powers under centralised authority before the old regime was toppled.

Today's China, with its system of one-party rule, is seen by some as the modern-day equivalent. Many academics say the party's monopoly on power is the chief reason behind China's widening wealth gap, rampant corruption and abuse of power by officials - all major sources of public dissatisfaction with the government.

But the most discomforting of Tocqueville's conclusions for China's leaders is that the "most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform".

"It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, 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," Tocqueville wrote.

Gu said this advice that reform could be just as dangerous as the status quo, if not more so, presented the Communist leadership with a dilemma, given the party's long-held belief that as long as it could bring prosperity to the people it could maintain its hold on power.

That political dilemma had also been summed up in a famous statement by late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek when he responded to his reformist son Chiang Ching-kuo's request that he overhaul the then-corrupt ruling party during the civil war. "If we reform the Kuomintang, the party will perish; if we don't, the state will perish," the father replied.

Analysts said the new Communist Party leadership was in the grip of a "Tocqueville dilemma" because while it was eager to bring about changes, it wanted to do so in a controlled fashion.

"The dilemma Tocqueville pointed out two centuries ago might be the most alarming point that attracted Wang and other leaders to explore ideas from the book," Gu said.