Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei

Open, friendly and rich. Modern China can learn from ancient Emperor Taizong

  • The 7th-century Reign of Zhenguan was a period of peace and prosperity
  • China’s leaders should learn much from this era, not just pay lip service with propaganda

The Reign of Zhenguan – or the era of good government under Emperor Taizong, the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, who ruled from 626 to 649 – occupies a unique place in the annals of Chinese history.

Historians generally hail the period as an example of ideal government and of the “Golden Years” in Chinese history; a time when the emperor, whose real name was Li Shimin, led his kingdom to unprecedented peace and prosperity through open and benign leadership.

Li’s 23-year rule (Zhenguan is his reign title) paved the way for the Tang dynasty to become at its peak the most powerful and richest empire in the world.

Now nearly 14 centuries later, China’s propaganda officials appear to be trying to capitalise on the connotations of the period, talking up “the Reign of China” both before and after a recent key meeting of Communist Party elites.

As the latest propaganda has it, following the annual meeting of the party’s Central Committee of 371 senior officials, the government has found a detailed road map that will take the country into “a new realm” of good government and prosperity.

A depiction of Emperor Taizong, second emperor of the Tang dynasty of China, receiving an ambassador. Photo: Alamy

But the full text of that road map – a document adopted at the close of the plenum on October 31 but released only on Tuesday – has failed to live up to the hyperbole of the state-run media.

The document, titled somewhat long-windedly “A decision on some major issues concerning how to uphold and improve the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and advance the modernisation of China’s system and capacity for governance”, is basically aimed at strengthening and legitimising the party’s leadership.

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It vows to achieve notable improvements in the party’s ability to govern by 2021, when the party marks its centenary, before modernising its system and capacity for governance – which it will “basically achieve” by 2035 and “fully realise” by 2049, when the People’s Republic celebrates its own centenary.

To achieve those goals, the document lists a litany of slogan-like commitments. These range from improving the party’s capacity for law-based governance and law-based exercising of power, to the party’s absolute control of the armed forces, to ecological protection and preservation.

While those promises look good on paper, how to fulfil those commitments to build good government is still far from clear.

The officials may not publicly acknowledge that their catchphrase “the Reign of China” has been drawn from the Reign of Zhenguan. A front-page commentary in the People’s Daily’s overseas edition on October 31 said the new catchphrase was neither a simple continuation of China’s ancient traditions nor was it copied from Marxist theories or foreign socialist systems.

But in the historical context, the Reign of Zhenguan should provide much food for thought.

Achievements in that era are legendary. Here are a few examples.

Xi Jinping and other top officials at the Central Committee of the Communist Party plenum. Photo: Xinhua

According to historians including Li Bincheng, a renowned Chinese scholar of the Tang dynasty, the emperor was able to achieve good governance by appointing officials according to merit and was willing to listen to the counsel of his capable ministers, who voiced different opinions and even advised on the emperor’s personal behaviour. This was no easy feat for a strong-willed emperor.

Despite rising prosperity, Li was able to make his government relatively cheap and simple by reducing the number of central government officials from more than 2,000 to about 600 and also drastically reducing the number of local government divisions.

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Leading by example, he cut back on extravagant spending and encouraged frugality while he reduced taxes and encouraged the development of culture and education.

As a result, signs of prosperity were already very much evident in 630, the fourth year of Li’s rule. Food prices were low, and horses and cattle were everywhere. Folklore depicts an idyllic life in which no one picked up and pocketed anything lost on the road and communities felt so safe that people could leave their doors open at night without fear of being burgled. In that year, only 29 criminals were sentenced to death in a country of about 20 million people.

Xi Jinping and other top officials at the Central Committee of the Communist Party plenum. Photo: Xinhua

His era was also marked by its open attitude to foreigners and their cultures and religions.

The then capital was thronged with foreign merchants, students, artists and religious believers, with many of them forming a variety of non-Chinese communities in the city.

As a testament to the influence of the Tang dynasty, the Chinese people were known to foreigners as “the people of Tang” long after the demise of the dynasty in 907. A further testament is that while Chinese communities in foreign countries are often known as “Chinatowns” in English, in Chinese they are called “the Streets of the Tang People”.

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According to the historian Li, the Zhenguan era ushered in a period of unprecedented economic and social prosperity in which people were high-spirited, open-minded and willing to try new things.

In today’s troubled times when China is wrestling with a slowing economy at home and a trade war with the United States, Chinese leaders who relish citing ancient wisdoms have much to learn from the Reign of Zhenguan.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper