Dynasties and their Discontents, part 1/3

North America

Imagine if Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton had become president in 2016, then won re-election in 2020. There would have been a Bush or a Clinton as president for 28 out of 36 consecutive years, from George H W Bush’s election in 1988 all the way through to 2024. Only Obama would have served as a break in between. Add in the Vice-Presidency and Secretary of State and there would have been a Bush or a Clinton within the presidential cabinet for 40 out of 44 consecutive years, from 1982 until 2024.

To put into context how unique that would have been in American history, the only other presidents from the same immediate family were John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, and they served only a total of 8 years as president, with a 24-year gap separating Sr’s leaving office in 1801 from Jr’s being selected president (by Congress) in 1825. The two Roosevelts later racked up a total of 20 years as president – eight for Teddy and twelve for FDR – but they were only fifth cousins (though FDR’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt was Teddy’s niece), and they too were separated by a 24-year gap of non-Roosevelt governance, from 1909 to 1933. William Henry Harrison and his grandson Benjamin Harrison were president for 4 years (WHH died only 31 days into his own presidency), but 48 years apart.

The Bush and Clinton families by comparison really did have 20 uninterrupted years as president, from 1988 to 2008. During this time they also had governorships in Texas (George W.), Florida (Jeb), and Arkansas (Bill), and a senatorship in New York (Hillary). And then, of course, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were thought to be the front-runners for the presidency a year before the 2016 elections.

It is difficult to know to what extent Americans’ resentment of the Bush and Clinton families helped the anti-establishment politicians who ran that year. In the Republican primaries in particular, about 45 percent of the votes went to Donald Trump. Another 25 percent went to Ted Cruz. In the Democratic primaries 43 percent of votes went to an independent candidate, Bernie Sanders. It is easy to imagine the Bush-Clinton dynamic played at least some role, even subliminally, in influencing the outcome of the 2016 elections.

Ford stresses national unity, calls for calm after meeting Trudeau |  CP24.com
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

I’ve had political dynasties on my mind in recent years not only because of American politics, but also because in my home country Canada, and home province Ontario, both of the politicians in charge, Justin Trudeau (since 2015) and Doug Ford (since 2018), have been in office mainly because of who their relatives were. Justin Trudeau is the son of the charismatic Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who was prime minister of Canada for 15 years between 1968 and 1984. Doug Ford is the older brother of Toronto’s infamous former mayor Rob Ford, who passed away in 2016, and the son of a provincial parliamentarian and businessman, Doug Ford Sr. (Rob and Doug’s nephew, Michael Douglas Ford, was also elected to Ontario’s parliament this year, during Doug’s re-election as Ontario premier).

Both Trudeau and Ford were elected by their parties in times of political desperation. The Liberals picked Trudeau to become party leader following an election loss in 2011, in which the party had fallen to third place in a Canadian election for the first time in its history. He is the first child of a prime minister in Canada to ever become prime minister himself. The Ontario Progressive Conservatives meanwhile chose Doug Ford after being 15 years out of power, and after their previous party leader, Patrick Brown, had been forced out in response to allegations of sexual misconduct several months before the 2018 provincial election was scheduled to take place. (Brown is now mayor of Brampton).

In Mexico, political dynasts held the country’s presidency from 2006 until 2018, at which point the country’s current, populist president, Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador, was elected. From 2013 to 2018 Mexico’s president was Enrique Pena Nieto, both of whose uncles were former governors of the State of Mexico, the state in which Mexico City is located. From 2006 to 2012 the president was Felipe Calderon, whose father founded the political party that the younger Calderon went on to lead, the National Action Party. (In 2000, when Vincente Fox became president, the National Action Party ended a 71-year streak by the autocratic Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had governed since 1929). To become president in 2006, Calderon narrowly beat Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador in one of the closest and most controversial elections in Mexican history. Obrador, who does not come from a political or upper class family, became a national figure as Mexico City’s mayor from 2000-2005.

And in Cuba, of course, Fidel’s death in 2016 and Raul’s retirement and death in 2021 have left the island without a Castro in charge for the first time in 62 years.

Northeast Asia

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping

In China, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is the first to come from the “princeling” class. He is the son of a high-ranking political figure, Xi Zhongxun, who was part of the first generation of the Communist Party leadership. After being jailed for years during the Cultural Revolution, Xi’s father went on to preside over China’s Guangdong province when it led the way in China’s economic re-opening. Other prominent princelings include China’s current vice president Wang Qishan (though only by marriage), who arguably was China’s second most influential politician during the past decade, and Bo Xilai, who famously fell from power around the time Xi was promoted to General Secretary in 2012.

In Japan, former prime minister Shinzo Abe also came from a political dynasty. His father and paternal grandfather were both politicians, and his maternal grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, the prime minister of Japan from 1957-1960 and a member of cabinet during WWII. Like Xi Jinping, Abe was probably the most important politician his country has had in recent decades. He retired from being prime minister in 2020 due to health reasons, and was assassinated earlier this year. The current prime minister, Fumio Kishida (who faced an assassination attempt earlier this week), is the son and grandson of former members of Japan’s House of Representatives.

