Can the Chinese have a French Revolution?

Can the Chinese have a French Revolution?

"It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable." – Alexis de Tocqueville

Analysts are analyzing and pundits are opining over the culmination of the Chinese leadership transition this week. In particular we are treated to the analysis of Minxin Pei (and here in a debate with Li Cheng), who is one of the most astute observers of China. And others are offering thoughtful insights about the possible democratization of China, such as Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald who takes his own stab at Pei’s ideas about a Chinese "French" Revolution possibly in the offing. Pei’s and Hartcher’s comments spark my interests when they wonder if what is happening in China this week is the beginning of decennial that will usher in more than simply another turning over of power to a new set of leaders on the Politburo. What they suggest is nothing less than the possibility of a Chinese version of the complete social, political and economic revolution that was the West’s other great revolution and that helped shaped the whole world’s notions of civil society. I think they are on to something given what we have been learning in the last ten years as the Chinese political but especially the economic model has matured. Nevertheless, I think there are significant enough differences between the context of the French Revolution and the context of whatever it is that the Chinese people and state are living through to question whether the analogy can yet be judged valid.

First, the Chinese Communist Party and its officials appear to be smarter and more flexible than were the Bourbon court and its supporters in the late 18th century. I know this might sound odd, but if we examine the last twenty years of what Deng and Co. wrought, we see at least a very clever if not wise regime that has adapted to the way the world works rather than one trying to hold on to an image of the world and itself that won’t work. This is not meant to excuse the horrific violence and continuing oppression, but Mao’s China has been dead and gone for over thirty years. Violence for violence’s sake, attempts at mass societal remaking and upheaval for the purpose of an autocratic leader’s emperor fantasies are a thing of the past. From the end of that era to now, the party and state have sought accommodation with the world’s economic system (and done quite well in it) to the material benefit of the Chinese people and increasingly to the benefit of their ambitions as human beings to thrive in the exercise of their talents and ambitions if not their freedoms. Louis Capet and his court simply refused to grasp reality and adapt to it except in shallow ways and in fits and starts. Again, nothing excuses the party’s oppression and violence against citizens that they readily label enemies of the people whenever convenient, but I’m focusing on a regime’s ability to adapt to change and nothing more.

Second, even though I know many academics reject Fukuyama’s "End of History" thesis (his actual thesis and the straw man some have invented so that they might cast it down), the world that Deng and his successors inherited is one where the language, rhythm and norms moving both rhetoric and policy in the international arena are those of democratic capitalism. The party and successive governments have accepted that they must pretend to respect rights and constitutional norms even though they violate some of them consistently and many others of them often. Hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue-and that can slowly but surely create conditions of reform. After all, China today has tens of millions of business people and entrepreneurs who know and appreciate deeply what it means to provide for themselves in commerce apart from state patronage; hundreds of thousands of lawyers now work throughout Chinese society and call for an end to corruption and for the advent of constitutionalism where before only a few thousand party hands practiced law and then only for state interests; and millions of peasants are engaged in or at least aware of tens of thousands of protests waged annually against government abuses of people’s rights to property (communal or private homesteads) and right to life, including their fetal or infant daughters subject to the horrendous workings of the one-child policy. The party is well aware of all this and avidly seeking ways to mollify these tens of millions. But the House of Bourbon remained tone deaf in the face of the changes and dissent overwhelming them. They did not take seriously that the times and spirit of the age were changing and so were caught unawares and unprepared for it.

And finally, the party and state apparatus live in a time when continuing economic prosperity relies on adapting to democracy and the rule of law rather than assuming mercantilism and patron-client relations can and will forever characterize the system permanently. My own travels in China and interactions with Chinese officials and education leaders reveals an elite eager to explore whatever ideas and methods they can that will help them combat corruption, widespread societal cynicism and the evils of crass materialism that endanger humane society. If those ideas and methods derive from Western religious and philosophical thought, so be it. I have found them to be quite open to hearing from these sources and all this is reawakening an interest in ancient Chinese philosophy: the trio of Marx, Lenin and Mao do not have the answers.

So is the Chinese Communist Party the Bourbons? That is, are they unaware and unprepared for a changed world? I don’t think so and they haven’t been acting that way, whether or not they actually make a successful transition to a more democratic system. So far, they have shown themselves to be adapters at least in terms of economics. They seem to know that adapting there is no longer enough.

Are the half of China that is poor and not yet benefitting from the last thirty years of growth ready to support insurrection in a way that truly shakes the regime? Lots of uprisings over the last ten years might point to such an eventuality, but it still seems doubtful that they are ready to do that on their own or be lead into it by any faction. For now they are still walk-ons in the unfolding drama.

Are the modern Chinese business people and entrepreneurs as well as the lawyers and other such professionals the Chinese "Third Estate," ready to overthrow a party and state they see as unwilling to change? We cannot know…yet. We can speculate that even if a lot of folks in China are reportedly reading Tocqueville on how regimes are most threatened not when everyone is poor and oppressed but when conditions are improving, that does not mean that both the party and the change agents are going to provoke a conflagration. There are factions in the party who, having made a lot of money and who enjoy considerable independence from party strictures (some of it squirreled away overseas if flight is necessary), might be reformers-cum-revolutionaries who are even now inside the palace and will bring reform slowly but surely and without the kind of protracted bloodshed launched by the Jacobins. Maybe they are indeed the Girondins who, given a chance, can bring about a better transformation than Robespierre launched based on the impractical and fantastical ideas of Rousseau. (Of course, if the Jacobins in the party, whoever they are, neutralize such reformers, a terrible upheaval is more likely.)

Who knows? I would be guessing if I offered a prediction. But I think this is at least possible. Time will tell. Maybe this leadership change is the beginning of a long transformation to a more democratic and less authoritarian China, whether Xi knows that or not. I hope the newly re-elected Obama administration is paying attention and thinking of ways to aid that transformation.