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In December 2012, an unusual candidate appeared on the Chinese bestseller lists: a twenty-year-old academic translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, first published in French in 1856. The trigger for this new fame of an old book was even more bizarre than the fact itself. By all accounts, the newly appointed secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China, Wang Qishan, had casually mentioned the book during a speech made on 30 November 2012. How could his casual remark become viral? And why is this relevant for the problem of social cohesion?

China’s political system partly explains the public interest in the book. Timing is important here. On 8–15 November, the 18th Party Congress elected a new Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, with Xi Jinping (as chairman of both the Party and the government) and Wang as members. The new appointments followed the high-profile fall from grace of Chongqing governor Bo Xilai and his patron, Zhou Yongkang, in the Standing Committee . Wang, now in charge of a sweeping anti-corruption campaign to clean up the government and the Party, made his recommendation during a meeting with experts who offered advice. In an asymmetric power structure, interpretive labor is a survival technique for those on the receiving end.[1] Several trade journals directed at public servants and Party cadres scrambled to offer an analysis of what Wang could have possibly been implying by recommending this book.

This was not to remain the whole story. Eager netizens – spontaneous or not – soon circulated (and continue to do so) lists of Wang’s other book recommendations, made in a similarly casual way at more or less high-ranking meetings. Wang himself seems to have never officially endorsed such an endeavor or even commented on it. The lists, though slightly different, comprise only five books in total, going as far back as 1986 but none after 2013.[2] The latest recommendations – Michael Dobbs’s novel House of Cards (1989), public philosopher Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2010), and Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution – could as well reveal the influence of US culture and intellectual debates on the Chinese leadership. Tocqueville was having a moment in the US, too. Between 2008 and 2010, a project titled “Tocqueville on China” at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, explored liberal options for China’s political development.[3] In 2011, a new English translation of The Ancien Régime and the Revolution was published in the US. Three new Chinese translations have since appeared, one of them in Taiwan.

Xi's anti-corruption campaign

Wang’s choice of books also satisfied immediate policy needs. Nele Noesselt has studied the Chinese craze for Tocqueville in its early phase and found that the official understanding of the book boiled down to the message that the French Ancien Régime robbed the nobility of its political power but not of its privileges. This oversight in turn became the ultimate cause for the revolution.[4] The importance of a warning against an unfinished struggle with corrupt elites was instantly clear within the context of Wang’s anti-corruption mission. In January 2013, Xi made his famous speech in which he promised not to spare the “tigers”, i.e. the high officials.[5] The anti-corruption campaign is certainly Xi’s most popular policy; one may even say that it is his most populist policy because it pits the people against alleged corrupt elites.[6]

Critical intellectuals also seized on Wang’s recommendation to voice their grievances. Naturally, liberals were most enthusiastic. In December, Zhu Xueqin, an expert on Rousseau, wrote two essays in the prestigious magazine Southern Weekly. Zhu did not dwell on the Ancien Régime but tackled the question of revolution head-on. The translation of “French Revolution” as “Great Revolution” in Chinese instantly draws the parallel to the Chinese “Great Revolution”, namely the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).[7] Hidden in Zhu Xueqin’s essay is not only an indictment of the Cultural Revolution but also a plea to end the suppression of the academic study of its history. The article was the beginning of the end of liberalism as a force in public discourse. In January 2013, the Southern Weekly staged a rebellion against the Party secretary of Guangdong province who had re-engineered its New Year’s editorial, “The Chinese Dream is a Constitutional Dream” (a comment on Xi’s master slogan “Chinese Dream”). After years of harassment, the last independent liberal think tank, Unirule, was shut down in 2019.[8]

The French scholar’s dilemma

Nele Noesselt has rightly observed that Tocquevillian debates in China do not indicate scholarly interest in French history but are mirror debates in which other systems serve as models, counter-images, or distorted mirrors of China’s reality.[9] More pertinent comparisons between France’s and China’s anti-monarchic revolutions are rare indeed.[10] However, the same holds true for many European or American discourses about China, even in Tocqueville’s time. “I am not exaggerating”, wrote Tocqueville in 1856, “when I say that there was not a single Economist who did not somewhere in his writings lavish fulsome praise on China. […] For them, China was what first England and then America would later become for all the French.”[11]

Despite their marginalization, mainland China’s liberal academics continue to promote the reading of Tocqueville. Their outlook has become darker as they discovered the French scholar’s dilemma that an individualized society with a high degree of “equality of conditions” (Tocqueville’s socially defined “democracy” and per se a good thing) invites despotism. According to Chong Ming – China’s foremost Tocqueville scholar – savage capitalism and insufficient social security, combined with long-ongoing processes of individualization and government suppression of public association and expression, have created “isolated, selfish and irresponsible individuals” who withdraw into their own career and family and “don’t feel any loss or inconvenience because of the unavailability of public life. They are not even conscious of this loss.”[12] Or, as sociologist Li Junpeng puts it, Chinese society has contracted the “French disease”.[13] In such a society, the only imaginable solution to the lack of social cohesion is the tutelary state – Tocqueville’s “democratic despotism” – because the self-obsessed, atomized individuals “willingly give up their political rights and abandon the management of local and national public affairs, even those which touch them directly, to the state provided that the state can satisfy their material well-being.”[14] In the long run, this form of despotism is inherently unstable, but few would follow the argument of Hong Kong political philosopher Ci Jiwei, whose own exploration of the Tocquevillian dilemma led him to believe that the Communist Party would voluntarily increase democratic participation in view of this danger.[15]

