Back in 2013, senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official Wang Qishan, who was then head of the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), and is widely considered the architect of President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign, instructed party officials to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution). This is notable in part because the Xi regime has a reputation for rejecting Western thinking, particularly with respect to governance. The timing is also intriguing, in that Wang’s advice that CCP officials should read Tocqueville’s text occurred right as the anticorruption drive was getting underway.
It’s tempting to dismiss Wang’s apparent interest in and enthusiasm for Tocqueville is a minor idiosyncratic biographical detail, with little connection to his or the CCP’s approach to governance generally, or anticorruption more specifically. But I think his interest in Tocqueville’s work is more significant, and more revealing, about the thinking shaping China’s anticorruption strategy today.
For starters, Wang’s interest in this particular work—which discusses the factors that contributed to the French Revolution in 1789—is consistent with the hypothesis that Xi’s anticorruption campaign is motivated in large part by the desire to maintain the legitimacy of the CCP and avert any potential popular uprising. As one CCDI official explained in a 2013 piece in the state-run China Daily, Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution “showed that the revolution was caused by a collapse of public trust,” and that because the French monarchy “had told too many lies, … when it eventually told the truth, the people didn’t believe them.” In short, Wang and his fellow CCDI officials seem to have found in Tocqueville a useful reminder that to stay in power, a regime needs to maintain credibility with the people. And in contemporary China, rampant corruption is one of the principal threats to public trust in the CCP.
More broadly, as the political scientist James Ceaser has observed, Tocqueville was “one of the first thinkers to address two themes that have preoccupied modern thinkers of China: modernization and transition.” Tocqueville’s observations about the conditions in pre-Revolution France that contributed to the regime’s loss of legitimacy—especially widening inequality and the resentment it fostered—may have considerable resonance in modern China, where inequality is widening rapidly, and many ordinary citizens still believe that corruption, nepotism, and insider connections are the only way to get ahead. As Wang allegedly said to one of his former subordinates back in 2013, reading The Old Regime and the Revolution is important because it shows that the “transformation towards modernity will not be smooth.”
At the same time, Wang’s enthusiasm for this particular work may shed light on why the CCP has been so insistent on a top-down approach to anticorruption, one that marginalizes and subdues civil society, rather than enlisting its support in the fight against corruption and other forms of misgovernment. One of Tocqueville’s key insights about the conditions leading up to the French Revolution was that the revolution occurred due in large part to rising expectations on the part of the citizenry, which produced a widening gap between what citizens expected and what they received. Thus, while a regime must reform—and improve the conditions of its citizens—to maintain its legitimacy, the process of reform may cause citizen expectations for improved governance to rise faster than the government can meet those expectations. The lesson that Wang and other CCP officials seem to have taken from Tocqueville’s insight is that, even as the process of reform moves forward, the CCP must remain firmly in control, and citizens must know their place and not start to get ideas about their ability to play an active role in reforming the Chinese state and society.
Of course, deriving this sort of lesson from Tocqueville may reflect an incomplete reading of his works. For one thing, Tocqueville noted that responding to severe inequality through further centralization of power could worsen the situation. Perhaps more importantly, Tocqueville’s other great work, Democracy in America, concluded that the development of civic associations and decentralization of power through local governance were critical elements for modernization. Tocqueville noted this exercise of power at the lowest levels of society was partly what differentiated America from France at the time. More broadly, Tocqueville recognized that a mismatch of an increasingly pluralistic society and undemocratic polity would lead to instability.
It seems that Wang and other CCP officials have largely neglected or ignored this aspect of Tocqueville’s thought, and are betting instead on the possibility of shoring up the legitimacy of the CCP by simultaneously cleaning up the government and clamping down on citizen activism. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will prove effective in reducing corruption. But if Wang and others are genuinely interested in learning from Tocqueville, and not just appropriating the bits and pieces that fit existing ideas about how to approach reform, they might benefit from paying more attention to Tocqueville’s celebration of civil society and decentralization of power. At various points in Chinese history, civil society has flourished, and with the right political conditions and support, it could do so again. As Tocqueville might argue if he studied a 21st century China, a vibrant civil society would not undermine China’s long-term stability, but rather strengthen it.