It is witty these days to observe that the Chinese Politburo's required reading list, apparently recommended by the daunting anti-graft chief Wang Qishan, includes The Old Regime and the Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville.
This French noble is well known for his admiring perspective on Democracy in America. He was also politically active in France and wrote penetratingly about his native country. Why is 'fireman Wang' rummaging through The Old Regime? For the same historical aspect that also amazed Tocqueville: not the fact of the revolution itself, but that it happened in France. As Tocqueville says, 'At the outset one fact is surprising: the Revolution did not break out in those countries where firmly entrenched institutions most inflicted their oppression and violence upon the people, but in those where they least did so.'
In the late 1700s France was Europe's rising power. Only a generation later, despite the turmoil of its Revolution, it would bid for control of all the continent. Tocqueville surmised that it was the very progress of French society, at a time when many neighbours remained feudal or even medieval, which fueled the ambitions — and the resentment — of the mob:
The slightest arbitrary decisions from Louis XVI seemed more difficult to tolerate than the whole of Louis XIV's despotic regime. In 1780 no one was claiming anymore that France was in decline; on the contrary it was said that there were no longer any barriers to its advancement. Twenty years before, the future held no hope; now nothing was to be feared from it.
What Wang reads into this book is that the maximum danger to an authoritarian government is when it reforms successfully, for the rising expectations of its citizens may eventually become unattainable. They may demand new liberties whereas before they suffered without, as in revolutionary France: 'consequently, their yoke became most unbearable where it was, in fact, least burdensome.' They may come to resent the privileges of the elites and the injustices of a rigged legal system: 'the evils, patiently endured as inevitable, seem unbearable as soon as the idea of escaping them is removed...the burden has become lighter but the sensitivity more acute.'
Hannah Arendt, referencing Tocqueville just four pages into her masterwork The Origins of Totalitarianism, articulated the dangers of loosening control:
...the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by [a] decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country. In other words, neither oppression nor exploitation as such is ever the main cause for resentment; wealth without visible function is much more intolerable because nobody can understand why it should be tolerated.
The parallels with domestic China apparently are evident to Wang. Perhaps so is the fact that France too was a resurgent actor on the world stage. Less than a century later the last absolutist monarchy, Tsarist Russia, would haltingly attempt emancipation of its serfs, suffer a surprising military defeat, suppress an uprising and become drawn into major power conflict, all before finally succumbing to bloody revolution. Yet Russia was perceived then as a rising power, with the world's fastest economic growth rate, a manic railway building program and an awesome steel production output.
It is therefore understandable that Chinese leaders are interested in the fate of the anciens regimes. In fact, some informed observers see it as a healthy sign of paranoia and open-mindedness. What is more notable is that Tocqueville's book, rather than say Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, should adorn the bedside reading tables in Zhongnanhai. Writing in 1790 as the communes burned, Burke deplored the Jacobin uprising as the vandalism of his beloved social contract. As one biographer recently put it, 'he denounced what he considered their misplaced faith in principles such as "abstract liberty" and "the rights of men" and for their rejection of more pragmatic, procedural paths.'
Burke did not seek to make state institutions conform to precise moral ideals, much less to achieve the abstract goal of democracy. Instead, he pushed for what people today might call 'good governance.' Burke did not subscribe to views of 'universal values' nor of innate 'human rights', and he thought suffrage might not be suited to all peoples. He advocated wise, restrained authority, and 'regularity, consistency, and predictability when it comes to interpreting and enforcing laws.'
One might imagine Chinese leaders nodding approvingly at Burke's pragmatic encouragement.
Instead it is Tocqueville's piercing historical account from which they draw a harsher conclusion: reform must proceed with an iron grip. If China is becoming more intolerant of journalists, human rights activists, foreign media, Western influences and subversive ideologies, dissidents and other 'hostile forces', it is may be partly due to Tocqueville's haunting little volume.