Reading between the lines

What does this mean for debates on social cohesion in China? One symptom of the shrinking intellectual space under Xi is that scholars publish openly critical essays in English abroad but tread much more carefully in their Chinese publications, if they publish at all. This should remind us that we cannot easily take opinions expressed in China – whether published or collected as opinion poll – at face value. Instead, we should consider Leo Strauss’s recommendation in Persecution and the Art of Writing (1941) to relearn “reading between the lines”. Persecution cannot prevent independent thinking, but it distorts its communication. In the best case, the independent thinker hides his true meaning behind an exoteric façade.[16] In the worst case, his ideas remain unpublished and unspoken. Fortunately, Xi himself comes to the rescue. One element that seems to be missing from Xi’s top-down populism is any inkling of the strong anti-intellectual tendency that accompanies populist movements elsewhere. Chinese leaders behave unabashedly intellectualist and seek to dazzle their captive audiences with erudite quotations taken from Chinese and world history, philosophy, social science, and even global pop culture. Each of these references in turn gets a chance to provide a foil upon which contentious views can be expressed. Recourse to distant history or foreign lands allows discussion of issues that could otherwise be classified as destabilizing.[17]

As part of the Research Institute Social Cohesion, a new project titled “The Chinese dream as an alternative for Germany? Social alternatives on the global market of ideas” studies how foreign models are contested as both utopias and anti-utopias in the political and philosophical discourses of both China and Germany. Sinology has a long tradition of careful textual study. Its philological approach is particularly well equipped to read between the lines and find the conflicts and dilemmas in the search for China’s future, hidden by communicative mainstreaming. As China is poised to reorder the world, these skills are more necessary than ever.[18]



[1] David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015), 67.

[2] See a recent list by a self-declared member of the Sixth Communist International: 慶君為狂. “王岐山读过的书里有他的气质他的情怀”. Medium, 15 September 2020.王岐山读过的书里有他的气质他的情怀-2ada279bee60.

[3] American Enterprise Institute - AEI. “Tocqueville on China Project”. Accessed 22 November 2020.

[4] Noesselt, Nele. “Alexis de Tocqueville in China: Spiegeldebatten über Reformbedarf und Revolutionsgefahr”. Leviathan 42, no. 3 (2014): 346–62.

[5] Xi, Jinping. “Persevere in Tackling Both ‘Tigers’ and ‘Flies’ in the Battle against Corruption”. Übersetzt von Ted Wang. Chinese Law and Government 48 (1 January 2016): 459–61.

[6] Zhu, Jiangnan, Huang Huang, and Dong Zhang. “‘Big Tigers, Big Data’: Learning Social Reactions to China’s Anticorruption Campaign through Online Feedback”. Public Administration Review 79, no. 4 (2019): 500–513.

[7] 朱学勤. “出家、思凡、大还俗 ——朱学勤谈《旧制度与大革命》”. 南方周末, 13. Dezember 2012.; 朱学勤. ““托克维尔线”——朱学勤谈《旧制度与大革命》之二”. 南方周末, 13 December 2012. (these articles are no longer online).

[8] Unirule. “Statement on the Banning of Unirule Institute of Economics”, 27 August 2019.

[9] Nele Noesselt, op. cit., 356.

[10] Hiroshi Watanabe, “The French, Meiji and Chinese Revolutions in the Conceptual Framework of Tocqueville”, The Tocqueville Review 38, no. 1 (30 May 2017): 63–79.

[11] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 147.

[12] Chong Ming, “Democracy in China: Tocquevillian Reflections”, The Tocqueville Review 38, no. 1 (30 May 2017): 86, 89.

[13] Junpeng Li, “Collective Individualism and Revolution: Reading Tocqueville in Beijing”, in Exploring the Social and Political Economy of Alexis de Tocqueville, ed. Peter J. Boettke and Adam Martin (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2020), 253–69.

[14] Chong Ming, op. cit., 104.

[15] Ci, Jiwei. Democracy in China: The Coming Crisis. Harvard University Press, 2019; Chi Kwok, “(Un)Realistic Utopia: Rethinking Political Legitimacy, Democracy, and Resistance in China”, Contemporary Political Theory, 10 July 2020,

[16] Strauss, Leo. “Persecution and the Art of Writing”. Social Research 8, no. 4 (1941): 488–504.

[17] Noesselt, op. Cit.

[18] “As China’s Power Waxes, the West’s Study of It Is Waning”, The Economist, 28 November 2020,