THE Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must have smelt revolution in the air. Its new disciplinary chief Wang Qishan has urged party members to read Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime And The Revolution, the French historian's treatise on the 1789 French Revolution.
By Ching Cheong Senior Writer
Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote his book in 1856, six decades after the French Revolution. Little did he know that, 11/2 centuries later, the Chinese at the other end of the world would try to make sense of his observations about revolution.
Early last year, at the height of the Bo Xilai saga - in which the now disgraced Chongqing party boss was said to be planning a coup, which jolted the CCP severely - Mr Wang started urging his close friends to read the book, which suddenly became a non-fiction bestseller.
After he became head of the CCP's Central Disciplinary Commission (CDC) last November, he formally made it a must-read for party members.
At a CDC meeting late that month on fighting corruption, he urged everyone present to pay attention to the book. He did not spell out his reason, but, clearly, it reflected his worries of a revolution looming on the horizon.
The first to reveal Mr Wang's worry was famous economist Hua Sheng, head of Yanjing Overseas Chinese University. He recalled in his blog his meeting with Mr Wang in Zhongnanhai, the CCP headquarters, early last February, during which Mr Wang recommended him the book.
The Vice-Premier had said: "For a country like China with substantial weight in the world, historical and contemporary experiences showed that its transformation towards modernity would not be smooth. The Chinese themselves had not paid a sufficient price yet."
From this remark, one can infer that Mr Wang saw a revolution - the price to pay for modernisation - looming.
His concern seems to be out of place, as many supporters of the establishment, such as Mr Zhang Weiwei, believe that, with the current economic prosperity, there is little ground for a revolution. The former English interpreter for late leader Deng Xiaoping recently wrote a book, The China Wave, refuting such a possibility.
But this is exactly why Mr Wang wanted people to study Tocqueville.
Mr Wang Tiancheng, a former law professor at Peking University, noted one of Tocqueville's observations was that the great revolutions, such as the violent ones, had not occurred during a time of poverty. Instead, they took place when economic development had brought about acute polarisation.
This is because in times like these, conflicts between social classes are easily incited. It is easy for those at the bottom of society to turn their anger into flames of war.
Tocqueville wrote that when the Revolution erupted, the "old regime" of King Louis XVI was at its most prosperous - this prosperity had fuelled social disparity, leading to the revolution. He offered an explanation as to why economic prosperity did not prevent a major revolution but, on the contrary, fomented one.
This is quite similar to present-day China.
Although China is the second largest economy in the world with its people enjoying unprecedented material wealth, polarisation has also reached an all-time high. Its Gini coefficient, which measures income disparity, is 0.61 - with 0 being perfect equality and 1 maximal inequality - way above the internationally recognised danger threshold of 0.4.
What if the CCP started to reform now? Another of Tocqueville's conclusions from the Revolution is equally discomfiting: "The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform."
He wrote: "It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable."
In other words, reform could be equally dangerous for the CCP.
Thus, the party is caught in a dilemma of whether or not to reform. The Chinese summed up this dilemma succinctly in the satirical catchphrase, "if the CCP reforms, the party will perish; if it does not, the country will perish".
The fact that Tocqueville pointed out this dilemma 150 years ago could be one reason behind Mr Wang's interest in his book.
To the dismay of the CCP, Tocqueville also pointed out that a regime with centralised power was prone to intensify tensions between social classes. He noted that before the Revolution, France developed a political system that placed executive, legislative and judicial powers in a centralised authority. The extent of centralisation was unparalleled in Europe at that time.
In the Chinese context, this is one-party rule. In the absence of checks and balances, monopoly of power leads to monopoly of wealth, which then leads to social disparity and polarisation, the source of most of the social tensions in China today.
What Tocqueville saw in France two centuries ago has an almost exact replica in present-day China.
Small wonder then that his treatise has caught the attention of Mr Wang, whose job is to wipe out corruption - which, according to almost all opinion polls in China, is the single, most dangerous threat to the party.