French political writer and historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work on France’s 1789 revolution, “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” has become a bestseller in China – more than 150 years after it was first published.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th century French political writer, sociologist and historian is certainly a celebrated figure in France. His liberal-minded and analytical prose is perhaps even more widely read and studied in the US. But now, more than 150 years after his death, Tocqueville’s words have found a new audience – China.
One may be hard-pressed to find a link between Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the Revolution” (“L’ancien régime et la Révolution”), originally published in 1856, and modern-day China. But the book has become a sensation, rising to the top of bestseller lists and lighting up discussions on China’s social networking website, Weibo.
The success of “The Old Regime and the Revolution” has largely been attributed to leading members of China’s Communist Party, who recommended it to their peers. In the book Tocqueville explores the idea that major revolutions, like the French Revolution, do not occur during times of poverty, but rather when disparities between classes have become great enough to divide society. In other words, when a small handful of people are extremely rich, and the vast majority of people are not.
Tocqueville’s writings may seem like an odd recommendation considering that China’s Communist Party has been dogged in recent months by reports of widespread corruption. In one recent incident, Chinese authorities denied New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley a visa for 2013, after the newspaper published an investigative piece in October alleging that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family had accumulated billions of dollars in assets during his leadership.
Chong Ming, a history professor who studies Tocqueville’s work, told the citizen journalism website Global Voices, that the book may have struck a nerve in China because the conditions leading up to the French Revolution in some ways mirror the situation in China today.
“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,” Chong said.
“I think [Chinese leaders]… are [trying] 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,” he added.