Does Alexis de Tocqueville have anything to say to the current generation of Chinese leaders? Strange indeed, but Tocqueville’s Old Regime may be exactly the book for this moment in Chinese history. As Tocqueville himself explains, his aim in writing about that bloody and ultimately disastrous revolution was “to discover not only what illness killed the patient, but how the patient could have been cured. . . . My purpose has been to paint a picture both accurate and instructive.”
Some major themes of the book cannot help but remind the Chinese of their own circumstances. For a Chinese reader, the revolution of 1789 is neither the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the last imperial dynasty and established the Republic of China, nor the Communist revolution of 1949, but the revolution they wish to avoid in the future by achieving a successful transition from their current situation to a more stable order. This reading suggests, paradoxically, that the Chinese are still living under the Old Regime.
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?
… and here’s a sign that the population is starting to not fear the government and are expressing some rebellious behaviour …
On Monday morning, hundreds of people silently walked by abandoned cars and empty buses on a Beijing expressway. Bloggers on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, posted photos of the phenomenon and immediately compared the images of the “drone-like” people to scenes in AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Had zombies invaded the Chinese capital? No, residents were frustrated by traffic moving at the rate of “millimeters per minute.” So they simply turned off their ignitions, locked their doors, and left their vehicles on the road.
An assertive populace is something the Communist Party cannot handle. Every day, the seven men of the Standing Committee must worry that one day the Chinese people will tell them they are able to think for themselves and make their own choices, free of the Leninist institution that presumes to be the infallible interpreter of history.
On Monday, several hundred fed-up residents of Beijing violated all the rules and left their cars parked on a highway. Suppose, instead of being aggravated over traffic, they were frustrated over the lack of say in their lives and they walked to the center of their city, demanding the right to govern themselves.