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Reading Tocqueville in Beijing

The old regime fears a revolution.

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By GARY SCHMITT and JAMES W. CEASER
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This second phase is the one in which China finds itself today. The Chinese constitution opens by noting the modernizing achievements of the revolution of 1911 and the Communist revolution, which completed China’s “democratic” turn under the “benign” guiding hand of Mao Zedong and the dictatorship of the proletariat. No one in China of a certain age needs to be reminded of Mao’s attempts during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution to purge China of any vestige of traditional attachments to family, village, and religion. As Tocque-ville explains—in an analysis that could easily apply to Mao’s China—these successive efforts at modernization and
control created “an immense empty space” between the government and the people, in which there were no intermediate institutions to allow the people’s voices to be heard or to mitigate the government’s control. Any remaining notion or practice of citizenship had been squeezed out.

Chinese readers of The Old Regime might also consider Tocqueville’s analysis of how the French government’s policies under the modernizing monarchy gradually robbed individuals of any role in public life. Self-governing villages and parishes, not uncommon in medieval times, were slowly deprived of their privileges as power moved to the despotic center. As a result, important parts of the population lost their knowledge of the most minimal practices of self-government. This loss was a key reason why the French Revolution, when it came, lacked the restraint that marked the American Revolution and Founding. A Chinese reader of Tocqueville, seeing the daily reports of violent protests across his own country today, might well worry that the next Tiananmen Square will be even more explosive and deadly than the last in the absence of meaningful village elections in rural China or the growth of national-level nongovernmental associations.

The Chinese reader will almost -certainly also be alarmed at encountering Tocqueville’s theory of the “revolution of rising expectations,” which outlines the dangers that accompany the process of change. In France, paradoxically, the relief of feudal duties and land-ownership reforms during the modernizing period increased the French peasantry’s resentment of the remaining taxes and obligations: “Every abuse that is then eliminated seems to highlight those that remain. .  .  . the evil has decreased, it is true, but the sensitivity is greater.” Meanwhile, the aristocratic class no longer played a role in governing, but lived as pampered courtiers at Versailles. Who in China today would not hear echoes of the French peasants’ grievances as they survey their own country, a population relieved of the worst abuses of Mao’s rule and used to rapidly rising incomes, but now facing an uncertain economic future while “party princelings” and their families continue to make millions through connections to the governing and party elite? 

Tocqueville, in addition to writing about France and America, actually had a few things to say about China, which might provide another cache of insight for Chinese leaders. For
Tocqueville, China epitomized the modern centralized state, with an army of administrators able to control and direct the population. A good many 18th-century intellectuals wanted just this model for France. To them, the rational regime was enlightened despotism. The French, they thought, would accept such a system on the grounds that it met the modern test of “democratic” legitimacy: Under the banner of equality, political power would be wielded in the name of the people, if not by the people—a ruse well understood in the People’s Republic. As Tocqueville knew, this type of despotism might seem at first progressive and benevolent. Consider Thomas Friedman, writing about China today: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people . . . it can also have great advantages.” 

This Chinese model, though never fully realized under the French monarchy, was exactly the system
Tocqueville thought had contributed to the excesses of the French Revolution; and it is the system he feared for the future. It saps people of energy. They grow accustomed to relying on administrative agencies to make decisions for them rather than deciding for themselves, either in local communities or as individuals.  

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