Many of Japan’s lawmakers are from political families. Taro Aso, for example, who was Japan’s prime minister from 2008-2009 and deputy prime minister from 2012-2021, is the grandson of a former prime minister, the son-in-law of another prime minister, and a relative of Japan’s emperor Akihito by marriage. Aso is now the vice president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (ranking just behind prime minister Kishida), even though he previously led the party to its worst electoral defeat – one of only two losses since WWII – in 2008.

Akihito, meanwhile, traces his own imperial family’s roots back at least 1483 years. He was emperor for 30 years before abdicating in favour of his son in 2019. His father, Hirohito, reigned for 63 years, the longest of any of the nearly 100 historically verifiable Japanese emperors.

The president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, was born to North Korean refugees and grew up in poverty. The previous president however was Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea’s longest-serving president, Park Chung-hee. The elder Park came to power in a military coup in 1961, and served as president from 1963 until he was assassinated in 1979. (His wife – Park Geun-hye’s mother – was also assassinated, in 1974, a casualty of an earlier failed attempt on her husband’s life). Park Geun-hye was South Korea’s first female president from 2013 to 2017, but was then impeached on corruption charges, and spent several years in prison.

In North Korea, the Kim family’s rule is now roughly 74 years old, and 12 years into its third generation. But the Kim regime will have to survive for another quarter century, all the way to 2058, if its current leader Jong Un is to surpass his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s 46-year reign (from 1948-1994).

South Asia

Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, poses for a picture with Indian Congress Party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi

In India in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party became the first party in over three decades to win a majority government in a national election. Modi is not from a political dynasty himself, rather he is (among other things) a reaction against the modern world’s most prominent political family of all: the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – which is not related to the Gandhi – began with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-British prime minister from 1947 until 1964. Nehru was himself the son and nephew of political figures in pre-independence India. Nehru’s dynasty continued with his daughter Indira Gandhi (née Nehru), who was India’s prime minister from 1966-1977 and 1980-1984. Indira was assassinated in 1984, two months before a general election; her son Rajiv Gandhi took over and received a record number of votes in that conflict-ridden election, but was then voted out of office in 1989. Rajiv ran again in 1991, but was assassinated a month before the election. His wife, Sonia Gandhi, has presided over India’s Congress Party ever since then. (The Congress Party held the office of prime minister in 55 out of India’s 67 years of independence prior to Modi’s being elected). Their son Rahul Gandhi was Modi’s main opponent in both of Modi’s electoral wins, in 2014 and 2019.

In Pakistan, current prime minister Shehbaz Sharif is the brother of Nawaz Sharif, who previously served as prime minister from 1990-1993, 1997-1999, and more recently 2013-2017. Shehbaz Sharif took over from the previous prime minister, former cricket star Imran Khan, as part of a constitutional crisis earlier this year. The third Sharif brother, Abbas, was also a member of parliament in the 1990s. Nawaz’ daughter Maryam has recently entered politics as well, becoming a high-ranking member of their current governing party (which her father founded in 1993), the Pakistan Muslim League.

Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardar, is the son of two former leaders: former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Ali Zardari. (Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 soon after her return to the country following eight years in exile, two months after an earlier failed assassination attempt at her return parade killed an estimated 180 bystanders). He is also the grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, who had served as prime minister and as president of Pakistan before being executed in 1979 following a coup.

The Bhutto family mausoleum, in southern Pakistan. It was built between 1993-2011, inspired in part by the mausoleums of Khomeini in Iran and Ataturk in Turkey. Other members of the family buried there include Benazir’s brothers Murtaza Bhutto (a political figure and one-time airplane hijacker who many believe was assassinated by Benazir’s husband, president Zardari, in 1996) and Shahnawaz Bhutto (who died under mysterious circumstances in France in 1985 at the age of 26). Zulfikar’s wife Nusrat Bhutto, who was First Lady for most of the 1970s and then a high-ranking government minister at the end of the 1980s (after Zulfikar’s overthrower Zia ul Haq died in a plane crash) is buried there as well.

In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina has been prime minister for 18 years, from 1996-2001 and again since 2009. Her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the founding president of Bangladesh after it became independent of Pakistan in 1971, and served as prime minister from 1972 until 1975, when he, his wife, and his three sons were assassinated during a military coup. After the coup Ziaur Rahman (unrelated to Mujibar) rose to power, but was assassinated in another coup in 1981. (In between these two coups there was another, unusual coup attempt, which was sparked when Japanese Red Army airplane hijackers landed a flight from India in Bangladesh in 1977. More than 1100 military personnel were hanged in two months following the coup’s failure). Before he was overthrown in 1981, Ziaur allowed Sheik Hasina to return to the country.

Ziaur’s widow Khaleda Zia became prime minister in the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, and remains the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Uniquely, Bangladesh’s politics have therefore been dominated by two women in the past generation. Meanwhile in West Bengal – India’s populous Bengali state, just across the border from Bangladesh – the chief minister since 2011 has been a self-made woman, Mamata Banerjee. She is currently the only woman among the 30 chief ministers of India’s states.

