For more than 2000 years, the Chinese political system has been built around a highly sophisticated centralized bureaucracy, which has run what has always been a vast society through top-down methods. What China never developed was a rule of law, that is, an independent legal institution that would limit the discretion of the government, or democratic accountability. What the Chinese substituted for formal checks on power was a bureaucracy bound by rules and customs which made its behavior reasonably predictable, and a Confucian moral system that educated leaders to look to public interests rather than their own aggrandizement. This system is, in essence, the same one that is operating today, with the Chinese Communist Party taking the role of Emperor.
A high-quality centralized government with few checks on its power can do wonders when the leadership is good: it can take large decisions quickly because it doesn’t have to form coalitions or wait for consensus; it is not subject to second guessing or legal challenges; and it can ignore populist pressures to undertake questionable policies.
The issue that Chinese governments have never been able to solve is what was historically known as the “Bad Emperor” problem: while unchecked power in the hands of a benevolent and wise ruler has many advantages, how do you guarantee a continuing supply of good Emperors? The Confucian educational system and Mandarinate was supposed to indoctrinate leaders, but every now and then terrible ones would emerge and plunge the country into chaos, like the Evil Empress Wu who killed off much of the Tang Dynasty’s aristocracy, or the Ming Dynasty’s Wanli Emperor who in a fit of pique refused to come out of his palace or sign documents for nearly a decade.
In the view of many Chinese, the last Bad Emperor to rule China was Mao Zedong, who in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution unleashed unspeakable suffering on the Chinese people, and whose power could not be checked until his death in 1976. The current rules governing decision-making and leadership at the very top of the party reflect this experience: responsibility is shared among the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo; there are ten year term limits on the tenure of the president and prime minister; no one over the age of 67 can be considered for membership on the Standing Committee. These rules were designed explicitly to prevent the rise of another Mao, who would use his personal authority to singlehandedly dominate the party and the country.
China’s authoritarian system is distinct because it follows rules regarding term limits and succession. Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, or Libya’s Qaddhafi, not to speak of authoritarian African leaders like Robert Mugabe or Meles Zenawi, would be much more fondly remembered by their people had they stepped down after their first ten years in office and arranged for an orderly transfer of power.
This is why, then, the recently purged Bo Xilai was such a threat to the system: using his base in Chongqing, he used the media effectively to build his own charismatic authority, which was strong already given his status as a Princeling or son of a revolutionary hero; he was ruthless in the use of state power to go after not just criminals and corrupt officials but businessmen and rivals who had accumulated too much power and wealth; and he revived Mao-era mobilization techniques like the singing of revolutionary songs at mass rallies. Unlike his gray compatriots, he could potentially dominate the leadership with an independent power base if he were promoted to the Standing Committee. It therefore makes sense that Hu Jintao and the existing leadership should use the scandal of a coverup and murder to eliminate him from consideration and remove the Bad Emperor threat.
The commentary to date has noted how the Bo Xilai affair has demonstrated serious cleavages in the senior leadership of the party, corruption and turpitude among its members, and weakening control over what the Chinese public can say on vehicles like Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. All of this is true, but the incident reveals an even deeper problem, which is the lack of formal institutions and a real rule of law.
The rules that the Chinese leadership follows are neither embedded in their constitution, clearly articulated, or enforced by a judicial system. They are simply internal rules of the Party, which actually have to be inferred from the Party’s behavior. Had Bo Xilai succeeded in getting onto the Standing Committee and increasing his personal authority, he could easily have overturned any one of them. Latin American presidents who want to linger in office still have to go through a process of constitutional revision, and every now and then the rule of law is strong enough to prevent them from doing so (as was the case recently when Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe was denied a third term in office by the country’s Constitutional Court).
So the apparent institutionalization of the Chinese authoritarian system is largely a mirage. The Communist Party has not solved the Bad Emperor problem, nor will it until it develops something like a genuine rule of law with all of the transparency and formal institutionalization that entails.
I had a meeting a couple of years ago in Beijing with a mid-level official heading a Central Committee office, who told me over a long lunch that I could not possibly understand contemporary China without appreciating what a total disaster the Cultural Revolution was, and how the current system was organized to prevent that from happening again. Looking around at the books and memorials to Mao Zedong that the Party was still promoting, I asked him how that could come about unless the Party was more forthright in telling the truth about Mao’s legacy. His generation had personal experience of those terrible events, but people growing up since then did not, and could be seduced into viewing it with nostalgia. It was precisely that lack of historical remembrance that Bo Xilai was exploiting. The official, by the way, didn’t have an answer to my question.
So in the end, informal rules observed by a small clique of insiders can’t really substitute for a formal rule of law. As we can see today, modern liberal democracies constrained by law and elections oftentimes produce mediocre or weak leaders. Sometimes democracies elect monsters, like Adolf Hitler. But at least the formal procedures constraining power through law and elections put big roadblocks in the path of a really Bad Emperor. Despite having beaten back Bo’s challenge in the short run, the Chinese system has not solved this institutional problem yet. It now has a real opportunity to do so, which we can hope the new leadership coming into power will take up.
[A version of this piece was published in the Financial Times on May 10, 2012]