When one looks at thousands of years of history – rather than centuries or decades – there are only a select few regions of the world which are remotely similar today when compared to their ancestors. Japan and India, for example, do share some linkage to their civilizational forefathers thousands of years ago. But there is one region, a dominant region, that has governed by roughly the same principles for thousands of years. This region is China, and the principle is autocratic meritocracy.
From around 500 BC to 221 BC, China was in a dreadful period of civil war and disorder, known as the warring states period. The feudalistic Zhou dynasty had collapsed, leaving a power vacuum in its place. But, from the ashes, a new power would emerge – the Qin dynasty. Over the course of several years, the Qin undertook several military campaigns to unify China, eventually emerging victorious over their rivals. The Qin did not want a repeat of the warring states period, and instead of implementing the decentralized rule of their predecessors, implemented a Legalist philosophy of governance. The Legalists believed that human beings were inherently short sited and irrational, and thus believed that a strong central government would be needed to direct mankind in the right direction. Many of China’s greatest achievements – the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army – were built under the rule of the Qin dynasty. Nevertheless, Legalist philosophy also lent itself towards authoritarianism, and the Qin rule was marked by executions. This led to the rise of Confucian thought – which postulated that man can be made good if he is educated, and thus the duty of the state was to educate its people and be the moral guardian of its citizenry. The interplay between these two philosophies – Legalism and Confucianism – would be critically important in the coming centuries.
During the Qin dynasty, another equally important concept was developed – that of meritocracy. The Qin dynasty did not select officials or bureaucrats based on their wealth or social status, but instead, implemented a civil service system in order to pick out the most competent and well qualified citizens for governance. This system would be used for the next two millennia, with changes often being made, but the overall concept remaining the same.
Dynasties rose and fell in China. The Qin were replaced by the Han, who in turn were replaced by the Jin, and so forth. With the exception of Mongol rule in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, China was sovereign and independent for around 2,000 years. During this time period, it became an immensely powerful, wealthy, and grand civilization. During the 15th century, gigantic Chinese ships traversed the Indian ocean, reaching Africa and bringing back African wildlife to the Imperial court. Overall, the meritocratic system was working incredibly well – China, as a whole, was far more unified and successful when compared to the poverty-stricken, war torn Europe of the middle ages.
All of this changed in the 1800s. China had isolated herself from the rest of the world, taking the hubristic idea of Sinocentrism (that China was the only civilized nation on Earth, and was surrounded by lesser barbarians) to an extreme. China’s military became far weaker than her western counterparts, and Chinese innovation had been stifled, as China’s civil exams did not include engineering or science. Sensing vulnerability, the European powers struck. The British began to illegally import opium (a drug) into Chinese cities, causing mass social disorder and chaos. When the Qing Dynasty resisted, the British invaded, and China was forced to make a number of concessions to the British Empire. In 1850, the Taiping rebellion broke out, dragging China into a gigantic civil war, and further weakening China. The European powers struck again in 1856, and won a decisive victory – China was partitioned into various spheres of influence, and parts of China were ceded to Russia.
The situation grew even worse in the early 1900s. In 1911, the Qing dynasty was overthrown, and replaced by the Republic of China, under the rule of Sun-Yat sen. However, in 1927, China broke out into civil war, between the nationalist Kuomintang (led by Chiang Kai Shek) and the Communist Party of China (who would eventually be led by Mao Zedong). Huge swaths of Western and Central China fell under the rule of warlords, and China was completely fragmented. By 1934, it appeared as if communist defeat was at hand – they were encircled in southern China, as the Kuomintang had gained the support of local warlords. But the communists managed to break out of the encirclement and embark on an arduous, 8000 mile, northward trek known as the “Long March”. Mao Zedong led this escape, and as a result, became the unquestioned leader of the communists in China.