In Sri Lanka, mass protests this summer forced the resignation of president Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a week after protestors broke into and partied in the presidential mansion. In addition to being president, Rajapaksa is the brother of the former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who previously also served as president from 2005-2015. Their other brother, Chamal, was speaker of the parliament. The Rajapaksas have long been a political dynasty, with many past and present members in Sri Lankan politics. The country’s new president similarly comes from a major political family.

Southeast Asia

Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos and vice president Sara Duterte-Carpio

The Philippines may be the best example of a democracy dominated by political dynasties. Earlier this year, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos was elected president, along with Sara Duterte-Carpio as his vice president. Bongbong’s father Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was president for 21 years, from 1965-1986, mostly ruling as a dictator with the country under martial law. Bongbong’s mother, famous First Lady Imelda Marcos, was governor of Manila for 11 years, a member of parliament for 18 years (most recently from 2010-2019), and twice ran for president in the 1990s. Bongbong’s wife, son, daughter, and nephew also ran for various political offices in 2022. His vice president, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is the child of a notorious political leader too: Rodrigo Duterte, who was president until his term ended earlier this year. Sara Duterte’s grandfather and great uncle were also fairly prominent politicians.

In the election that brought Rodrigo Duterte to power in 2016, roughly two-thirds of the Philippines’ outgoing Congress had been heirs of political families. Before Duterte, the country’s president was Benigno Aquino III, whose mother Corazon Aquino (president from 1986-1992) had led the uprising against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos after her husband Ninoy Aquino, a senator and leading political opponent of the Marcos regime, had been assassinated in 1983. Before Benigno Aquino, the president was Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), the daughter of Diosdado Macapagal (president from 1961-1965).

In other words, three of the four presidents since 2001 have been children of earlier presidents, and the only exception, Rodrigo Duterte, is the father of the new vice president.

In Singapore, the prime minister since 2004 has been Lee Hsien Loong, the son of modern Singapore’s founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister of Singapore from 1959-1990, a cabinet minister until 2011, and a member of parliament for 60 years, from 1955-2015.

In Malaysia, the leading political figure has been Mahathir bin Muhammad, prime minister from 1981-2003 and again from 2018-2020. He was the first one of Malaysia’s prime ministers not born into a well-known political, business, or religious family. Before Muhammad’s return to power (at 93 years old), the prime minister from 2009-2018 was Najib Razak, who was the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein and the nephew of Malaysia’s third prime minister Hussein Onn. (Malaysia’s first prime minister, from 1957-1970, was the seventh son of a sultan). The current prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, like Mahathir bin Muhammad, does not come from an influential family. He had been one of Muhammad’s deputy prime ministers in the 1990s, but was then was imprisoned on charges of sodomy until Muhammad left office in 2004. He received a royal pardon in 2018.

In Indonesia, the president since 2014, Joko Widodo, was the first of his generation not to have come from an established political or religious family or from the military. The current vice president Megawati Sukarnoputri, by contrast, who was previously also Indonesia’s president from 2001-2004, is the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first post-independence president from 1945-1967. And Widodo’s son was elected mayor of Surakarta in 2021, the city that Widodo was the mayor of from 2005-2012.

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi became prime minister in 2016. She had spent 15 years under house arrest in the aftermath of an election victory in 1990, the election result having been annulled by the military. She was elected again in 2020, but was then overthrown by another military coup and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Her father, Aung San, was modern Burma’s founding leader, who was assassinated along with most of his cabinet just before the country became independent in 1948. Her uncle, Thaksin Than Tun, later led the Communist Party of Burma, and was assassinated in 1968.

In Vietnam, the leading General Secretary of the Communist Party since 2011, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, lists “average peasant” as his background in his official biography. The previous General Secretary (2001-2011), Nông Đức Mạnh, was however rumoured to have been the illegitimate son of Hồ Chí Minh. (According to Wikipedia, “In April 2001, shortly after Nông Đức Mạnh was named as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam , a reporter at a news conference asked him to confirm or deny the rumor. He responded, “All Vietnamese people are the children of Uncle Hồ.)” And in 2016, “the sons of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung were newly elected… The older son, Nguyen Thanh Nghi, is one of the youngest provincial party chiefs in Vietnam. He is 39 years old. The younger son, Nguyen Minh Triet, 25, was also selected to be a member of the party committee of Binh Dinh province”.

In Cambodia, King Norodom Sihamoni has reigned since 2004. His father, the filmmaking king Norodom Sihanouk, reigned from 1941-1955 and 1993-2004. Sihanouk’s first kingship began at 19 years old, during WWII when Cambodia was governed by a mix of Vichy France, imperial Japan, and Japan’s regional ally Thailand. Uniquely, he abdicated the throne in favour of both his own father (in 1955) and son (in 2004). His 1955 abdication was carried out so that he could participate directly in Cambodian politics. His father took over his role as king until dying in 1960, and his mother reigned as queen from 1960 to 1970, when a coup swept both her and her son from power. She died in exile in Beijing in 1975, only ten days after the Khmer Rouge conquered the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Sihanouk came back from his own exile in China and North Korea in 1975, to serve briefly as a figurehead president during the Khmer Rouge regime. After the Khmer Rouge were ousted by Vietnamese forces in 1979, he went into exile again in 1981. He became king for the second time in 1993, following elections that brought to power a coalition government composed of his son Norodom Ranaridd (a half-brother of Cambodia’s current king) and Hun Sen, Cambodia’s dominant politician.

Hun Sen has led Cambodia since 1984. He has held the post of prime minister for nearly three decades, and is now 71 years old. In 2018 Hun appointed one of his sons, Hun Manet, to high-ranking military and political positions. Manet was promoted again several months ago. It is now thought that he might succeed his father as Cambodian prime minister as soon as this summer.

The nearby Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, has similarly been prime minister since 1984. But he has also been the sultan since 1967, making him (since Queen Elizabeth’s passing) the longest-lasting state leader in the world today.

Finally, in Thailand, there are two dynasties of note: the monarchy and the Shinawatras. The monarchy, which is one of the wealthiest in the world, is currently helmed by King Vajiralongkorn, who had previously spent 50 years as the crown prince. His father, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), was king from 1946-2016, a 70-year reign that is tied with Queen Elizabeth’s for history’s longest as an adult sovereign. He was widely revered and respected, whereas the new king Vajiralongkorn is for many reasons a problematical figure (far more so than, for example, King Charles). But it is difficult for people in Thailand to criticize him, as the royal family is covered by extremely strict lèse-majesté laws.

According to Wikipedia, “Vajiralongkorn’s reign has been plagued by controversies unheard of during the reign of his predecessor. His image is affected by his reputation as a philanderer. In 2020, widespread unprecedented protests against his reign were popping up all over Thailand….In January 2021, reports surfaced that Princess Sirindhorn, the King’s younger sister, had been taken to the hospital for serious injuries to both her ankles. These injuries appear to be the result of a direct physical attack on the Princess by the King. Reports suggested that the Princess had become angry upon being informed that the King would be formally making a concubine his second wife, making her his second queen. During the heated exchange, sources from the palace say that the King’s dogs jumped on the Princess, knocking her over. While on the ground, the king appears to have broken her ankles either by jumping on them or using his cane. More specifics of the encounter remain unclear due to lèse majesté laws, which endanger anybody who divulges information regarding the incident….For most of 2020, Vajiralongkorn reportedly rented out the alpine Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl in Garmisch-Partenkirchen [in the Bavarian Alps] for himself and his entourage during the COVID-19 pandemic.. He remained there during the nationwide protests and amidst a wave of anti-monarchy sentiments in Thailand, sparking controversy in both Thailand and Germany”.

The Thai military, often allied with the monarchy, has played a leading role in the country’s politics. The prime minister from 2001-2006, Thaksin Shinawatra – the son of a former member of parliament and a minor member of the royal family of the old kingdom of Chiang Mai – was overthrown by a military coup, following a political crisis in which Shinawatra was alleged to be an anti-monarchical leader. His younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra later became prime minister from 2011-2014, before being removed during the Thai political crisis in 2013-2014, which ended in another coup, endorsed by the former king. The military-monarchy alliance has remained in power since.

During elections in 2019, King Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister, Princess Ubol Ratana, tried to become prime minister as the candidate of a political party supported by the exiled Shinawatras. The king immediately denounced the move as unconstitutional and the party was banned from politics for a decade.

Now, however, Thaksin Shinawatra’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra (Yingluck’s niece) appears likely to become Thailand’s next prime minister. Elections will be held on May 14th.

Additional Notes for Part 1:

