The Risks and the Road

Bao Tong, aide to an ousted top Chinese cadre, considers the issue of succession.
by Bao Tong
Bao-Tong-305.jpg Bao Tong during an interview at his home in Beijing, April 27, 2009.

BEIJING—On the eve of the 89th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party, we have heard two important items of news.

One is that Kyrgyzstan has decided by referendum to become a democracy, bringing hope of long-term stability. The other is that North Korea is to hold a Party meeting, which is unprecedented. On the face of it, it seems as if they are trying to give some legitimacy to the succession of state power, or rather, to Partify it. If this succeeds, they could be in for many more years of one-party rule.

If there is no system for the inheritance of power, it becomes the source of all chaos and harms a country. It is better to have a system than to have none at all. It might even turn out to be a system if the succession of power were decided through combat.

I heard that that is how the king of the monkeys was chosen. The toughest and strongest monkey king then has a monopoly over breeding rights, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing for the prosperity of the monkey kingdom.

China's history is said to date back 5,000 years. In fact, there are documents dating back more than 3,000 years. Before that was a mythological pre-history: the time of the fabled Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. Any talk of how they handled the succession of power is rubbish; we no longer have any knowledge of this. The same goes for the talk of "abdication" as a method of succession among the fabled Yao and Shun emperors.

It's likely, though, that the word "abdication" was a polite word for a system in which the incumbent chose their successor. But this only went on for three generations, and then it stopped suddenly, and turned into an inheritance system in which power passed from father to son, and from son to grandson, and so on, down the ages.

The so-called abdication system or the so-called designation system both involved those who were in power choosing those who were to succeed to it.

Such a "system" is really no system at all. It is too risky and altogether too unstable to hand over the supreme power to govern a people to a nonsystem to decide. That is why it was abandoned, knocked out by natural selection.

The "abdication" system has made only three more appearances since, in 3,000 years or more of documented Chinese history: the last emperor of the Western Han dynasty "abdicated" in favor of the usurper Wang Mang (45 B.C. to 23 A.D.); the last emperor of the late Zhou dynasty "abdicated" in favor of the founding emperor of the Song dynasty (960-1279); and [Sun Yat-sen,] the temporary president of the Republic of China (1911-49) "abdicated" in favor of [Qing general and warlord] Yuan Shikai (1859-1916).

The third "abdication," however, bore the ominous hallmarks of a palace coup, and has won scant praise from either the people or the historians.

Anyway, the system of designated successors was abandoned over the course of 3,000 years of Chinese history.

New order

Thereafter, China implemented the notion of the "royal family" as a way of deciding who was to be the next emperor. In practice, they were to discover that the formula of son succeeding father was more stable than that of younger brother succeeding older brother. The practice of younger brothers inheriting wives when their older brother died was therefore only carried out during the Shang dynasty (c.1600-1046 B.C.).

From the Zhou dynasty onwards, this was changed to a system of sons inheriting the throne from their fathers. And it wasn't just any old father-to-son transfer; it had to be the first-born son of the first wife of the emperor. Bastard sons of the emperor born to concubines couldn't inherit the throne. Only the eldest sons and grandsons in a direct line of descent from the emperor could succeed to the throne, not second sons or grandsons. There were regulations which ensured stability.

Such a system ensured that even under circumstances where the emperor became muddle-headed, stability was allowed to override everything, and it was carried out in such a way for many hundreds of years. Then, when ethnic minorities started to enter the civil service, they didn't understand how clever the Han Chinese system of inheritance was, and they stirred up a whole gang of imperial sons and grandsons, all with their eyes on the big prize, who would stop at nothing, and were ready to massacre each other, and sped up the process of destruction. If this hadn't occurred, the revolution of 1911 might not have been successful.

Under a royal family system, either sons inherit power from their fathers, or brother inherits from brother. There are no other options. The 1911 Revolution opened a new window for Chinese people. In a country that wanted to call itself a republic, the people were the ultimate masters.

And so the idea of full and direct elections was lodged deeply in people's minds. Before 'Liberation' [the founding of the People's Republic in 1949], every primary school student knew that the leaders of a country should arise through full, direct elections. This was a new idea. This meant that even Chiang Kai-shek, who believed in Party rule, had to convene a National Assembly and stand for election against Hu Shizhi when he wanted to become president.

At the time, people weren't very intelligent, and they hadn't got around to developing the magic weapon of single-candidate elections, which had so much spectator value, but which were also so much safer. In China we have progressed as far as the single-candidate election phase, which has been a new invention, making us the most democratic republic in the world.

It doesn't require much detailed thought; one can see at a glance the indescribable genius of the single-candidate election. It is quite simply that essence of our country's history; the system that was abandoned in favor of the traditional royal family, the system-without-a-system in which the keepers of power decide who will succeed to power.

Who decides?

In this system-without-a-system, it is the keepers of power decide to whom they will give it.

On the face of it, it seems as if, from the point of view of those in power, things are going smoothly. Not so. Not even such a mighty [political] master as Mao Zedong was able to pull this one off in spite of a series of failed campaigns.

Why? Because of fear. What was he afraid of? He was afraid that his designated successor would copy Nikita Kruschev and make secret reports about him, damaging the shine on his halo, and turning the savior into a mediocre person or a criminal.

So it was that Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, and Hua Guofeng all turned out to be unreliable. Under such circumstances, the problem of the succession of power a problem to make the keepers of power tremble with horror and not be able to sleep at night.

And so, the people of Kyrgyzstan have produced a new election law, with some determination, on the basis of a nationwide referendum. A people that does not fear a universal referendum will have nothing to fear from universal, direct elections. In their fearlessness, they have found a level road to long-term peace and stability.

Original essay in Chinese by Bao Tong. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Anonymous says:
Nov 21, 2010 02:29 AM

Kyrgyzstan may not be as wealthy as the PRC, but it is decades ahead of the PRC in terms of its election system and commitment to democracy--both areas in which the PRC is extremely backward due to the CCP's reactionary opposition to any political reform that might jeopardize its 60-year monopoly on political authority in China.

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