Rebecca Liao: Tocqueville in China

Roundup: Media's Take

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.

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....

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....

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