China and the French RevolutionAt the end of last year, Wang Qishan, who was appointed to serve as secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Chinese Communist Party, hosted a roundtable discussion with experts. The topic was anti-corruption and the participants said the atmosphere was intense. Wang suddenly distributed a book. “Many people are reading books from the post-capitalism era, but we need to read books from the previous time,” he said. The experts were surprised.
Until now, best-sellers in China often talked about the glory of Sinocentrism and their topics were often about the Great Tang Empire or the Great Qing Empire. But this time, the book was about a decline, not a rise. The book was about France and an event 200 years ago - a work from 1865 by the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, “L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution” or “the Old Regime and the Revolution.” The analysis on the French revolution in 1789 - and the best-known work of Tocqueville - was not a popular best-seller in China. So why did Wang ask the participants to read it?
We need to pay attention to the Tocqueville paradox. History textbooks often say a revolution takes place when the tyranny of a dictator or corruption reaches its peak and the people are in distress and misery. But Tocqueville argued that a revolution takes place not when a situation is at its worst, but when it is improving - particularly when material situations are better.
Wang’s episode demonstrates the Chinese leadership’s sense of crisis that the situation in China is similar to the eve of the French revolution. Today, Chinese people are enjoying the best quality of life since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. Last year, the gross domestic product per capita of China hit $6,200 with the figure for Shenzhen reaching $20,000, close to that of Korea’s.
And yet, people’s dissatisfaction with Chinese society is higher than ever. Every day, more than 500 demonstrations with more than 50 protesters take place. The protests have various reasons - they fight against forcible eviction and corruption and for political reforms.
Tocqueville said when some evils are fixed, problems that are not dealt with would become more unbearable. In fact, the life of Chinese people has greatly improved in comparison to their lives in the past, but their demands are growing bigger and bigger. When you are hungry, the only goal will be escaping the hunger. But when you are full, more thoughts follow.
Wu Jinglian, one of the preeminent economists in China, said the paradox of Chinese economic society has almost reached its critical point. Professor Cheng Yung-nien, a Chinese politics specialist at the National University of Singapore, also said that China must reform or there will be a revolution.
The 20th century of China was about the history of revolution. The Xinhai Revolution ended the Qing Dynasty, and the Communist Revolution built the People’s Republic of China. After the country’s foundation, China saw a series of social movements such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
After Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform, the flags of revolution were handed over from the Communist Party to intellectuals and students. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Charter 08 - a political manifesto signed by Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo - and the Jasmine Movement followed.
Liang Qichao, a famous philosopher from the late Qing Dynasty, said revolutions in China are ordinary events. According to Liang, the Chinese have two ways to resist. One is refusing to work and another is staging a revolution. He said that was why the Chinese people thought it was nothing extraordinary to overthrow a dynasty.
When a dynastic revolution fails, you become a traitor, but when it succeeds, you can become an emperor. Only the strongest were respected and nothing else mattered. In the end, rebellions never stopped and thousands of years of Chinese history were written with blood, he said.
From an outside point of view, it is hard to say that China is facing a revolution. But the politicians in China appeared to have different thoughts. All the senior public servants higher than provincial governors were ordered to read the book by Tocqueville.
In the past, heavy taxes were often a trigger of revolution. Of the four major revolutions in world history, three - the Glorious Revolution, American Revolution and French Revolution - began because of tax issues. That’s why the Chinese experts said Li Keqiang, China’s next premier in waiting, is focusing his policies on tax cuts.
Major targets are micro-businesses. It is a new concept in China. They are tiny companies that make up a cottage industry. The intention is to cut taxes on the micro-businesses, which create many jobs, in order to revitalize the economy.
The measure is similar to Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye’s recent remarks that she will “take out the sliver under the nail” to protect small- and medium-sized companies. Both new leaders of Korea and China are determined to nurture small companies to resolve economy issues involving livelihoods.
What will be the outcome in five years? Because the two countries have a similar awareness of the problems, the outcomes will be decided by actual implementation.
A strong will is the key and China appears to have a stronger will than Korea because politicians in China are armed with a sense of desperation that they will face a revolution if their reform fails. Sometimes, we should learn a lesson from China.
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
by You Sang-chul