Two Freedoms

Saturday, January 30, 1999

Having seen what happened to the former Soviet Union in 1991, we’ll learn in the next five years (or less) whether or not Alexis de Tocqueville’s “law” can predict the political future of communist China. De Tocqueville’s law reads:

Experience suggests that the most dangerous moment for an evil government is usually when it begins to reform itself. The sufferings that are endured patiently, as being inevitable, become intolerable the moment it appears that there might be an escape. Reform then only serves to reveal more clearly what still remains oppressive and now all the more unbearable; the suffering, it is true, has been reduced, but one’s sensitivity has become more acute.

There is plenty of contemporary evidence to support de Tocqueville:

  • Stalin died in March 1953. East German workers rose up in revolt on June 17, 1953.
  • The post-Stalin Soviet leadership began to ease up on its subjects; the word “thaw” began to be heard from the Kremlin. Workers in Poznan, Poland, in June 1956 and workers in Hungary in October 1956 rose up in revolt.
  • In 1968, Alexander Dubcek proposed communism with a human face for Czechoslovakia. Soviet occupation followed.
  • Mikail Gorbachev from 1985 on began “democratizing” Soviet communism to a point where it committed suicide in 1991.

From the shah of Iran in 1978 to Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 to Mr. Gorbachev in 1991 to Suharto in 1998 and in between—if an oppressed people thinks there’s a chance of toppling their oppressors, they will take risks they would otherwise shun.

De Tocqueville could not have foreseen another possibility, which could inspire a people to rise up against a domestic dictatorship—international support by the democracies. African anticolonial leaders in the 1960s and Russian dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s found allies in Western countries, most notably in the United States. So today the United States and the West, whether President Clinton wills it or not, have emboldened the peoples of mainland China, not yet to the point of outright counterrevolution—but then who knows what lies ahead?

De Tocqueville was not necessarily predicting success by a recalcitrant citizenry against its rulers. After all, they commanded armies and weaponry and thus could contain an uprising. The Kremlin did that in Hungary and in Poland in 1956, and it built a wall around Berlin in 1961. In 1989 communist China did that in Tiananmen Square. Today a dictatorship that is prepared to use force against “counterrevolutionaries” and promote a return to centrally planned poverty and isolation is one that has declared that it is both backward and doomed.


If an oppressed people thinks there’s a chance of toppling their oppressors, they will take risks they would otherwise shun.


In 1978 Deng Xiaoping announced that Marxism didn’t have all the answers. The Chinese leadership then began to move away from the failing Soviet-style centrally planned economy to an economy with market characteristics but still under monolithic communist control. The party replaced the old collectivization with a system of privatized responsibility in agriculture. It increased the decision-making power of local officials and plant managers in industry, closed uneconomic government-owned factories with consequent unemployment, permitted a wide variety of small-scale enterprise in services and light manufacturing, and opened the economy to foreign investment and modern production methods.

Socialism in China is a disappearing entity. It is becoming clear that more than half of China’s economy “is no longer in state hands,” to quote the London Economist, “and the private share of the economy has been growing rapidly.” The entrepreneurial Chinese people are enjoying the benefits of a decentralizing governmental system. While Russia and other Commonwealth countries are struggling to adapt to market mechanisms, China has already done that to a far greater degree than have the USSR’s successor states.

“We recognize nothing private,” Lenin thundered in 1919, and Soviet communism acted on that principle. While communist China still follows that Leninist dictate—its rule on abortions and forced labor, for example—it has introduced freedom in the job market. Jiang Zemin and his comrades think communist China will prosper as a market economy with an authoritarian carapace. They may be right. The Chinese people are a practical people. They would, I think, agree with George Orwell who, in defending the “materialism” of workers, said, “How right they are to realize that the belly comes before the soul, not in the scale of values but in point of time.”