Who was the last emperor of China? If it's a history question, you would say Puyi. But if it's a political science question, most people would say Mao Zedong. A key political issue confronting China and its future has to do with understanding this characterisation of Mao and how to prevent another 'emperor' from emerging under a one-party authoritarian system.
That, I take it, is what American political scientist Francis Fukuyama is getting at in a fascinating opinion piece that appeared in the Financial Times yesterday. He calls it the 'bad emperor' problem. In his view, the whole set-up of the Communist Party of China today is to prevent another Mao-like dictatorship from emerging on the one hand, and full democracy on the other.
For Fukuyama, the party's organisation at the very top is an institutionalised answer - in his opinion, inadequate and unsustainable - to the bad emperor problem.
Decision-making and leadership is shared among the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The party imposes 10-year term limits on the president and prime minister, and no one older than 67 can be considered for membership of the standing committee. The rules on term limits and meritocratic succession aim to ensure a ruling committee in place of a dictatorship, or a bad emperor. So the rule-by-consensus among the standing committee members is not just a survival requirement but a moral or ideological commitment.
In his new book, The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama credits ancient China with creating the first modern bureaucratic state in 221BC. Statecraft in the use of centralised power has since been well-developed and Chinese rulers have always been good at exercising power.
What the country lacks is systemic and legal checks on state power: the rule of law and accountability. The Communist Party has imposed its own internal checks and is responsive in its own way to popular demands and pressure. Whether this is an adequate or poor substitute for Western-style checks and balances is one of the key questions of our times.