Fukuyama: China’s ‘Bad Emperor’ Problem
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.