  • The saddest and strangest dynastic episode in recent history took place in Nepal, in 2001. There, in the middle of civil war (1996-2006), the heir to the throne, crown prince Dipendra, is alleged to have carried out a mass shooting inside the royal palace, killing his father the king, his mother the queen, seven other siblings or cousins, and then shooting himself as well. He survived the suicide attempt for three days, in a coma, and despite his murders he was officially declared the new king, while comatose. After his death the kingship passed to his uncle, Gyanendra. There are many conspiracy theories about this royal massacre, including suggestions that it was really Gyanendra who was behind the attack, since it resulted in his becoming king and since his own immediate family members, who had been present during the attack, were said to have been relatively unscathed. Gyanendra had actually been king previously as well, from 1950-1951 when he was three or four years old, during a period when most of the rest of the royal family fled to India. His second kingship lasted only from 2001-2008, when Nepal abolished its monarchy altogether. But he is still involved in Nepalese politics today.
  • The most successful American dynasty of all, the Kennedy family, recently lost its long hold on high office. Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009 ended his nearly 47-year tenure in the Senate, the fourth-longest such tenure in American history, which he had begun when he took over his brother JFK’s seat in Massachusetts at the start of the Kennedy presidency in 1962. Then in 2011 Ted’s son Patrick Kennedy retired from Congress, ending a streak of 68 consecutive years with a Kennedy in high office, going all the way back to 1947 when JFK was elected to Congress. By 2013, however, RFK’s grandson (and son of former Congressman Joseph Patrick Kennedy II) Joe Kennedy III was elected to the House, where he remained until losing a Democratic primary in an attempt to become a senator in 2020. That made him the first Kennedy to ever lose an election in Massachusetts, leaving Congress without a Kennedy again. But his uncle RFK Jr. just announced he is running against Biden to become the Democratic nominee for president in 2024.
  • An ex-Kennedy by marriage, Andrew Cuomo, also recently lost his governorship of New York in a scandal. Cuomo himself came from a prominent political family; his CNN-star brother was ousted as part of the same scandal he was, and his father Mario, also a New York governor, was considered the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination during the first Bush and then Clinton elections in 1988 and 1992. The other ex-Kennedy ex-governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, served just before, and also after, California’s dynastic governor Jerry Brown.
  • The Ford family’s list of scandals is long, in addition to the crack video which made Rob famous while mayor of Toronto. Doug and his brother Randy were medium-sized drug dealers when they were younger, and in the 1990s were accused of kidnapping a fellow drug dealer who owed them $5000 dollars. (This did not stop their father and Rob from attempting to carve out war-on-drug reputations in municipal politics. Rob’s attempt to do so was derailed by an early arrest for impaired driving in Florida, one of the family’s numerous DUIs). The Fords’ ex-brother-in-law meanwhile was convicted of murdering their sister’s new lover, a white supremacist, in 1998. That same sister (who is the mother of Ontario’s new minister of citizenship and multiculturalism, Michael Douglas Ford, elected in 2022) had another boyfriend taken into custody for allegedly trying to kill Rob Ford in 2012, and was shot in the face, maybe accidentally, by that boyfriend and another man in 2005.
  • Multiple members of the Bush family were involved, directly or indirectly, in the Florida fiasco that decided the 2000 presidential election. Jeb was Florida’s governor at the time. George H W Bush had appointed Clarence Thomas and David Souter to the Supreme Court, which then in effect narrowly ruled (5 to 4, though admitedly Souter was among the 4) to stop the statewide election recount that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered. (It is thought that the recount would have probably revealed a Gore victory. In fact, even after prematurely counting Florida in Bush’s favour, Gore still only lost the electoral college by a single vote, and won the national popular vote. Gore too came from a political family: he and his father served in the House of Representatives, Senate, or as vice president for all but six years from 1939-2001). Even George and Jeb’s first cousin, John Ellis, was involved in the election over at Fox News, as head of its election night decision desk. Fox was the first news network to call Florida for Bush on the night of the election, leading the other major networks to temporarily follow suit, before all of them, including Fox, retracted their calls. Cousin John’s role is perhaps somewhat reminiscent of a more recent electoral event: the Dominion lawsuit payout, a story which similarly began with Fox News being the first to call the 2020 election (via Arizona) for Biden. And of course, John was not the last Bush cousin to be involved in the late stages of an election. The cousin Billy Bush-Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape was aired one month before the 2016 election.
  • Hillary Clinton meanwhile was also elected in 2000, as a senator representing New York, immediately following the end of her husband’s presidential term. She beat Republican Rick Lazio after the presumptive nominee, mayor Rudy Giuliani, was diagnosed with cancer and faced a series of setbacks and scandals earlier in the year. During this same time, Giuliani also inserted himself into the Elian Gonzales affair, repeatedly calling the US agents who forcibly retrieved Gonzales “storm troopers”. The Gonzales affair, in turn, might also have helped swing the 2000 presidential election. (Gonzales, by the way, was elected to Cuba’s parliament this past week, at the age of 29. By coincidence, this occurred the day before the Domionion lawsuit was settled, a week after a new Giuliani audio tape, recorded secretly by a Fox employee, emerged in that suit).
  • Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt came somewhat close to facing one another in the 1920 presidential election. Teddy had already been president previously, and had afterward founded his own Progressive party, becoming in the 1912 election “the only third party presidential nominee to finish with a higher share of the popular vote than a major party’s presidential nominee [namely, William Howard Taft, who had been the incumbent president, yet finished a distant third behind Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt]”. But Teddy became the Republican front-runner again ahead of the 1920 election, after rejoining the party. He died however in 1919, and Warren Harding became the Republican nominee and president instead. (Harding then appointed Taft, an ex-president, to the Supreme Court – a unique situation) . Meanwhile FDR, then only 38 years old, was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in the 1920 election, facing Harding’s running mate Calvin Coolidge. Both Coolidge and FDR later became presidents themselves. (Soon after FDR’s presidency, Teddy’s grandson Kermit Jr. played a key role in the CIA-assisted coups in both Egypt and Iran during the early 1950s).
  • The Adams family came fairly close to spending three generations at the top of American politics. John Adams was the country’s second president, taking over from George Washington in 1797. His son John Quincy Adams won the 1825 election without receiving a majority of the electoral college seats – he only got 38% – but was chosen to become president by the House, the only president this ever happened to. 24 years later, John Quincy’s son ran for vice-president as part of Martin Van Buren’s Free Soil Party ticket in 1848, but lost.
  • In the Dominican Republic, the president since 2000 has been Luis Abinader, whose father José Rafael Abinader Wasaf was a senator and wealthy businessman, who founded the political party that the younger Abinader now leads.
  • Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s elder son, died while piloting an airplane crash in 1980, not long before Indira’s assassination in 1984 and Rajiv’s in 1991. (This is one reason the Gandhis are often compared with the Kennedies). He had been made secretary general of the Congress Party only a month before his death, not long after playing a controversial role during the Emergency. For example (according to Wikipedia) “”In September 1976, Sanjay Gandhi initiated a widespread compulsory sterilization program to limit population growth. The exact extent of Sanjay Gandhi’s role in the implementation of the program is disputed, with some writers holding Gandhi directly responsible for his authoritarianism, and other writers blaming the officials who implemented the programme rather than Gandhi himself”. Sanjay too survived an assassination attempt during the following election campaign, his first, in 1977. (A year later, two men hijacked a passenger airplane for several hours and demanded that Indira be released from prison – she was arrested after the Emergency – and various charges against Sanjay be dropped. The two hijackers were rewarded by the Congress party for doing this, by being made parliamentary candidates in Uttar Pradesh in 1980. Both won and served multiple terms).
  • Sanjay’s wife, Maneka Gandhi, has however since jumped ship from the Gandhi-dominated Congress Party and joined the rival BJP. She is currently a cabinet minister in the BJP-led government. Maneka’s son Varun has also gone over to the BJP, serving as the youngest National Secretary in the history of the party and a member of the country’s parliament. But Maneka and Varun both remain less prominent than the Congress side of the family, which is led by Maneka’s sister-in-law Sonia and Varun’s first cousins Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi.
  • The BJP is arguably just as dynastic as the Congress party is, or at least not so far off. According to the Economist “nearly a third of lawmakers in India’s lower house come from political families”Family politics are also extremely common within India’s diverse, influential state governments. In Tamil Nadu for example the chief minister, M.K. Stalin (born four days after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953) is the son of Tamil Nadu’s longtime Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi. In India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the Yadavs’ Socialist Party has been influential, while in the second most populous state, Maharashtra, the Thackeries’ Army of Shiva Party has been even more influential. The longest incumbent among current chief ministers, Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik (in power since 2000) is the son of a previous chief minister too. These are just a few examples of prevalent dynasticism in India.
  • In Bhutan, the current dragon king is the fifth in a dynasty that has reigned since 1907. He became king in 2006, when his father (still living today) abdicated the throne at the age of 54. His father had become king in 1972, at the age of 17. In 1975, Bhutan’s fellow Himalayan kingdom, Sikkim (it is wedged right between Bhutan and Nepal) joined India; Bhutan is now the last of these kingdoms, since Nepal abolished its own monarchy in 2008.
  • The royal family of Sikkim comes originally from Tibet. Tibet, of course, has its own hereditary leadership, of a sort, with figures like the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. The current 14th Dalai Lama was given political power following the battle of Chamdo in 1950, at the age of 15, a decade after his enthronement as a child. According to Wikipedia: “The current 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was recognized by the 14th Dalai Lama on 14 May 1995. Three days later, the six-year-old Panchen Lama was kidnapped by the Chinese government and his family was taken into custody. The Chinese government instead named Gyaincain Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama. Their nomination has been widely rejected by Buddhists in Tibet and abroad, while governments have called for information about and the release of the Panchen Lama. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has never been publicly seen since 1995″.
  • India too had royal-run regions – the princely states – until its post-independence period. “At the time of the British withdrawal, 565 princely states were officially recognised in the Indian subcontinent…In 1947, princely states covered 40% of the area of pre-independence India and constituted 23% of its population”. Hyderabad, by far the most significant of these princely states, was home to about 16 million people, with a territory nearly the size of Britain, when its princely status was ended in 1948 after it was briefly invaded by India. (The last Nizam of Hyderabad had 34 children; his second son married a daughter of the last Ottoman crown prince and caliph in 1930, several years after the Ottoman sultanate and caliphate ended). The other large princely state was Jammu and Kashmir, which was religiously the opposite of Hyderabad: its rulers were Hindu but its population was mostly Muslim, whereas Hyderabad’s rulers were Muslim but its population was mostly Hindu.
  • Many of the heirs of the numerous princely states are still rich or influential today, to varying extents. Perhaps the most intriguing one is Balthazar Napoleon IV de Bourbon, who lives in Bhopal. “It is claimed that this family is legitimate descendant of the House of Bourbon, descended from Jean Philippe de Bourbon, an exiled French noble who served in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court. In his book, Prince Michael of Greece and Denmark says that he believes Jean de Bourbon was a nephew of the first Bourbon French king, Henry IV. While this hasn’t been proved fully yet, it is notable to mention that if true, Balthazar Bourbon would be first in line for the French throne.”
  • In Pakistan, according to Wikipedia, “The son of a wealthy industrialist, Mr Sharif worked in the family business before entering politics. While his brother had three terms as prime minister, Shehbaz, now 70, had three terms as chief minister of the country’s most populous province, Punjab. His first stint was cut short by a military coup in 1999, when the army ousted the elder Sharif as prime minister and both brothers temporarily went into exile. Like Nawaz, he has also been accused of corruption.” 
  • In Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek’s son  Chiang Ching-kuo was president from 1978-1988, and Chiang Hsiao-yen – thought to be an illegitimate son of Chiang Ching-kuo – was Vice Chairman of their Nationalist party (Kuomintang) from 2009–2014. Chiang Kai-shek’s adopted son Chiang Wei-kuo was also a significant political and military figure. (Chiang Kai-shek was China’s Nationalist leader from 1928-1975, ruling as autocrat in Taiwan after fleeing the mainland at the end of the Chinese Civil War. His son Chiang-kuo “was sent as a teenager to study in the Soviet Union during the First United Front in 1925, when his father’s Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party were in alliance…but when the Chinese Nationalists violently broke with the Communists, Stalin sent him to work in a steel factory in the Ural Mountains. [He was kept there as a political prisoner and potential bargaining chip]. There, Chiang met and married Faina Vakhreva. With war between China and Japan imminent in 1937, Stalin sent the couple to China.” Ching-kuo later governed Taiwan for a decade until his own death, but also ended its long era of martial law in 1987.
  • Taiwan is also home to an heir (at least symbolically) of Confucius who has had an advisory role in politics. The supposed or ceremonial heirs of the other of the Four Sages have also had roles of this kind. Meanwhile in the mainland, a descendant of the Qing dynasty played a small part in Beijing politics, before retiring in 2008. So too have the heirs of the Ming, the preceding dynasty which lost the emperorship around 1644. China’s premier from 1998-2003, Zhu Rongji, may have been descended from the first Ming emperor who ruled in the 14th century. And in 2010, Mao’s grandson became the PLA’s youngest major general. (But he is not a significant figure).
  • In 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, “The Cemetery of Confucius was attacked in November 1966 by a team of Red Guards from Beijing Normal University….The corpse of the 76th-generation Duke Yansheng [a ‘direct descendant’ of Confucius, who lived from 1877-1919] was removed from its grave and hung naked from a tree in front of the palace during the desecration of the cemetery.” That same year Red Guards also damaged the tomb of the Wanli emperor, who had the longest reign of any of the 16 Ming emperors. When the Ming’s successors, the Qing, were overthrown just before WWI, the idea of either the 76th-generation Duke Yansheng or the heir of the dormant Ming dynasty becoming China’s new emperor was considered. But it never happened. Instead, general Yuan Shikai declared himself emperor in 1915 – a move that lasted only four months. Later, the final Qing emperor Puyi became emperor of Japanese-controlled Manchuria from 1934 until the end of WWII. Puyi had previously been China’s emperor when he was a child.

