Democracy in China: The Popularity of Alexis de Tocqueville in the Middle Kingdom

October 12, 2012
By Elizabeth Pond

First there was Confucius. Then there was Mao Zedong. And now Alexis de Tocqueville tops the must-read list for avid Chinese intellectuals and bloggers.

The French aristocrat who limned the definitive political sociology of the United States almost two centuries ago might seem an unlikely crux of controversy in 21st-century China. But it is Tocqueville’s other classic, L’ancien régime et la Révolution—with its thesis that revolutions come not when masses are downtrodden, but when there lot is improving—that has sparked today’s hot debate.

After all, China arguably offers the ideal test of Tocqueville’s thesis. As one Chinese blogger puts it, “Don’t you feel that China now is nearly a copy of France in those [prerevolutionary] days?”

Or, as Cheng Li, director of Chinese research at the Brookings Institution, puts it, Chinese developments today seriously challenge the Western academic consensus that the Chinese Communist Party has somehow found the magic wand of “resilient” (or “adaptive”) authoritarianism to maintain its power indefinitely.

To be sure, this is a country in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), by contrast to its Russian counterpart, has largely privatized and transformed a centralized state economy, while still preserving its own political monopoly. The land’s 10 percent annual growth over the past 30 years has not only made China the second biggest economic power in the world, but has also lifted half a billion peasants out of poverty and spawned a new middle class larger than the entire US population. Along the way, it weathered the 2008-09 financial crash better than most Western economies. So far, its citizens have been grateful for this miracle in their lives.

Torrid growth is now decelerating, though, even as expectations continue to rise. Simultaneously, the egalitarianism of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms—which shrank the huge Mao-era gap between city and country life—has been superseded by a growing domestic divide between top and bottom social strata that surpasses even America and Russia’s notoriously high inequality.

This is no abstract concern. Just as the CCP heads into next month’s tricky once-a-decade turnover of party chiefs, the vast new class divide has been spotlighted by public revelations about corruption and lavish elite lifestyles in the bizarre case of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in a Chongqing mountain hotel. Already the scandal has led to the expulsion of Chongqing political baron Bo Xilai from the Communist Party and the conviction of his wife for murder. The affair will probably end with the jailing of Bo himself on criminal charges—and with rising popular disillusionment.

For Brookings’ Cheng Li—who grew up in a rural backwater during the cruel Cultural Revolution, knows many party officials at various levels, and has a sixth sense of factional politics—this year’s conjunction of scandal, widening social inequality, and political stagnation adds up to a crisis of authority for the CCP that is overpowering its touted “resilience.” The party’s original legitimation by ideology vanished after Chairman Mao died. Its current legitimation by history’s fastest economic growth and trickle-down enrichment is now under threat as growth lags behind expectations, China tries to escape from the middle-income trap by scaling the value-added ladder, and powerful state-owned enterprises have resurged to block needed reforms and provide slush funds for officials’ private investments abroad and their mistresses’ villas at home. In this atmosphere, efforts by political reformers to give the party a renewed source of legitimacy by opening it up to greater citizen participation have also been thwarted for the past ten years.

Significantly, the party’s crisis of authority is playing out against the backdrop of the stellar example of democratic Taiwan. There one-party Kuomintang rule morphed two decades ago into a robust democracy that has already generated per capita income surpassing European Union levels. This voids the CCP’s mantra that self-government is alien to Chinese culture. So does the protodemocracy of a Hong Kong that takes seriously the autonomy it was promised on reverting from British to Chinese rule 15 years ago. In the most recent exercise of autonomy, when tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens took to the streets to denounce as “brainwashing” Beijing’s attempt to force ideologically correct “moral and national education” on their schools, Beijing withdrew its diktat.

Little wonder, then, that in a 4,000-year-old nation whose dynasties repeatedly turned decadent and were toppled by angry peasant uprisings, today’s think tank mandarins worry about Tocqeville’s relevance to 2012 China. One cyberspace debater, alluding to both disappointed popular expectations and erosion of CCP legitimacy, wrote, “Without doubt people’s living standards are far above what they were years ago, but, on the contrary, people’s discontent with society is greater than ever.”

