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Why, even when China was the most powerful country in the world, has democracy never set foot in its very long history?

Robin Daverman
Robin Daverman, world traveler
Updated Oct 3, 2015 · Upvoted by Eleanor Murphy, MA History, University of Oxford (2010)
Well, let me tell you a little bit more about this historic "dictatorship" in China.

In Ming dynasty (1368–1644), for example, the Prime Minister and Cabinet were elected by the other officials. How do you get elected? First, you have to pass the National Civil Service Exam with flying colors, then you have to be admitted into the National Academy (sort of like the Graduate School that admits about 20 people out of tens of thousands of exam takers once every 3 years) and study there for 3 years, and then you'll be posted to various posts nationwide. Your job is to improve the people lives at your post - peace and security, roads and bridges, more tax revenue, more students passing the national exams, etc. You start at the bottom. You will receive a mid-term review after 3 years, and a thorough review in the Capital after 6 years. If you get an A, you get a promotion. If you get a B, you stay on the same level. If you get a C, you get a demotion. In all cases, you'll be posted someplace else and another person will take over your previous job. After 30 years of consistent performance and promotions, you get to be eligible to be elected into the Cabinet by your peers.

So what you got was a Cabinet and an Administration that were fairly independent from the Emperor. They did not get there because they were appointed by the Emperor. And they had the right to set up general debate, summarize the issues, and propose solutions. What if the Emperor wanted a different solution which was unanimously opposed by the Cabinet? The Cabinet could veto it. As a result,



  • When one of the Emperors pleaded "I have a headache. I can't go to the Court" too many times, an ordinary official told the Emperor in public: "Yes, you are indeed sick. You are sick because you drink too much, you have too much sex, you are too greedy for money, and you are too prone to anger. And now let me tell you in detail why these things are making you sick and how you should change your behavior."

  • When another Emperor, who was a believer of Daoism, made some Daoist hats by hand and presented them to his Cabinet as holiday gifts, he was told by his cabinet minister, "I am an atheist, and I consider your behavior to be beneath the dignity of an emperor."

  • The emperor couldn't take a dime out of the national treasury. Instead, when there's natural disaster, the emperor must cut his personal expenses and donate his own money to the national treasury, which serves to set an example to other rich folks in the country to donate generously to the poor.

  • And what happens when the administration failed to provide peace, mitigate natural disaster, etc.? Well it's the Emperor's fault, of course. So he had to write a public proclamation, detail his wrong-doings, and apologize to the people. This Letter of Apology is then read out to the public by the officials at every town and every village. Some of the emperors had to do this public humiliation like seven times.


That's some "dictatorship", eh? How many Cabinet ministers today can do or say this to their bosses in the US, the UK, or other countries? How many presidents or prime ministers have issued public apology? But you see, in China, the top decision-maker, who have access to all the information available, are a group of independent administrators. This continued to this day, when the CCP Politburo, the 7 people in it, are all independent from each other. They didn't get there because Xi appointed them. They were elected independently. Some of them were there before Xi came to power. Some of them are even political rivals of Xi. And all key policy decisions are by consensus of the whole politburo.

China briefly experimented with "democracy" in the early 20th century but it quickly degenerated into anarchy and warlordism. But the ancient structure of a republic of the professional administrators, where the entrance is determined by scholarship, IQ, and moral fortitude, where the system seeks to limit the influence of heredity and wealth, seems to be able to improve the livelihood of most people.

If you contrast that to, say, the White House. The US Presidency is a true Imperial Presidency. Every cabinet member is appointed by the President. The President can choose from a hundred qualified people. He chooses person X because X is in the same party and s/he will support him.

I sometimes wonder if people are just blind. There are enough checks and balances in the domestic policy arena (i.e., state vs. federal, the Congress, the Court, etc.) to ensure things don't go crazy, but there is nothing in the foreign policy arena. The Cabinet, the CIA/NSA, the Pentagon, etc. all work for the president. So the people in the know are not independent, and the people who are independent are not in the know. And you have the result of the last 20 years to show for it. Then you have people screaming "It's all Bush's fault" or "it's all Obama's fault", as if the administrative system isn't set up to produce exactly this kind of results. Do people really think this is the best administration system since the beginning of the civilization? Really?

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