The Politics of Harmony and of Power

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The Politics of Harmony and of Power

I thought about the politics of harmony and of power as I read two books over the Lunar New Year''s holidays. Harmony represents resilience, reconciliation, and tolerance. Power can mean inflexibility and severity. Kang-hsi, the fourth emperor of the Ching Dynasty, was one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. He introduced a period of great prosperity based on the rule of harmony; his son Yung-cheng epitomized the rule of harshness.

In his book, ioEmperor of China,'''' U.S. historian Jonathan Spence took an innovative approach to construct a kind of posthumous autobiography of Kang-hi'''', using segments from the emperor''s own writings and historical documents to weave them into a self-portrait. As you read, you can almost imagine it is Kang- hsi himself speaking to today''s reader. Ichisada Yamazaki, professor at Kyoto University who wrote a book on Emperor Yung-cheng, also used beautiful prose to paint a vivid portrait of a ifmalicious dictator filled with good Kang-hsi spent his youth hunting and going on military expeditions. He made an expedition to Tibet and annexed the island of Taiwan.

Since it was only in his father''s time that the Manchurians had conquered China, he was still not very fluent in Chinese, but he implemented sinocization policies to assimilate with the Chinese and win their support. Besides the traditional civil service examinations for recruiting Chinese officials educated in Confucian disciplines, Kang-hsi opened a special channel to employ even anti-state intellectuals in his service. He was uniquely tolerant and flexible, and had frequent exchanges with Jesuit missionaries, from whom he learned mathematics, science and astronomy.

He valued legalism. After successfully suppressing the Revolt of the Three Feudatories that threatened his throne, he devised a set of laws to punish the rebel leaders based not on emotion but on law. He often advised his subjects that implementing fine politics means ensuring the people of a peaceful life, and being a good politician means not hurting them. He also said preventing problems in advance is better than trying to solve numerous problems completely. He was an enlightened leader who consolidated the national foundation by ruling the empire based on legal systems, tolerance and magnanimity.

Yung-cheng, as the fourth son of Kang-hsi, was not immediately in line for the throne, but he intrigued against his 34 other brothers and seized the throne at the age of 45. Knowing that conspiracies and conflicts ran rampant around the throne, he decided that the only means of his survival lay in strong politics. He spent the first years of his reign on consolidating his power, imprisoning or executing some of his brothers and their supporters. He also based the foundation of his rule on information, and operated such an efficient espionage system that every action of his ministers was said to have been reported to him. He planted his spies far and wide throughout the empire.

Once he even ordered his spy to secretly take down the nameplate of the penal department at night. Early the next morning, the emperor called in the official in charge of penal affairs, and asked if the nameplate was still hanging in place. When the unfortunate official said yes, the emperor erupted in anger. During his rule, he strengthened administrative centralization of the government, and personally scrutinized and directed all important matters. He sent instructions to, and received reports from, 232 administrators in some 30 provinces. He did not tolerate the slightest error and fired those who repeated blunders. He inspired terror. The letters he exchanged with regional officers were so numerous that they filled 112 volumes.

His was a typical personal rule that did not follow legal systems. The Chinese bureaucratic system was focused on the civil service exams to recruit officials, but he did not trust them, viewing them as the root of factionalism. He did not appoint any of the officials who had passed the civil exams to important positions. He implemented a face-to-face rule, and was suspicious of everything he did not believe in. But he was also a hard-working monarch. He always went to bed at midnight, and unfailingly woke at four in the morning. He read reports and answered them diligently. He was truly concerned about the lives of the masses. This is why Professor Yamazaki defined him as a ''''malicious dictator filled with good intentions.''''

When he died of an illness, all his subjects are said to have heaved sighs of relief. The ministers Yung-cheng had trusted highly urged his heir, Chien-lung, to return to the politics of tolerance, claiming that even thousands of good-intentioned leaders cannot control an empire if their rule is not grounded in a system of law. I learned a lesson that transcends time and ideology from the portraits of these two leaders, one representing the politics of harmony and one the politics of power. They teach the futility of attempting to implement strong political controls on the people. They show there is no place for a politics of power that does not follow legal principles in a democratic state where sovereignty rests with the people. I strongly recommend these books to politicians.
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