Who’s on First?

China’s Successive Failures

In this age of deadly burlesque — one that brings to mind the 1930s and the atomised politics of great power conflict, class resentment, clashing ideologies, racism and economic injustice — it seems timely to offer a burlesque work from that earlier time. Who’s on First? was first performed on American national radio in 1938 by the comics Abbott and Costello. It is introduced with a meditation on the irresistible rise of China’s uncrowned king.

This is followed by an essay by the Hong Kong political analyst, Lee Yee 李怡. In it Lee discusses the historical woes of Chinese political succession. This is the fourth essay by Lee Yee to be featured in The Best China section of China Heritage.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
20 November 2017

Chairman of Everything, Everyone and Everywhere

As the incumbent party-state-army ruler of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, amassed titles in 2014, I took to calling him China’s CoE, or ‘Chairman of Everything’. At a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo on 7 January 2016, Xi reiterated an underlying political reality of Chinese life, but with a new formulation. He said: ‘Everything in China is under the direction of the Communist Party: party, state, army, civilian life and education, and at all points of the compass’ 黨政軍民學,東西南北中,黨是領導一切的. (Xi’s ‘new thinking’ was little more than a rephrasing of a 1942 dictum on the monolithic nature of Party leadership 黨的一元化領導. For more on this, see here.)

At the Nineteenth Party Congress held in Beijing in October 2017, this principle was written into the Communist Party’s Constitution which, in effect, completed CoE Xi Jinping’s apotheosis, further elevating him to become Chairman of Everyone and Everywhere. From 24 October, commentators in the international media repeated their own new formulation declaring Xi to be the ‘most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong’ (see, for example, here and here). In titular terms alone, however, Xi easily outstrips the Great Helmsman and, because of his hands-on political, bureaucratic, policing and military power, he could well be seen as the most powerful leader in Chinese history. As for power beyond the farrago of the propagandists and the mechanisms of the party-state — that is in the hearts and minds of the bureaucracy, the business community and the populace at large — it is too early to essay an independent judgement of the chairman’s reach.

The Nineteenth Party Congress concluded when Xi Jinping presented to the world five new members of the standing committee of the party-state’s ruling Politburo (Xi himself and Premier Li Keqiang continued in their former positions). An analysis of the ages and career trajectories of these men immediately led analysts to conclude that no clear successor in line to take over when Xi ends his second term in office in late 2022. With Xi Jinping Thought now enshrined in the Party Constitution, regardless of any titular diminution in the future Xi is now, in effect, China’s Chairman for Life.


Emperor Qianlong in Chinese characters and Manchu script (abkai wehiyehe).

Gaozong 高宗 of the Qing dynasty (Aisin Gioro Hungli 愛新覺羅 · 弘曆, 1711-1799), is known by the reign title Qianlong 乾隆, or as Abkai wehiyehe hūwangdi in Manchu. During his long reign he was known by Tibetans as the Mañjuśrī Emperor 文殊皇帝 (曼殊師利大皇帝འཇམ་དབྱངས་གོང་མ་ཆེན་པོ་; मञ्जुश्री) and the Mongolians called him Tngri tedkügči qaɣan (ᠲᠩᠷᠢ ᠲᠡᠳᠬᠦᠭᠴᠢ ᠬᠠᠭᠠᠨ, Тэнгэр тэтгэгч хаан or 騰格里特古格奇汗). Qianlong’s posthumous or ‘temple name’ was Emperor Chun 純皇帝, Yongkiyangga (‘the complete’) in Manchu. This was prefaced by a list of double-barreled epithets that reflected the deceased ruler’s peerless attributes: 法天隆運至誠先覺體元立極敷文奮武欽明孝慈神聖.

Qianlong also boasted a number of other names; these were carved in seal form and used frequently. One that the emperor favoured in his later years was ‘The Old Man of Ten Perfect Victories’ 十全老人, a reference to successful military campaigns. But that adventurism came at a high cost and it contributed to the decline of the dynasty’s fortunes.

Seal of the Supreme Emperor.

Before reaching the sixtieth year of his reign, to avoid out-ruling his grandfather Shengzu, the Kangxi Emperor, Qianlong formally abdicated the throne. Known as ‘Yao-like succession’ 堯禪 this act of grace is supposedly undertaken by a wise ruler during an enlightened and prosperous age. In semi-retirement Qianlong bestowed upon himself the title ‘Emperor of Emperors’, or Supreme Emperor 太上皇. Ruling under the reign title Jiaqing 嘉慶, Qianlong’s fifteenth son Yongyan 顒琰 was emperor in name only. The dotard’s rule continued up to the time of his death.

Well may we presume that, no matter what formal title(s) Xi Jinping may retain following his second five-year term, to those versed in the country’s history, he will regardless be China’s 太上皇, ‘Supremo Emeritus’.

Saha‘ (知道了) in Manchu: ‘We Are Aware’ or ‘Noted’, in the hand of seven Qing-dynasty emperors.


Reference Material:


Who’s on First?

— covering all bases

The comic dialogue ‘Who’s on First?’ relies on word play as the comic performers discuss baseball players named Who, What and I Don’t Know. Xi Jinping has covered all three bases.

Abbott: Well, let’s see, we have on the bags, Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third…
Costello: That’s what I want to find out.
Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.
Costello: Are you the manager?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: You gonna be the coach too?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names.
Abbott: Well I should.
Costello: Well then who’s on first?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy on first.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The first baseman.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy playing…
Abbott: Who is on first!
Costello: I’m asking you who’s on first.
Abbott: That’s the man’s name.
Costello: That’s whose name?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.
Abbott: That’s it.
Costello: That’s who?
Abbott: Yes.


Costello: Look, you gotta first baseman?
Abbott: Certainly.
Costello: Who’s playing first?
Abbott: That’s right.
Costello: When you pay off the first baseman every month, who gets the money?
Abbott: Every dollar of it.
Costello: All I’m trying to find out is the fellow’s name on first base.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy that gets…
Abbott: That’s it.
Costello: Who gets the money…
Abbott: He does, every dollar of it. Sometimes his wife comes down and collects it.
Costello: Who’s wife?
Abbott: Yes.


Abbott: What’s wrong with that?
Costello: Look, all I wanna know is when you sign up the first baseman, how does he sign his name?
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: How does he sign…
Abbott: That’s how he signs it.
Costello: Who?
Abbott: Yes.


Costello: All I’m trying to find out is what’s the guys name on first base.
Abbott: No. What is on second base.
Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second.
Abbott: Who’s on first.
Costello: One base at a time!
Abbott: Well, don’t change the players around.
Costello: I’m not changing nobody!
Abbott: Take it easy, buddy.
Costello: I’m only asking you, who’s the guy on first base?
Abbott: That’s right.
Costello: Ok.
Abbott: Alright.


Costello: What’s the guy’s name on first base?
Abbott: No. What is on second.
Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second.
Abbott: Who’s on first.
Costello: I don’t know.
Abbott: He’s on third, we’re not talking about him.
Costello: Now how did I get on third base?
Abbott: Why you mentioned his name.
Costello: If I mentioned the third baseman’s name, who did I say is playing third?
Abbott: No. Who’s playing first.
Costello: What’s on base?
Abbott: What’s on second.
Costello: I don’t know.
Abbott: He’s on third.
Costello: There I go, back on third again!

Full the full text of the routine, see here and, for an audio-visual version of the skit, see here.

— Ed.

Successive Disasters


Lee Yee 李怡

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


Following the Nineteenth Congress, the real political dilemma and social catastrophe confronting the Chinese Communists is that of succession. 十九大之後,中共面臨最困擾的政治問題和社會災難,是權力繼承。

Since ancient times, political succession has been the greatest and most nettlesome problem in China’s political life. In the past, the legendary Emperor Yao supposedly abdicated the throne to Shun [禪讓], but that arrangement was not formalised so it did not continue. From the dynastic system to the creation of a republic, from the republican era to the rise of the Communists — for over two millennia, all elite power struggles, bloody internecine strife, vicious infighting, twisted personalities, psychological warfare and power plays have revolved around the question of succession. 最高權力的轉移,自古以來就是人類政治生活最大最棘手的難題。中國遠古有堯舜的禪讓,但這既非制度化,嗣後就無以為繼。從帝制到共和,從民國到中共政權,兩千多年歷史中所有的內部鬥爭,腥風血雨,勾心鬥角,人性扭曲,心術權術,都圍繞着最高權力的繼承。

The man celebrated as the wisest and most open-minded ruler since ancient times was Tang Taizong, first emperor of the Tang dynasty, Li Shimin. The Zhenguan reign period has been held up as a model, but Li ascended the throne only after the Xuwumen Coup in which he murdered his brothers and forced his father aside. Then the question of his successor created a series of tragedies: of his fourteen sons, three were murdered, three committed suicide, three died in their minority, one was ‘sequestered’, and two were demoted, reduced to the status of commoners and exiled. In the end, his seventh son, Li Zhi, was named successor but even then impediments to the succession had to be removed. As a result Li Zhi took Wu Zetian, his father’s cairen [concubine of the fifth grade], as his wife, she subsequently set about wiping out all of his children and grandchildren. She changed the name of the Tang Dynasty to Zhou. For all of his genius and fame, the issue of political succession defeated Tang Taizong. 中國古代被認為最英明、最有胸襟的明君唐太宗李世民,貞觀之治被奉為楷模,但他獲取皇位固然是經過殺兄逼父的玄武門之變,而他傳承子嗣更釀發一個個悲劇:14個兒子中,3個被殺,3個自殺,3個早夭,1個被「幽閉」,兩個被廢為「庶人」又被流放。最後立九子李治,還要為他未來登基掃除障礙。結果,李治娶了父親的才人武則天,兒子孫子幾被武則天殺個精光!唐改元為周。太宗一世英名,敗於權力傳承。

If that was the fate of an enlightened ruler, it is hardly worth saying how violent, bloody and absurd the story of imperial succession has been in the case of other emperors. 明君尚如此,其他歷代皇位繼承就不用說有多殘暴多血腥多詭異也。

All of the political movements launched since the Communist state was established in 1949 were carried out on the basis of the most grandiloquent grounds. In reality, they all had their origins in the question of political succession. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Cultural Revolution were all really about succession and dealing with Liu Shaoqi [President of the People’s Republic]. Marshall Lin Biao was made successor in the Cultural Revolution but then he was denounced for having fled China after a failed coup d’état. That led to a nationwide Anti-Lin purge. Deng Xiaoping appointed first Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang to take the reins, but Hu was denounced in late 1986 and Zhao was removed [in 1989] as a result of 4 June. 中共建政以來的所有政治運動,表面都有一套冠冕堂皇大道理,但實際上真正原因都與權力繼承有關,而且權力繼承的爭奪才是所有政治運動的真正目的。毛澤東時代的大躍進、反右傾、文革,都是出自針對居於接班位置的劉少奇;文革把林彪放到接班人地位,結果宣稱林彪謀反叛逃並掀起大規模批林運動。鄧小平把胡耀邦、趙紫陽放在接班人位置,又爆發1986年批鬥胡耀邦和六四扳倒趙紫陽。

The Communists have been even more grotesque than successive emperors. They did not limit themselves merely to power struggles at court; instead they pursued their power struggles by means of mass movements through society as a whole. Succession struggles have over the years been the source of social disasters. 中共在權力繼承問題上,比歷代帝王更不堪的,是不僅在宮廷內鬥爭,而且在社會上以運動群眾方式去達到權鬥目的。繼承問題從來都是社會災難的根源。

Deng Xiaoping was probably thinking of this when he determined who would succeed him during his life and he stipulated that the post of Party General Secretary could only be held twice, limiting people to a tenure of ten years. He thought that this could prevent a confrontation between the incumbent leader and his successor. Deng even stipulated that Hu Jintao should be the General Secretary after Jiang Zemin. Jiang Zemin stipulated that Xi Jinping should succeed his successor, Hu Jintao. Not only has Xi claimed a mantle as grand as that of Mao Zedong, he has also blocked potential successors like Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai from joining the Standing Committee of the Politburo. He went so far as to oust Sun Zhengcai for corruption. It would appear that he is set to overturn the unwritten rule that no leader would stay beyond two terms in office, reviving the tradition of lifelong tenure from the era of the [Maoist] personality cult. 鄧小平大概有見及此,因此他生前定下隔代指定接班人,並規定總書記只能連任一次,即只可以掌最高權力10年。以為這樣可以避免在任者與接班者的尖銳衝突。鄧小平隔代指定了胡錦濤。江澤民也隔代指定了習近平。但現在習不僅掌握了與毛澤東旗鼓相當的絕對權力,而且阻止了隔代接班人胡春華、孫政才進入常委,更以反貪罪名把孫政才鬥倒,似乎有意要打破只做兩任的不成文規定,恢復個人崇拜時代的終身職。

History teaches us that this will invariably lead to a disastrous contention over the political succession, not merely a struggle at court but a broader social disaster. 人類歷史的所有經驗,都證明這一定會引爆權力繼承的大災難,不僅是宮廷災難,更是社會災難。

In recent years, the Western political model has lost its sheen and democracies have demonstrated various weaknesses. But as the thinker Karl Popper (1902-1994) observed, democracy allows for ‘the bloodless dismissal of the government by a majority vote’ without creating social trauma. Or, as Winston Churchill is said to have famously put it: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’. That is because no other form of government can ensure the peaceful transition of power. Every time other systems face the question of political succession the body politic and society are damaged. 近年來,西方的政經模式顯露疲態,西方民主也暴露種種弊端。但誠如思想家 Karl Popper (1902-1994) 所說,民主普選的好處,是能夠和平地轉移最高權力,避免流血及社會的驚濤駭浪。邱吉爾說:「民主是最壞的政府形式——除了其他所有不斷地被試驗過的政府形式之外。」因為其他任何政府形式都無法和平解決繼承問題,每逢權力轉移就來一次傷筋動骨。

The Nineteenth Congress of the Communists discarded the unwritten rules regarding Chinese political succession. This is no small thing. It will inevitably result in a political catastrophe on the mainland, one that won’t be delayed until there is a need for a successor in five years. The lesson that history teaches us is that such crises can unfold in the political present. 十九大毀掉了原有不成文的繼承規則,這絕非小事,它必然在今後引發大陸政局的災難,而且災難不會等到5年後需要接班時才發生。歷史提供的所有教訓都是:災難在現時政局下很快就會出現。

— 李怡, 權力繼承的災難, 2017年11月3日


‘Seal of the Son of Heaven at Seventy’ 古稀天子之寶 from the Qianlong reign. Xi Jinping will be seventy at the end of his second five-year term in office.