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The Tocqueville Paradox January 11, 2013 / Minxin Pei
The Indian Express


This article originally appeared in the Indian Express.

One of the books that has become surprisingly popular in China is Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution, a classic on the causes of the French Revolution. Two of the newly installed members of the Politburo standing committee, allegedly including the premier-designate, not only read the book but also recommended it publicly to their friends.

Much speculation has gone into the reasons behind the sudden popularity of de Tocqueville among China’s top ruling elites. Perhaps they sense that China is on the verge of a social upheaval similar to the one that toppled the Bourbons? Perhaps they want to learn what to do to prevent such a cataclysmic event from sending the Middle Kingdom into chaos again?

If they read de Tocqueville carefully enough, they should be aware of what is now known as the de Tocqueville paradox — a repressive regime runs greater risks of being overthrown when it tries to reform itself.

This paradox was on full display during the recent confrontation between journalists at Southern Weekend, a tabloid official newspaper known for investigative reporting, and Communist Party of China (CPC) propaganda officials (a.k.a. the censors). The incident started after the party’s local propaganda chief, who took offence with the phrase “constitutional rule” in the paper’s New Year editorial, arbitrarily changed much of the editorial and turned an otherwise refreshing article on the need for the rule of law in China into a set of bland official slogans. Incensed by this insult to their intelligence and editorial integrity, journalists at the paper went on a strike and demanded that the propaganda chief be fired.

Fortunately, the confrontation ended without incident a few days later, after party officials managed to reach a face-saving compromise with the journalists that gave the latter a bit more editorial freedom but did not force out the propaganda chief.

There were many remarkable aspects to this story. In a one-party state, defying ruling elites who seldom hesitate to put dissidents behind bars certainly carries enormous personal risk. But apparently, fear has lost its potency to deter outraged journalists from challenging the censors in Guangdong. In addition, it is conventional wisdom that autocracies maintain their rule mainly by preventing disparate social forces from coalescing behind a common political cause. However, this time, the defiant journalists immediately received moral and political support from a diverse range of people, most notably, prominent private businessmen, celebrity actresses, bloggers, and writers. These public figures, who have tens of millions of followers on the Chinese twitter, rallied behind the journalists with the help of social media. The ensuing focus of the international media and China’s vibrant online community put enormous pressure on China’s new leadership to handle the incident with greater care and more flexibility.

The political implications of the protest over censorship are both profound and worrying.

On the one hand, it is clear that there are, in Chinese society, powerful pent-up frustrations with one-party rule, in particular with its restrictions on civil liberties. Those who find one-party rule increasingly illegitimate and unbearable will seek every opportunity to show their defiance. Ironically, the newly installed Chinese leadership has created such an opportunity.

Since he became the CPC’s new chief last November, Xi Jinping has worked very hard to project a progressive and reformist public image. Some of the policy initiatives his government has announced, such as reforming the household registration system that effectively keeps rural migrants in second-class citizenship status and the abusive administrative detention system that allows local officials to lock up protesters and dissidents for up to three years without a judicial process, are intended to burnish his credentials as a bold and forward-looking leader.

Just as the de Tocqueville paradox predicts, the softening of repression is more likely to make the existing form of repression even less tolerable. Naturally, China’s pro-democracy forces have capitalised on the political opening created by China’s leadership transition to press for real change and test whether Xi’s reformist rhetoric will be matched by reformist deeds.

In fact, human rights activists and liberal intellectuals fired the first shot in China’s renewed struggle for political openness shortly before Southern Weekend’s journalists defied the censors. At the end of last year, a group of prominent academics, writers, and social activists published an open letter to the CPC, calling for democracy and the rule of law. Some days ago, human rights advocates pushed away a security guard blocking access to the apartment of Liu Xia, wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, and met her for 15 minutes. This was no ordinary act of political courage. The Chinese government has made her a virtual prisoner in her own apartment since October 2010, when her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By meeting her in person, China’s dissident community not only showed their moral support, but also delivered a black eye to the face-conscious Chinese government.

Based on the logic of the de Tocqueville paradox, similar acts of defying one-party rule will only increase in the future — as long as the new Chinese leadership maintains its current strategy of projecting a reformist image.

This, undoubtedly, will put the new leadership team, particularly Xi, in a political quandary. If Chinese leaders allow such challenges to continue and escalate, they will risk a Chinese-style glasnost that will eventually threaten their hold on power. If they choose to crack down on these progressive social forces, they will destroy their credibility as more open-minded and reformist leaders. At the moment, it appears that the soft-liners in the regime may have a slight upper-hand. But the hardliners are merely waiting to pounce — when their opportunity comes.

The only thing we can predict with some degree of confidence is that politics in China will get far more interesting after a decade of superficial tranquility. Perhaps we now understand why de Tocqueville’s diagnosis of the French revolution fascinates Beijing’s new rulers.

Minxin Pei is a non-resident fellow on the German Marshall Fund's Asia Program.