The Tocqueville paradox

China is finding out that a repressive regime is most at risk when it tries to reform

One of the books that has become surprisingly popular in China is Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution, a classic on the causes of the French Revolution. Two of the newly installed members of the Politburo standing committee, allegedly including the premier-designate, not only read the book but also recommended it publicly to their friends.

Much speculation has gone into the reasons behind the sudden popularity of de Tocqueville among China's top ruling elites. Perhaps they sense that China is on the verge of a social upheaval similar to the one that toppled the Bourbons? Perhaps they want to learn what to do to prevent such a cataclysmic event from sending the Middle Kingdom into chaos again?

If they read de Tocqueville carefully enough, they should be aware of what is now known as the de Tocqueville paradox — a repressive regime runs greater risks of being overthrown when it tries to reform itself.

This paradox was on full display during the recent confrontation between journalists at Southern Weekend, a tabloid official newspaper known for investigative reporting, and Communist Party of China (CPC) propaganda officials (a.k.a. the censors). The incident started after the party's local propaganda chief, who took offence with the phrase "constitutional rule" in the paper's New Year editorial, arbitrarily changed much of the editorial and turned an otherwise refreshing article on the need for the rule of law in China into a set of bland official slogans. Incensed by this insult to their intelligence and editorial integrity, journalists at the paper went on a strike and demanded that the propaganda chief be fired.

Fortunately, the confrontation ended without incident a few days later, after party officials managed to reach a face-saving compromise with the journalists that gave the latter a bit more editorial freedom but did not force out the propaganda chief.

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