An anecdote about US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 has long been regarded as confirmation of the long view of history taken by Chinese leaders. Zhou Enlai, Mao’s dutiful number two, is said to have responded to a question about the lessons of the French Revolution by saying that it was too soon to tell. In fact, according to diplomats who were there, Zhou was discussing not the revolution of 1789, but the 1968 student uprising in Paris, so it probably really was too soon to tell.
After this false start, lessons from the French Revolution have made a comeback in China. Shortly after the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, it was reported that Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, written in 1856, had become a “must-read” for senior CCP cadres. The book’s merits were most enthusiastically touted by Wang Qishan, the man at the helm of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign and perhaps Xi’s closest ally.
Toqueville argued that growing prosperity in eighteenth-century France had actually made it more difficult to govern the country. As people became wealthier, they also became more aware of social and economic inequalities and thus increasingly resentful of the rich and powerful. Attempts to reform the system only highlighted its vulnerabilities. Revolution followed, sweeping away the monarchy and aristocracy. Their heads literally rolled.
The CCP’s just-completed 19th National Congress showed the extent to which China’s leaders have taken Toqueville’s insights to heart. Xi asserted his undisputed authority over his party and country. Xi consolidated his position during his first term, by reversing much of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy, including the opening of China’s economy, the separation of the CCP from government, and a low-key approach to foreign and security policy.
Xi has also swept aside potential rivals, relying primarily on his far-reaching anti-corruption campaign to target officials previously thought to be untouchable. He has just overseen the largest-ever purge of the CCP Central Committee. He has cracked down on even the most restrained criticism or signs of dissent, and has even banned Internet jokes, including memes comparing him to Winnie the Pooh.
In another country, such measures might trigger harsh reproach, with critics accusing Xi of turning his country into an old-school Leninist dictatorship. In China, however, they have drawn praise from observers who believe that Xi is leading the way to the fulfillment of the “Chinese dream” to rejuvenate the country.
But, for some, the dream is on the verge of becoming a nightmare. Demographic trends are threatening to turn the labor surplus that helped drive China’s rapid growth over the last few decades into a labor shortage at an unprecedented pace. Water contamination and scarcity, alongside carbon dioxide emissions and lethal levels of air pollution, are imperiling people’s health and jeopardizing the sustainability of China’s economic performance.
Moreover, Chinese GDP growth, while welcome, is being fueled largely by a combination of fast-rising debt and widespread property bubbles. Even Chinese researchers admit that their country has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. As the poor get poorer and the rich get richer, many are asking if this is what “socialism with Chinese characteristics” really means.
Of course, there is always an optimist around to offer a positive spin. China owes most of its debt to itself, because political priorities guide lending as much as commercial considerations do. China supports international efforts to address environmental degradation and climate change. Most people are becoming better off, if unevenly. And Xi’s administration is at least doing something to stamp out the endemic corruption in the CCP.
We should all hope that at least some of what China’s cheerleaders say is true; if Chinese growth collapses, the entire global economy will suffer. But, even if the optimists are partly vindicated, Xi’s claim that China has found a better way to run a modern society and economy seems far wide of the mark.
To be sure, from the stupefying antics of US President Donald Trump to the damaging rise of populist nationalism in Europe, democratic countries are experiencing their share of trials. But democratic systems have built-in stabilizing mechanisms that enable them to right themselves without resorting to violence or repression.
That is not the case in Xi’s China. For years, there was a serious debate in China about the state’s proper role in economic affairs. One camp maintained that if the CCP relaxed its grip on the economy, it would inevitably lose control of the state. Others argued just the opposite: unless the Party ceded more economic control, it would lose political power, as the economy’s contradictions multiplied and development became less sustainable. Xi clearly falls into the statist camp.
But it is not just the Party that Xi is empowering; he is also empowering himself. In fact, it is hard to know who is ascending the CCP’s commanding heights and who will be struck down for disagreeing with the paramount leader. This hasn’t deterred outsiders from speculating, but there is not much point in playing that guessing game. Xi, like any other emperor, will continue to appoint courtiers who follow him wherever he leads.
But with great power comes great responsibility – and, at this point, Xi’s power is virtually absolute. That is a heavy burden for one man. Xi may be much smarter than Trump (not a high hurdle to clear), but that is not enough to guarantee a stable and prosperous future for China. And, if things go wrong, everyone will know whom to blame. There is a reason why dictatorial dynasties tend to end up the same way. You don’t have to read Toqueville to know that.