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China: the way it has always been

By Brian Hennessy - posted Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Whether the West likes it or not, and whether the Chinese people like it or not, the reality is that China is a one-party state that we (and they) must live with for the foreseeable future.

So let’s separate politics from government for a moment, and take a look at China through the lens of this reality.

First, it is theoretically easier for any one-party state to manage a nation. With 20 per cent of the world's population, the advantage of this type of government for China is that it can get things done. Quickly.


For example: when a leader says "jump", we presume that everybody else will respond with "how high?", and "when can I come down?"

Although China’s leadership group has its own consultative bodies and think-tanks, it can exercise raw power without having to justify decisions or be accountable for them. It doesn't suffer the inconveniences of a nosy media, opposition parties, or elections every three or four years. It's a top-down hierarchical process where communication is downwards, upward communication is unwelcome, and the most common response to an instruction from the top is "Yes".

You will never hear a "Why?"

Second, China has a good leadership-selection process. It begins with training in party-controlled “law and politics” universities, then progresses upwards via ever more complex responsibilities: from the management of smaller counties in rural areas, to mid-level cities and provinces, and ultimately to the power-bases of economically important cities such as Shanghai, or politically sensitive postings on China's borders.

Play your political cards right, and the ultimate prize of Beijing is within reach. The Beijing leadership identifies exceptional talent via this process, and fosters and rewards it. This is how Hu Jin Tau made it to the top: via the poorer provinces and that culturally and politically “troublesome” province on the roof of the world.

A “Dubya” Bush would never get past mid-level management responsibility in China. Neither would a Lincoln, a Roosevelt, or an Obama rise to the top through the force of their personalities or ideas (a pity).


Everything is controlled in China. There are no wild-cards in the Middle Kingdom. Mavericks and “Type A” personalities are regarded as social misfits at best, and a danger to collective society at worst.

This is the way it has always been. Leadership succession is planned for. The alternative is violent revolution. Typically, throughout China’s long history, succession has been an orderly process, despite palace intrigues and the ambitions of those who thought that they could do the job better.

Every few hundred years or so, however, a peasant revolution, a palace coup, or a few politically ambitious generals might disturb the status-quo and steal the state (or parts of it) from a corrupt or ineffectual emperor. Once in power, though, the new regime, after getting there via bloodshed and/or deceit, would quickly demand that the population conform to the Confucian precepts of acceptance of their lot in life, and respect for authority. The virtue of a harmonious society would be promoted, and life would return to normal for the next few hundred years or so.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for thirteen years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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