Truman National Security Project

What The French Revolution Can Teach China

By Ziad Haider | 8.13.13

“Let China sleep; when she awakes, she will shake the world.” Uttered by Napoleon Bonaparte two centuries ago, these words now seem prescient. Yet pitfalls a plenty remain in China’s rise. Chief among these, of course, is the stability and legitimacy of one-party rule. But why has the Chinese leadership turned to another Frenchman, political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville? Why has his classic work The Old Regime and the Revolution become a best seller in China? And ultimately, what lessons can Beijing learn from the French Revolution?

Interest in China in Tocqueville and the revolution can be traced to the upper echelons of China’s highest leadership body, the Politburo’s Standing Committee. Vice Premier Wang Qishan, chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, is responsible for combating corruption in the party – a priority for China’s new leadership to shore up its standing after a string of scandals. Now, Tocqueville is featured in the bookstore of the Communist Party School where China’s leaders are trained, where his 1856 book is reportedly described as “recommended” by Wang Qishan.

So what lessons might Chinese officials draw from Tocqueville’s account of the revolution?

First, popular perceptions of ruling class excesses must be checked. Such was the view of the Old Regime in France, embodied by a scandal that supposedly involved Marie Antoinette’s participation in a scheme to defraud the crown jewelers over an exorbitant diamond necklace. The scandal seized the public imagination and stoked widespread anger in the lead up to the revolution.

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China’s new leadership is aware that many Communist Party officials are viewed as abusing their authority and wasting money. Along with the indictment and trial of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai for bribery and abuse of power, curbs have been imposed that have included anything from banning ads touting luxury items “as gifts for leaders,” to reining in spending on official banquets.

Second, the monarchy’s frequent intervention in judicial proceedings to protect its officials fueled public disenchantment. Presiding over a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Party’s Central Committee in February, President Xi Jinping addressed a similar theme: the need for all organizations and individual to be subject to the Constitution and the laws. Last year, more than 30,000 party members were punished for accepting bribes or embezzlement, while the overall number punished was up 12.5 percent from the previous year, according to state media. Yet Chinese activists remain unimpressed.

Third, reforms can paradoxically backfire. Many of the reforms the Revolution hailed as its own were seeded by the Old Regime (“Louis XVI did nothing but speak about reforms”). Compared to elsewhere in Europe, France offered greater rights and liberties than places such as Germany, where forced labor and restrictive property rights were prevalent. Yet these limited freedoms, as Tocqueville ominously notes, pried open the door to wholesale Revolution:

“…if the peasant had not owned the land, he would not have been aware of several of the burdens which the feudal system imposed on agricultural property…Meanwhile the ideas of the time were already creeping into these coarse minds from all directions, entering by roundabout and underground paths, and they assumed in these dark and narrow places peculiar shapes.”

How Chinese officials interpret this paradox at the heart of Tocqueville’s analysis of the revolution is the question. Xi’s important anti-corruption and rule of law measures have been accompanied by a crackdown on Chinese anti-corruption activists. The latest target: Xu Zhiyong, a law lecturer who has campaigned for officials to further disclose their personal assets. The regime’s understanding of the need to reform thus coexists with a fear of losing control – a bias Tocqueville seems to confirm.

Yet given the book’s official sanction, Chinese citizens are reading it as well. And their conclusions may differ. In a colorful example of literature, politics, and music blending in “revolutionary” fervor, last year thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong on the anniversary of the British handover to China. As they marched, they chanted a song from Victor Hugo’s classic Les Misérables that culminates in the 1832 Paris Uprising during Tocqueville’s era: “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men?”

Fueled by localized governance grievances, “mass incidents” of social unrest have become increasingly common in China. So far, the Party has adeptly contained them. Yet given his life and times, Tocqueville might well proffer two more cautionary words for consideration on assessing the landscape in China: “Déjà vu.”

Ziad Haider is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on CNN online.