Under Tocqueville’s Influence, China Chooses Despotism
In the last few days, the national press has been full of reports suggesting that China’s new President, Xi Jinping, is orchestrating a revival of Maoism and a crackdown on those in China who would like to introduce within that country the procedures, practices, and institutions that distinguish the West: the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil associations, and “universal values” – which is to say, a respect for human rights. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story on Saturday, claims that Xi is receiving strong support from former President Jiang Zemin; and on Monday The New York Times filled in some of the details:
Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.
These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.
Even as Mr. Xi has sought to prepare some reforms to expose China’s economy to stronger market forces, he has undertaken a “mass line” campaign to enforce party authority that goes beyond the party’s periodic calls for discipline. The internal warnings to cadres show that Mr. Xi’s confident public face has been accompanied by fears that the party is vulnerable to an economic slowdown, public anger about corruption and challenges from liberals impatient for political change.
“Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere,” says Document No. 9, the number given to it by the central party office that issued it in April. It has not been openly published, but a version was shown to The New York Times and was verified by four sources close to senior officials, including an editor with a party newspaper.
Opponents of one-party rule, it says, “have stirred up trouble about disclosing officials’ assets, using the Internet to fight corruption, media controls and other sensitive topics, to provoke discontent with the party and government.”
The warnings were not idle. Since the circular was issued, party-run publications and Web sites have vehemently denounced constitutionalism and civil society, notions that were not considered off limits in recent years. Officials have intensified efforts to block access to critical views on the Internet. Two prominent rights advocates have been detained in the past few weeks, in what their supporters have called a blow to the “rights defense movement,” which was already beleaguered under Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.
To grasp the full significance of this turn in Chinese policy, one must take notice of another development that I drew attention to back in early January: the vogue within the Communist Party of China for reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime and the Revolution. That work, which limns the pre-revolutionary situation in late eighteenth-century France, is a great classic; and, ironically, it has always served within the French historical community as an alternative to the Marxist account of the coming of the French Revolution. Back in January, I made the following observation:
For more than thirty years, at meetings of the Institute of Current Affairs (of which I was once a fellow and later chairman of the board), I have been arguing that China would eventually come apart at the seams. During that period, the People's Republic embarked on a path to commercial development that flew in the face of the indoctrination that the Communist Party in China had drummed into the long-suffering people of that country for the previous four decades. The contradiction between what the party had preached and what it came to practice could not have been more flagrant, and it seemed to me that it was, in the process, subverting its own legitimacy.
All that it would take, I argued, would be an economic downturn -- and the place would blow up. Beneath the surface, deep resentment of the inequalities that came with economic growth was becoming pervasive, and this resentment was bound to be reinforced by the fact that -- given the level of government control and the profound familial orientation of traditional Chinese culture -- the party would quickly turn into a crony-capitalist cabal, as the descendants of famous communist revolutionaries enriched themselves and displayed their ill-gotten lucre in ostentatiously obnoxious ways. All of this might be tolerated as long as rapid economic growth continued and nearly everyone profited. But, I contended, if and when a contraction takes place, if and when unemployment grows, if and when the dreams of ordinary Chinese are dashed, there will be hell to pay.
The model I suggested was eighteenth-century France, and the book to read was Alexis de Tocqueville's masterpiece The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, which argued that, for a considerable time prior to the French Revolution, things had been getting markedly better for the French, not worse. What happened in and after 1789, Tocqueville argued, was a revolution of rising expectations -- expectations that eventuated in disappointment. By 1789, next to no one believed in the legitimacy of the old order. It drew support solely from the fact that things were getting better all the time.
As I mentioned in that post, what I was predicting very nearly happened at the time of Tiananmen Square. The news that party cadres in China were being asked to read Tocqueville’s book was, I suggested, a sign that the leadership of the party had come to embrace the fears that I had voiced.
In late May, Rebecca Liao, a corporate attorney who lives and works in Silicon Valley, wrote a similar piece for Dissent with the same title, “Tocqueville in China,” in which she confirmed the most important of my intuitions and elaborated on what I had reported. “One of the most vibrant intellectual discussions in China this year,” she observed,
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.
Ms. Liao regarded “the new treatment of Tocqueville” as “so misguided as to be useless,” and she evidenced confidence in the capacity of the party leadership to avoid the pitfalls Tocqueville had identified and to deepen China’s modernization.
The evidence now suggests the contrary – that Wang Qishan is by no means alone in his convictions, that Xi Jingpin and his lieutenants take quite seriously the possibility that China is in a pre-revolutionary situation, and that they are intent on putting a lid on everything. Where Tocqueville might have suggested that the way forward was for the country’s leaders to embrace the “seven subversive currents,” to carry out a revolution from above, and to gradually introduce into the country the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil associations, and a respect for human rights, they have decided in this year – the 120th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s birth – to return to the path he charted more than 60 years ago.
Whether this is possible I doubt. One cannot sustain a modern economy without modern communications, and one cannot sustain modern communications without opening up one’s country to influences beyond the control of a centralized administration. The party established by Mao Tse-Tung is long gone. As numerous studies have shown, the party that now exists is dominated at the lower and middle ranks by a technocratic elite – much of it educated in the West. Its members may well fall in line and give lip-service to the new policy, and those in China who denounce the policy may suffer arrest. But Xi’s campaign may well backfire. It may serve only to popularize the “seven subversive currents” -- for, in commercial societies, there is no fruit like forbidden fruit. In the short term, to be sure, it will reinforce party discipline and control. But, in the circumstances, this is likely to strengthen immeasurably the “princelings” descended from the old Maoist elite and deepen the widespread corruption that the Bo Xilai scandal made manifest and that I touched on in January here and here. This may, in fact, be the larger purpose of the Maoist revival, for the party leadership seems unperturbed by the problem of corruption. Human rights groups report that the constitutional lawyer Xu Zhiyong is now in detention. His crime? He had the effrontery to issue a public call for Chinese officials to declare their financial assets.
Today's China really is a lot like late eighteenth-century France. It is a closed aristocracy of birth, and there is hardly anyone left in the country who believes in the old bromides of the Maoist era. If Xi Jinping follows through on the logic implicit in Document No. 9, he may someday be remembered as the Louis XV of old-regime China. When the great-grandson of Louis XIV attempted a crackdown in the middle of the eighteenth century, it not only came to naught. It scandalized public opinion and delegitimized the regime. I am all for reading Tocqueville. But one must read him with discernment and care.
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