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Frank Fukuyama on China’s Bad Emperor Problem

In an article at the Financial Times—reprinted on his blog—Frank Fukuyama looks at China’s authoritarian system, its benefits and dangers, and what is missing:

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? […]

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…

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.

The threat posed by Bo Xilai has dwindled, but as Fukuyama writes, there are no institutional roadblocks preventing someone like him coming along again in the future. Could he (or she—Evil Empress Wu was one of China’s worst Bad Emperors) be stopped the way Bo was? China’s incoming party leaders have a real opportunity to institutionalize checks on the power of a really Bad Emperor. Will they do so?

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  • Andrew Allison

    Re: “Evil” Empress:
    See, e.g., Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 234 [submission of Lu Zhi to Emperor Dezong of Tang, citing Wu Zetian as the prime example of a capable selector of officials]; Zhao Yi’s Notes of the Twenty-Two Histories (二十二史劄記), Empress Wu Accepted Corrections and Knew People.[5]
    (from the link provided above!)

  • Jim.

    We can hope and pray that the Chinese develop a Constitution like our own country, or a political system that muddles along without one (like the post 1688 English).

    Can times there be interesting without being too interesting? We shall see. China may be heading for a Constitutional Convention, whether they ever intended to or not.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    What about the average mediocre Emperor? Aren’t there many more of them than either good or bad Emperors? Democracy and its frequent opportunities for the electorate to fire poor leadership is a much better way.

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