Tocqueville in China


Rebecca Liao in Dissent:

One of the most vibrant intellectual discussions in China this year began with a tweet on Weibo, China’s premier micro-blogging service and anointed online town square. Economist Hua Sheng had just met with Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, China’s anti-corruption czar, charged with fixing the country’s most important political problem. As Sinologist Joseph Fewsmith reported, Hua breathlessly tweeted after the meeting:

I went to the sea [海, an apparent abbreviation for 中南海, the seat of Communist power] to see my old leader. He recommended I read Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution. He believes that a big country like China that is playing such an important role in the world, whether viewed from the perspective of history or the external environment facing it today, will not modernize all that smoothly. The price the Chinese people have paid is still not enough.

Hua’s self-congratulatory reporting on social media would spur the cheapest propaganda campaign the Chinese government has instituted in years—one that is part of a tradition of intellectual suggestion by senior Chinese leaders, usually through sharing current reading lists. Wen Jiabao, China’s previous premier, popularized Marcus Aurelius’s The Meditationsby revealing that he had read it over a hundred times. And since Wang plugged The Old Regime late last year, Tocqueville’s tome has been front and center at the bookstore of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, where China’s future leaders are trained. The curious and ambitious in China are reading it, too, making it one of the country’s best-selling titles in the last few months.