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Alexis de Tocqueville goes to China!

    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest works are 'Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France' published by Oxford University Press and his edition of Destutt de Tracy's 'A Treatise on Political Economy' published by Liberty Fund. 

    Imagine my surprise last week when I received a telephone call from the BBC telling me that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party was reading the work of Alexis de Tocqueville! They wanted to know why the Chinese were reading this famous nineteenth-century French liberal thinker. The answer is intriguing, to say the least.

    First, we do not know exactly what the Communist Party leadership is reading. This is not something that is ever known. But the rumours that Tocqueville is being read are strong and we do know that Chinese opinion gives them some credence.

    So what is going on? The simplest explanation is that the party leadership are increasingly worried and fearful about their grip on power and what the future might bring. Reading Tocqueville might give them a clue on how they can survive!

    Is this so? I doubt it. Tocqueville wrote two great books: Democracy in America (published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840) and The Ancien Regime and the Revolution (published in 1856). It is the latter that is the subject of interest in China.

    Written towards the end of Tocqueville’s life, The Ancien Regime and the Revolution seeks to explain why the French Revolution of 1789 occurred. In answering that question Tocqueville made a startling discovery. The French Revolution had not taken place in a period of increasing poverty (as many had believed) but after a period of increasing prosperity going back to mid-century. In such circumstances, Tocqueville suggests, grievances previously endured with resignation became intolerable. People came to believe that improvements were possible and therefore the spirit of unrest spread across society. Moreover, this unrest was strongest among those who had been benefiting most from the increased prosperity. Tocqueville further suggests that attempts at reform by the government only served to intensify demands for greater reform. The most perilous moment for a bad government, Tocqueville therefore concludes, is when it relaxes its grip and seeks to mend its ways. Only “consummate statecraft”, he writes, can save those in power.

    The parallels with the situation in contemporary China are all too obvious. Rapid economic growth is occurring hand in hand with increasing popular protests. The parallels go further however. Tocqueville also saw that the greatest likelihood of a mass uprising came when the growth of prosperity slowed down or came to a stop. Whilst the expectation of improvement in living conditions did not subside, government found this demand increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to satisfy. As Tocqueville commented, in pre-revolutionary France there existed “a fatal inconsistency” between a people among whom “the love of wealth and of luxury was daily spreading” and a government that was increasingly seen as frustrating these desires. After years of rapid expansion, the Chinese economy is now slowing down.

    Not only this, but Tocqueville similarly observed that one of the main drivers of revolutionary demands was a hatred of inequality. This was especially so when an inequality of wealth was combined with financial corruption and a sense that privileges were enjoyed by a self-perpetuating elite removed from the lives of the common people. Again this would look very familiar to ordinary Chinese citizens as they gaze upon both the endemic corruption within the Communist Party and the astonishing wealth accumulated by the super-rich of Chinese society.

    This does not exhaust the list of parallels. Tocqueville also saw that the pre-revolutionary government found it ever more difficult to control public opinion. In the French case, this was exemplified through the rise to prominence of men of letters; in today’s China it is the internet that the authorities cannot control.

    None of this can make reassuring reading for the Chinese leadership. In Tocqueville’s view, given these circumstances, revolution was more or less inevitable. This would seem to suggest that the Beijing government faces two alternatives: repress all opposition as ruthlessly as possible or get out as quickly as possible (preferably with both your life and your money). For the moment it looks as if the first option is being taken. In Tocqueville’s eyes, however, there was a third option and this was to strengthen the institutions of civil society through the encouragement of local self-government and the creation of free associations. But, as Tocqueville saw for himself, all these institutions had been destroyed in pre-revolutionary France, with the result that a peaceful transition from despotism to democracy was impossible. Autocracy simply reappeared in a different guise. It remains to be seen whether contemporary China will suffer a similar fate. 

    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest works are 'Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France' published by Oxford University Press and his edition of Destutt de Tracy's 'A Treatise on Political Economy' published by Liberty Fund. 


    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest work, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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