China’s Troubled Bourbons

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.