Other bloggers “see China as stuck between an unsustainable present and the probability that reform will only unleash pent-up demand for immediate democratization,” comments Boston University’s Joseph Fewsmith. He notes the surprising flip in Chinese self-identification with the French revolution in earlier years, but with the French ancien regime today. He concludes, “[T]he French Revolution, which used to be held up as an exemplar precisely because it was bloody and decisively ended ‘feudal’ society, has given rise to a new conversation about not only the need for [Chinese] self-government, an independent judiciary, and a constitutional government, but also about the difficulty of reform at the current time.”

The opposing theory to Tocqueville’s thesis, of course, is the rather newer Western paradigm of resilient authoritarianism that Cheng Li contests. This evolved after the 1989 Tienanmen massacre as an explanation for the puzzling CCP success in effecting tumultuous economic and social change while still perpetuating one-party rule. In this analysis, the CCP has deployed enough violence by police and hired thugs to keep scattered protests from spreading—but has on rare occasions also conciliated irate demonstrators against land seizures in Wukan or construction of a polluting copper alloy plant in Shifang, in order to provide a safety valve and keep tempers from boiling over.

So far Western proponents of the adaptive-authoritarian school of analysis can cite ample supporting evidence. China’s new middle class has stayed conspicuously consumerist rather than turning political. And peasants who protest municipality land grabs still tend to blame injustice on local officials rather than venting their anger on a distant Beijing that routinely ignores China’s own laws and rewards local injustice if it leads to commercial wealth.

Yet the outgoing CCP leadership seems far less impressed by its own adaptability than by its fragility, as its nervous ban over the past ten years on public release of Gini coefficient statistics on the widening rich-poor gap suggests. This fall, the two main CCP factions have made common cause against the danger that Bo Xilai’s escapades might stoke cynicism about why the party tolerated Bo’s behavior before his police chief tried to defect to America. The party factions have not gone beyond damage control, however, to make the fundamental choice between extending the past decade’s stagnation in economic and political reform or starting a new reform wave that might put their Leninist party at risk. Nor have the new president- and premier-designates tipped their hands in a collective leadership that at times of succession favors the bland.

At this point, the policy tug-of-war within party ranks, in part through the surrogate controversy over Tocqueville, is the crucial debate for China’s future. Cheng Li identifies at least three strategic (and not just tactical) party reformers in outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, Quangdong party chief and conciliator of the Wukan protesters Wang Yang, and head of the Politburo Organization Department Li Yuanchao. “Wen, Li and Wang have argued explicitly that democracy reflects universal values and should be the shared aspiration of the Chinese people,” Cheng Li points out.

This trio is supported by an array of intellectuals in both party and semi-autonomous think tanks. They are opposed by those senior officials who have successfully stalled further reforms in recent years.

What the two camps are feuding about is, in essence, the verity of de Tocqueville’s apercu that revolutions erupt not when people suffer the most, but rather when their lives start improving, as the lives of today’s young generation have done spectacularly. Both camps tacitly see today’s China as an ancien regime that is in crisis. Hardliners contend that the only way the Chinese Communists can hang on to power is by suppressing dissent. Reformers argue instead that the only way the party can stave off being swept away by the gathering storm is to loosen its tight bureaucratic control voluntarily and invite outsiders into the political game gradually.

For his part, Cheng Li thinks that time is short, but reform now could still forestall revolution by soliciting support from the 200,000 lawyers and other newcomers in China’s increasingly pluralist society. “If the CCP wants to regain the public’s confidence and avoid a bottom-up revolution, it must embrace genuine systematic democratic change in the country,” he contends. “[Like Taiwan in the 1980s] the CCP must now either make changes to be on the right side of history or be left behind.” Even if there is no “real consensus for the rule of law” in the party now, “sometimes the development of the rule of law happens through necessity, not due to the noble ideas of political leaders.”

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond


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