Part 2 – The Middle East

Pie in the Sky #1: What to do about the corner 3

How to push the corner 3 back without needing to widen the entire court? Simply stop calling foot-on-the-line infractions on players with possession of the ball in the corners. Or, change out of bounds rules in general.

In sports like soccer, baseball, tennis, and volleyball, an out of bounds occurs when the ball – not the players’ feet – goes out of play. If basketball adopted this same system, or better yet, if it redefined “in bounds” as a player keeping any part of one of their feet in, rather than (as now) having to avoid any part of either of their feet from going out, the NBA would then be able to move the short corner 3 point line back a bit without needing to widen the entire court or reconfigure any arenas’ seating plans.

Source: Kirk Goldsberry, https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/26633540/the-nba-obsessed-3s-let-fix-thing

In the NBA, the corner 3 is about 7.6% closer to the net than the rest of the 3 point line. Many fans have called for the corner 3 point line to be moved back, but dong so would seem to require widening the entire court, and that would come with its own issues. It would make it more difficult for defenders to apply full-court pressure, for example. It would also mean most fans would be sitting further from the net. It might even backfire by leading to more 3 point shooting and spacing, if teams find shooters who can hit the deeper corner 3s at a high rate.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that you can even fit an equalized 23″9 ft. three-point arc without needing to widen the court at all. NBA courts are 50 feet wide, so there would still be some room to spare even at the narrowest points between a true three-point arc and the sidelines.

You might however have to move a courtside seat or two a bit back in each corner to give more breathing space to shooters, and perhaps also to prevent fans from being crashed into by players running out to contest corner 3s on defence. But two of those corner seats are team benches anyway; and, if you only moved the corner three back a little bit, say 6 inches, rather than the full 1″9 ft. that it would take to create an equalized arc, then you might not even need to adjust any courtside seats.

As an added benefit, this rule change would also mean an end to foot-on-the-line out of bounds calls. This would improve the flow of the game and free up the refs from having to stare at players’ feet whenever the ball is in the corner. There would probably even be fewer of those out of bounds ref reviews that take up too much time right at the end of close games, just when they are least wanted.

There would also be a bit more room, in effect, for players to operate along the baseline, further incentivizing offenses to attack the basket.

