CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Sometimes the books that a country’s top leaders read can reveal a lot about what they are thinking. So one of the books recently read by some of the incoming members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the country’s top decision-making body, may come as a surprise: Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution.
These leaders – to whom the CCP is about to pass the baton at its 18th congress, scheduled for November 8 – reportedly not only read Tocqueville’s diagnosis of social conditions on the eve of the French Revolution, but also recommended it to their friends. If so, the obvious question is why China’s future rulers are circulating a foreign classic on social revolution.
The answer is not hard to find. In all likelihood, these leaders sense, either instinctively or intellectually, an impending crisis that could imperil the CCP’s survival in the same way that the French Revolution ended Bourbon rule.
Telltale signs of anxiety are already visible. Capital flight from China is now at a record high. Polls of China’s dollar millionaires reveal that half of them want to emigrate. Amid intensifying calls for democracy, China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, reportedly met with the son of the late Hu Yaobang, a political reformer and icon of Chinese liberals. While one should not read too much into such a visit, it is safe to say that China’s next leader knows that the Celestial Kingdom is becoming unsettled.
The idea that some sort of political crisis could engulf China in the coming years may strike many – particularly Western business and political elites, who have taken the CCP’s strength and durability for granted – as absurd. In their minds, the Party’s hold on power seems indestructible. But several emerging trends, unobserved or noted only in isolation, have greatly altered the balance of power between the CCP and Chinese society, with the former losing credibility and control and the latter gaining strength and confidence.
One such trend is the emergence of independent figures of public moral authority: successful businessmen, respected academics and journalists, famous writers, and influential bloggers. To be sure, the CCP has followed a strategy of co-opting social elites since the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But people like Hu Shuli (who founded two influential business magazines), Pan Shiyi (an outspoken real-estate developer), Yu Jianrong (a social scientist and public intellectual), Wu Jinglian (a leading economist), and the bloggers Han Han and Li Chengpeng, achieved success on their own, and have maintained their integrity and independence.
Taking advantage of the Internet and weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), they have become champions of social justice. Their moral courage and social stature have, in turn, helped them to build mass support (measured by the tens of millions of their weibo followers). Their voices often reframe the terms of social-policy debate and put the CCP on the defensive.
For the Party, this development is clearly worrying. It is now ceding the commanding heights of Chinese politics to autonomous representatives of social forces that it cannot control. The CCP’s monopoly of public moral authority is long gone, and now its monopoly of political power is at risk as well.
That loss is compounded by the collapse of the Party’s credibility among ordinary people. To be sure, the CCP’s opacity, secrecy, and penchant for untruth always implied a credibility problem. But, in the last decade, a series of scandals and crises – involving public safety, adulterated food and drugs, and environmental pollution – has thoroughly destroyed what little credibility lingered.
One such episode was the sale of tainted baby formula in 2008. Official suppression of news about the incident (which occurred just before the Beijing Olympics) not only led to the deaths of many infants, but also left ordinary Chinese even more distrustful of the authorities. On the environmental front, perhaps the most telling evidence is Beijing residents’ preference for the United States Embassy’s air-quality readings over those of their government.
For a regime whose credibility is gone, the costs of maintaining power are exorbitant – and eventually unbearable – because it must resort to repression more frequently and heavily.
But repression is yielding diminishing returns for the Party, owing to a third revolutionary development: the dramatic decline in the cost of collective action. Autocracies stay in power if they can divide the population and prevent organized opposition activities. Although the CCP faces no organized opposition today, it confronts virtually organized protest activities on a daily basis.
Based on estimates by Chinese sociologists, 500 riots, collective protests, and strikes occur each day, up almost four-fold from a decade ago. With widespread ownership of mobile phones and Internet-connected computers, it is far easier than ever before to organize supporters and allies.
Moreover, growing defiance reflects the public’s perception that the authorities have grown afraid of the people and tend to yield to their demands when confronted by angry protesters. In some of the highest-profile collective protests in the past year – the land dispute in Wukan in Guangdong and the environmental protests in Dalian, Shifang, and Qidong – the government backed down.
If governing by fear is no longer tenable, China’s new rulers must start fearing for the CCP's future. As the country’s silent political revolution continues to unfold, the question is whether they will heed its signs, or attempt to maintain an order that – like the French monarchy – cannot be saved.
Read more from our "China in Transition" Focal Point.