In imperial days, when emperors and their relatives ruled the country, nepotism was prevalent. When the Communist Party took over, idealists hoped that it would guard against that. “But for some reason, we’re now back to nepotism,” he said [Zhang Lifan, an historian]. “And the country is ruled by a few families.”
[Ian Johnson, “Dynasty of Different Order Reshaping China,” New York Times, 11/14/2012]
The return at five year intervals of the Communist Party Congress in China (the 18th is now underway) always produces rather predictable stories in the media about political reform in that vast realm. It is always a distant possibility. References to reform at the last congress are trotted out, only to be seen as dead on proposal. The new language offered this time is examined and found to be weak. The coverage we get is brief. The names of groups or interests, usually associated with prominent people, are not memorable for us. A new figure emerges. And that’s that until the next time.
Is there any way in which we might recognize the same phenomena in this country? Surely not. Here we have institutionalized what in China we would view as reforms. But a look across the political landscape nonetheless produces some recurring names like Daley, Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, Romney, Cuomo, Rockefeller, Taft, Roosevelt, Adams, and Lee.
Could it be that rule by prominent families is a pretty common feature of governance. Take the United States, for instance. Wikipedia has assembled a list of United States Political Families (link). The definition provided there says: “Families who have repeatedly produced notable politicians from their ranks, and these historic U.S. political families have had a significant impact on politics in the United States.” (That “who” in that sentence should probably be “that.”) The list runs from A through Z, and only X is absent. Well, the Chinese could help us there. Along with Deng, Zeng, and Bo there, we have Xi. The total number listed for the United States is 1,900—and with a rounded number like that, I suspect there could be more.
Expanding its context, Wikipedia also has a page that includes the entire world, and sure enough, the same pattern everywhere. Yes we all are—ruled by a few families. It’s just the way things are, rich times, poor times, one party, two parties, many parties, kings or commons, then and now.