Governance in China depends more on the individuals on top than on institutions. There is always the possibility that a ‘Bad Emperor’ messes things up. Is Xi Jinping that man?
It was a crisp Beijing afternoon on November 8, 2017. Soon after he was welcomed by cheering children at the airport, US President Donald Trump was whisked away to the Forbidden City – the iconic symbol of imperial China – for a personal tour by Xi Jinping. After a day of exchanges over history, family and culture, as the sun dipped into the horizon, the two leaders sat down for dinner at the Jianfu Palace. It was the first time that such an honour had been bestowed upon a foreign leader since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The symbolism was unmistakable. Following the fall of the Qing, a crude Republican interlude, civil war, foreign occupation and chaotic beginnings under Mao, a Chinese dynasty had been rebuilt and was now standing tall, with Xi as its emperor.
In his 2011 book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama outlines a fundamental problem inherent in the Chinese system of governance. Fukuyama identifies state-building, rule of law and accountability as the key building blocks of political order. He argues that while the state concentrates and exercises power, the institutions of rule of law and accountable government act as limiters. They check the state’s power and its use through “public and transparent rules, and then by ensuring that it is subordinate to the will of the people.”
Describing the Chinese experience, he further argues that while they got the first of the three institutions right very early on, they’ve struggled with the other two.