25 April 2019
Even though President Xi Jinping appears to have everything it takes to be a “good emperor”, Francis Fukuyama is deeply concerned about whether he can remain as sensible and incorruptible as before. Photo: Bloomberg
Even though President Xi Jinping appears to have everything it takes to be a “good emperor”, Francis Fukuyama is deeply concerned about whether he can remain as sensible and incorruptible as before. Photo: Bloomberg

Is Fukuyama wrong about China again?

Francis Fukuyama, the world-renowned American political scientist and author, has become famous for his wrong predictions, including those about China.

After the collapse of the Soviet Eastern Bloc in 1989, Fukuyama published an essay, The End of History, in which he predicted that western liberal democracy would eventually prevail over all other political models and prove to be the ultimate form of government in the evolution of human society.

However, the rise of populist sentiment in western Europe in recent years and the consolidation of authoritarian rule in Russia and China have proven him wrong.

In a book published by China’s official mouthpiece Global Times in 2015, Fukuyama conceded that he had failed to foresee the “profound and widespread implications” of China’s rapid economic growth for the entire world.

And recently, during an interview with the BBC, Fukuyama once again weighed in on the China issue, this time over Beijing’s move to abolish presidential term limits in the constitution, which the National People’s Congress approved on March 11.

During the interview, Fukuyama said such a move to allow Chinese President Xi Jinping to become “dictator for life” was “a sad news for both China and the rest of the world”.

In contrast, however, China’s officialdom and official mouthpieces of the Communist Party of China have suggested otherwise, and boasted that the government now has an “overwhelming mandate” from the people to carry out the latest constitutional amendment initiative. They even referred to the existing form of government in China as “a huge contribution to the political civilization of mankind”.

They weren’t entirely groundless when they said the party had received an overwhelming mandate from the Chinese people for making the recent constitutional changes.

Most mainlanders aren’t opposed to the idea of allowing Xi to become “president for life” as they look forward to a “virtuous emperor” who can bring them “eternal peace and prosperity”.

This huge public support for President Xi’s bid for lifelong dictatorship bears a close resemblance to the kind of popular approval that Chairman Mao enjoyed at the height of his power.

In present-day communist China, people still gauge their leaders with the same set of criteria for judging a “good” or “bad” emperor in the ancient times.

As Fukuyama has put it, in China, where there are no checks and balances in place, when a “good emperor” like the former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping is in power, he would always deliver the goods and satisfy his people. Nevertheless, the entire country would often run into trouble whenever a “bad emperor” is in power.

Fukuyama cited the “Great Leap Forward” movement and the “Great Cultural Revolution” launched by Mao as examples of how a “bad emperor” could set the entire nation on a course towards disasters of biblical proportions.

Even though President Xi Jinping does appear to have everything it takes to be a “good emperor”, given his take-no-prisoners crackdown on corruption and his untiring efforts at promoting the “One Belt One Road” strategy, Fukuyama is deeply concerned about whether he can stay the course and remain as sensible and incorruptible as before after he has secured his absolute power.

“History has shown us that most authoritarian rulers would often behave as good leaders during their first five, ten or 15 years in power. However, as absolute power corrupts absolutely, once they have remained in power for over 20 to 30 years or even longer, they would get old and increasingly corrupt, thereby leading to the decay of the entire political system,” Fukuyama said.

“That is why imposing term limits on state leaders is necessary for both democratic and non-democratic countries.”

And there is no shortage of examples in Chinese history to prove Fukuyama’s theory. Emperor Qianlong ascended the throne in 1735 at the age of 25, and remained in power for nearly 63 years.

At first he was a good emperor and under his rule the Qing Empire was both mighty and prosperous. However, his obsession with waging wars gradually drained his empire of its strength and resources and eventually led to its decline.

It seems the Chinese people would never learn the painful lesson of history!

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 13

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor

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