The civil war would only spell the beginnings of China’s problems, however. In 1937, the Japanese Empire invaded China, starting an eight year long war which would end with 20 million dead Chinese. The Japanese committed horrendous atrocities against the Chinese people (Unit 731 is a horrific example), and they captured huge swaths of Chinese territory (including the capital city of Nanking). However, by 1940, the war had come to a stalemate, and by the time the war ended in 1945, China had essentially been destroyed. But the fighting had not finished – the Kuomintang and the communists had yet to settle their differences. Nevertheless, the eight years of fighting against the Japanese had resulted in large communist gains, and the communists had far more support among the rural population when compared to the Kuomintang. In 1948, the communists launched the Pingjin campaign, which would eventually lead to the fall of Beijing to communist forces. By 1949, the war was over – the Kuomintang fled to Formosa and declared themselves to be the Republic of China (Taiwan), while the communists assumed control over all of mainland China.
The rule of Mao Zedong has been described by modern Chinese leaders as “70% good, 30% bad“. This simple formula captures both the strides that the People’s Republic of China made under the rule of Mao Zedong, as well as the horrors that it suffered through. On one hand, Mao Zedong has killed more people than any other man in history. His Great Leap Forward (an effort to make China an industrial power on par with the West) left 45 million people dead. The Cultural Revolution, Mao’s effort to purge the communist party of enemies, left two million dead, and nearly led to civil war in China, as pro-Mao “Red Guards” clashed with the army on numerous occasions.
However, Mao’s contributions to China cannot be overlooked. Illiteracy plummeted during Mao’s rule, and the status of women in Chinese society greatly improved, as Mao proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky”. China developed nuclear weapons under Mao’s rule, virtually guaranteeing China’s independence from foreign intervention. Mao also broke with the Soviet Union and pursued an independent foreign policy (which included detente with the United States), and overall, laid the foundations for China to become the powerhouse that it is today. Mao also provided somewhat increased stability – China had been in complete turmoil for the past 100 years, and though the Chinese government was riddled with infighting, there were no foreign invasions of China during Mao’s rule. However, Mao was one of the first Chinese leaders to abandon the meritocracy, viewing it as “elitist”. This view would not be shared by his successors.
Mao Zedong died in 1976. He was succeeded by Hua Guofeng, who was promptly overthrown in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. Xiaoping was, first and foremost, a pragmatic ruler. Xiaoping famously stated that “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. He replaced the dogmatic Maoist principles with the idea of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and liberalized the economy. He befriended Lee Kuan Yew, the pragmatic, authoritarian, leader of Singapore, and emulated parts of the Singapore model within China’s government. For instance, he ensured that well-educated people would be at the top of the Communist Party of China (engineers and scientists in particular), and greatly streamlined the government. Overall, the reforms of Deng Xiaoping eventually lifted 200 million Chinese out of poverty. Foreign investors flocked to China, and China truly became a part of the modern world.
Deng Xiaoping was succeeded by fairly like-minded individuals. Jiang Zemin (China’s leader from 1989-2002) had a degree in electrical engineering, while Hu Jintao (who led China from 2002-2012) worked on hydroelectric power stations. Xi Jinping studied chemical engineering, although there has been some shift away from pure technocracy under Xi Jinping’s rule – Li Keqiang, the second most powerful man in China, has a degree in law. These technocratic leaders have clearly made their mark on China, as evidenced by China’s huge industrial boom and massive construction projects. These technocrats have also helped to lift 700 million people out of poverty – a staggeringly large number which demonstrates how effective a competent, strong government can truly be. At the same time, the size of China’s government also yields itself to corruption and human rights violations.
Overall, a look at Chinese history reveals two key points – China craves stability, and China desires competent rulers. The “century of humiliation” was created by a disastrous combination of incompetent rulers and weak leadership, and China’s ultimate fear is a potential return to this state. To this end, we can say that democracy will never take root in China. Democracy does not guarantee competent rulers (as seen in the present day United States), nor does it guarantee strong leadership. To adopt democracy, for the Chinese government, would demonstrate an ignorance of China’s recent history. Instead, China, and her people, would much rather have a strong, knowledgeable, and authoritative leader at its head.