Thanks to China's top officials, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the Revolution”, a 19th-century classic about the French revolution, has become a best seller in China. According to a report on Business Week [zh], after Chinese Communist Party Vice Premier Wang Qishan highly recommended this book, it sold out in many bookstores in Beijing.
Chong Ming, a history professor who studies Alexis de Tocqueville explained [zh]:
Many civil servants read it just to follow leaders’ interests. In China, officials have a big influence on the political culture.
Why did Chinese officials suggest this classic on the subject of revolution? Scholars started heated discussions on the Chinese social media and blogosphere.
A search of “The Old Regime and the Revolution” on Weibo yields 235,416 results, crackling with quotes from the book:
Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man, socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
Great revolutions that have happened historically, such as violent revolutions, did not occur during a time of poverty. They occurred when economic situations brought polarization to society. This is because at times like these, conflict between social classes is incited. It is easy for those in the bottom classes of the society to turn the flames of their anger into flames of war.
Some scholars think that the social background at the time of French Revolution is very similar to the conditions in today’s China.
Chong Ming said [zh]
Like then in France, China has been through a lot of wars and revolutions in the past, now China is experiencing a transitional period with a centralized power and booming economy. Perhaps this is why the book has touched the nerves of Chinese leaders. I think they are not recommending this book to express their opinions against the reform, because if they thought the book is just about the danger of reform, they would censor it. It is more likely that they try to make people realize the necessity of reform: it is not to be delayed, otherwise, we will face great danger. To some extent, reform is the best way to avoid revolution.
One netizen echoed on Weibo:
银幕街一号 : 想起《旧制度与大革命》一书，当中对大革命前法国的社会冲突及其发展过程的描写，有太多的地方，如果去掉“法国”两个字，活脱就是中国社会现实的高像素图片。甚至于，由于物质条件的提升和财富数量的增加，无知、自大、贪欲和荒淫、无耻、堕落，比起昔日大革命前的法国社会来说，简直有过之而无不及。
银幕街一号 : In the book “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” the description of the social conflict in France before the revolution and its development is a lot similar to today's China. If they remove the word “France”, it's like a high resolution picture of Chinese society. Due to the improvement of material life and increase in wealth, the amount of ignorance, arrogance, greediness, dissolution, shamelessness and depravity compared to the old days before the revolution in France is simply greater.
Some scholars think that the book foreshadows contemporary China.
Prof. Chu Jianguo from Wu Han University said:
Tocqueville discusses: why do people lose more freedom after a revolution that is meant to gain more freedom? The book reminds us of the danger of centralized power, it also reminds us that corruption will lead to failure.
Commentator Cao Yun wrote:
Is it because the top officials predict that a similar large-scale incident like the French Revolution will break out in China anytime? So they use the book as a warning to the whole society? Perhaps Tocqueville's “The Old Regime and the Revolution” serves as a mirror? Even so, this is not a bad intention, as it suggests that the leaders are clear-headed and that they are not fooled by the illusion of the so-called “ten golden years” in the past decade.
Commentator Chen Hu explained:
On the one hand the warning is for officials at all levels: without a sense of crisis, “the Chinese Revolution” might take place. The only way to prevent this is to promote market-oriented economic reform and the rule of law. On the other hand, the warning is for the society as a whole: the pursuit of freedom and democracy can not be done overnight. After the French Revolution the Jacobin dictatorship of “radical people's democracy” can be found in China's “Cultural Revolution”. China's democracy should be realized step by step under the Chinese Communist Party.
Another commentator Nan Manzi concludes [zh]:
It's better to watch what they actually do than to listen to what they say and try to guess what it means.