Leadership: Dynastic Politics In The Chinese Empire


December 29, 2012: Chinese are now derisively referring to their leaders as the “Deng Dynasty.” This is in recognition of the fact that, while the leadership of the government is not hereditary, as in the feudal past, it is basically controlled by a small number of families who do all they can to get rich and maintain their power at the expense of the people of China. In that respect they are seen as little different from the ancient feudal rulers.

Feudalism is gone and that introduces a major change in Chinese society. For example, the current Chinese dynasty has to pay close attention to the hundred or so Chinese billionaires and thousands of millionaires. These men and women control the economy and the government would be broke without them. Public opinion surveys must also be monitored carefully. While there are no votes to threaten the dynasty, the Internet keeps the several hundred million members of the middle class connected. It’s the skills and enthusiasm of that middle class that sustain the economic growth. The leaders of the Deng dynasty know they sit on a shaky throne and that while some dynasties lasted for centuries, others were gone in less than a generation. Mao’s dynasty lasted 28 years and did not survive his death.

In historical terms a dynasty is a family (or clan) that controls the monarchy for a period of time. China has been united (most of the time) and ruled by feudal dynasties (all the time) until 1912. In that year the Qing dynasty, in power since 1636, fell to revolutionaries who vowed to establish a democracy. That didn’t happen, and what followed was nearly four decades of civil war that ended in 1948, with a communist dictatorship ruled over by Mao Zedong. It’s not uncommon in Chinese history for dynasties to be divided by years or decades of civil war.

The Mao dynasty lasted until 1976, when Mao died and his followers were unable maintain control of the government. That was because Mao believed in communism but could not make it work. The attempts to make communism work meant that over 30 million Chinese died of starvation during Mao’s rule and millions more were executed or worked to death in prison camps. The economy was getting worse and into the breach stepped Deng Xiaoping, a disgraced senior official who had been jailed by Mao for being too pragmatic. After three decades of Maoism, even most communists were ready for some pragmatism. Deng ditched all the hard core communists and in the early 1980s allowed a lot of economic freedom. China responded with four decades of 10 percent annual GDP growth, giving it the second largest GDP on the planet and the largest middle-class on the planet. But the Chinese people are unhappy with the corruption and incompetence of communist officials. These calls for reform must either be tended to or the dynasty is in peril. Many Chinese, including most of the current leaders, insist that China cannot be ruled by a democracy. Chinese tend to be very attracted to tradition and the idea of dynasties of benevolent despots has a certain appeal. But the tradition of government corruption and inept rule also survives. The next dynasty might well be a democracy.