The Chinese monarchy lasted for several thousand years and had great impact upon the economic and social structure of the contemporary Chinese society. The ideology and mechanism supporting autocratic elements entrenched in the Chinese political system persist long after the original institutions collapsed. In this paper, I will use theories of autocracy, dictatorship to analyze the central power balance mechanism of the Chinese monarchy.
I. The Theory of Autocracy in the Chinese Setting
A hereditary monarch and a dictator are fundamentally different. The former faces less risk of being overthrown because there are pre-existing legitimacy and ethical grounds for him to “speak for the divine” and possess the ultimate decision power. A dictator’s legitimacy is easily questioned. Dictatorship tends to be transitory, but hereditary monarchy lasts longer and is more stable (Tullock, 1987). The relative security enables a hereditary monarch to adopt policies with longer time horizons and structure the government in a delicate balance of power.
For a dictator, it is important to curb his launching organization after gaining power. Haber (2006) suggests three methods to achieve this goal: co-optation, organization proliferation, and terror. Although a hereditary monarch usually does not have a launching organization (except for the first emperor of a dynasty), he still need to keep control over major government officials and other interest groups so that they cannot challenge his supreme power. In Han and Tang, the emperor held major stakes in the country and could blame and fire the chancellor. The chancellor acted like the emperor’s secretary.
II. Central Power Balance
I refer co-optation in the Chinese context to the rent sharing between the emperor and multiple interest groups on which he relies to run the country. The key to co-optation is the source of rent. For stability, three parties are usually involved in rent sharing: the dictator, the leadership of the organized group that can sanction him, and a group of investors who generate a stream of rents in privately owned enterprises (Haber, 2006). Throughout pre-industrial Chinese history, private owned enterprises never fully developed and thus the last group was absent. Instead, Chinese monarchies were based in a “flat society” (Huang, 1988) where the vast population of peasants contributed tax for government expenditure. Therefore government officials who implemented policies can be viewed as the party to generate rents. The monarch had to establish a scheme of rent sharing between himself, his administrative officials, and sanction posts in the government.
The Tang dynasty set an example for the central government structure. Instead of the Chancellor (宰相) as the primary single minister of the government (as was the case in Han), the Tang adopted a “rule by committee” system (Chien, 1982). Three administrative departments (三省) — the Imperial Secretariat (中書省), the Imperial Chancellery (門下省), and the Executive Department (尚書省) — shared the highest administrative power. The power of drafting and issuing policies lay within the three departments, and the emperor only needed to sign on the draft. A decree could not be effective until it was passed by the Imperial Chancellery. Remonstrators (諫官) attached to the Imperial Chancellery were responsible for censoring the signed decrees. If a decree needed to be revised, the Imperial Chancellery would send suggestions to the Imperial Secretariat and the previous procedures would repeat. Therefore, the Imperial Chancellery retained the “counter signature” power (Chien, 1982). The Executive Department consists of six ministries (六部), personnel (吏部), finance (戶部), rites (禮部), war (兵部), justice (刑部), and public works (工部), which implements policies according to their specialization.
The emperor did not have the final power to decide a particular policy, and considerable power was given to high-rank government officials. But there exists a fundamental conflict between the emperor’s arbitrary power and the rigid censorship required. The emperor could always find ways to evade the regulations and carry out the decision to his discretion. For example, Empress Wu (武則天) passed decrees without being censored by the Imperial Chancellery. This conflict was finally resolved in Song dynasty when the final decision power was returned to the emperor. Imperial Secretariat was instructed to draw up decrees reflecting the emperor’s view and Chief Ministers (丞相) were only responsible for the implementation of the decrees. Moreover, the Imperial Secretariat and Imperial Chancellery were moved out of the Three Departments. The remonstrators were obliged to comment according to the emperor’s will. Political power was concentrated to the emperor.
Chinese emperors often promulgated organizations to create confusion and internal conflicts within government officials, therefore restricting the power of the officials.
The Ming dynasty represented the peak of the emperor’s absolute power over the country. During the previous dynasties of Han, Tang, and Song, the emperor’s power was always kept in check by Chief Ministers, although the allocation of power varied from time to time. But Ming Tai Zu (明太祖) abolished prime ministership and left only a set of subordinate officials to carry out daily government routines. In addition, the head of the Censorate (督察院) and the other two commissioners were formed into the Nine Chief Ministers (九卿). Since no Presiding Minister (尚書令) or Vice Ministers (左僕射，右僕射) were present, the six ministries began to operate separately. The task of coordination was left to the emperor. By creating more organizations, the emperor greatly increased the cost of collective action against him and improved his security. But this came at the cost of declined government efficiency.
Some emperor created terror within the central government and among the masses. The fear of being punished by devising policies against the dictator’s will would make the government officials the mere puppets for the emperor. But creating terror is highly risky and is likely to undermine the administrative efficiency.
The Qing dynasty was one ruled by the Manchus. As “invaders”, they had weaker legitimacy to govern the country and were especially concerned to the security of their political power. The Qing government lacked “rational institutions” established for the public interests (Chien, 1982). Instead of literati running the government, the Qing placed the government in the hands of the Manchurian tribesmen who firmly supported the emperor. Emperor Yong-Zheng (雍正) set up another secretarial government organ, the Grand Council (軍機處), in addition to the Grand Secretaries left by the Ming. The Grand Council evolved into a tool for the emperor to exercise arbitrary power. The emperor could issue direct orders to local officials by “court letters” and maintain direct control of the whole country, thus creating secret policies unfettered by existing rules.
Chien, Mu. Traditional government in imperial China: A Critical Analysis. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1982.
Huang, Renyu. China: A Macro History. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1988.
Haber, Stephen. “Authoritarian Government”, in B R Weingast and D A Wittman, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Political Economy, Oxford University Press, 2006, Chap 38, pp. 633-707.
Tullock, Gordon. Autocracy. Dordrechet, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publ. Co., 1987.