Another result might be that more off-the-dribble corner 3s would be taken, in contrast to today where the vast majority of corner 3s are catch-and-shoot attempts, which generally speaking are less exciting to watch. Off-the-dribble corner 3s are rare today in part because players do not want to play around with the ball in the corners, where they risk putting a smidge of heel out of line.

The only big potential downside to this rule change I can think of would be if it led players to dive into fans more often while chasing balls that are going out of bounds. That would obviously not be good, for players or courtside fans. (For everyone else though, those crashes are the most entertaining of all basketball plays). But the reverse could actually be true: courtside crashes might become less common by changing the out of bounds rule. If players are allowed to step out of bounds so long as they keep part of one of their feet in bounds, they might not need to run at full steam into the sidelines as often as they do now. They might have more runway to simply grab the ball without running into the seats, before the ball hits the floor or falls into the lap of a fan.

Even if that is not the case, a compromise rule change could still be considered instead: keep the out of bounds rule the way it is today, but just don’t call any foot-on-the-line infractions on players when they have possession of the ball. Or at least, don’t call foot-on-the-line infraction on players when they have possession of the ball in the corners.

Sort of like how players’ can’t get called for a charge when they have the ball in the ‘restricted zone’ around the net, they now also wouldn’t be able to get called for an out of bounds when they have the ball in the corners. (Call it the unrestricted zone..). That way you could still move the corner 3 back a bit, without needing to widen the entire court and without having to worry about courtside crashes.

Guest Post: The Universal Spider

Here’s another fascinating essay from the Vacuous Wastrel. You can read the original here.

At the end of my boyhood and at the age of being able to manage a horse, I was brought to Lille before Duke Charles of Burgundy, then called the Count of Charolais, who took me into his service. This was the year 1464.

 A quarter-century after that meeting, Philippes de Commynes was released from imprisonment (he has spent two years in prison, including five months trapped in a small iron cage), and set about catching up on his correspondence. One of his most pressing concerns was responding to a request from an old friend, an archbishop named Angelo Cato, for a contribution toward a history book the latter was hoping to compile, and Commynes appears to have set about dictating a reply as soon as he was free to do so. That reply would take him several years, and was to be divided into six volumes – two further volumes offering an update concerning more recent events would follow in the subsequent years.

Commynes was not, he was at pains to point out, a historian himself. He lacked all of the necessary skills of a historian: he did not speak (at least not with any fluency) Latin; he did not have the literary skill to invent appropriate speeches and episodes to enliven his narrative; his scholarship was far too inadequate to allow him to appropriate finesse historical events into the required classical and Biblical analogies; and his reluctance to lie meant that at times his recollections would fail to give full and dutiful praise to his social betters. He was not a historian – merely a source of information for Cato, who would use it for respectable, literary and historical purposes (and even in that regard, Commynes recommends others who may recall some details more fully). Instead of producing a work of art himself, Commynes laments, “I am merely sending you what immediately comes to my mind.” In place of respectable, scholarly, history, all Commynes can do is describe what happened, and why.

As a result, the Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Commynes as “the first critical and philosophical historian since classical times”; others have called him simply “the first modern writer”. Closer to his own time, Emperor Charles V referred to his manuscript – published after the author’s death and quickly translated into languages across Europe – as “a textbook for princes”.

Although Commynes himself protests that he is providing source material for a biography of King Louis XI of France (and, in the final two volumes, of his successor, Charles VIII), his work soon came to be known by the publishers and scholars as Commynes’ “Memoirs” – understandably, given that the narrative begins before Commynes meets Louis, and continues after the latter’s death. In this edition, the final two books are removed, along with a few digressions, and the scholar responsible believes that they have in this way, as the title indicates, produced a biography – perhaps the first true modern biography – of the monarch known as The Universal Spider. In truth, Commynes’ history is considerably broader than that: a portrait, not of one man, but of an era.

It is an era of immense importance. At least three of the defining events in the last half-millennium of European geopolitics take place in these pages: the rise of a modern, centralised France; the foundation of the Hapsburg empire; and the resolution of the Wars of the Roses. We do not learn much, except implicitly, of the broader social currents of the times; but we are treated to intimate and incisive portraits of the men who shaped the times, not as Great Men, but as terribly flawed men – and above all, the book offers contrasting analyses of two men with whom Commynes was as closely familiar as anyone ever was: Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Louis the Prudent, King of France. The fate of Europe rests in the hands of these two men.


Let’s set the stage. Commynes is a Burgundian – a native of the confused border area between the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Duchy of Burgundy has always been, in law, a vassal of the King of France – but as France has been brought close to ruin, by enemies foreign and domestic, Burgundy has become a de facto independent state, swollen by advantageous marriages to the point where the Dukes now dream of an empire that stretches from sea to sea, from their dominions in the Netherlands through to the possessions of their allies in Provence and Savoy. As our story begins, Burgundy is perhaps the richest and happiest nation in Europe: its rich soils thriving under light-touch taxation, it has been at peace for over three decades under the benign, wise rule of Philip the Good, one of the richest men in the known world. Philip is ailing, but the nation waits eagerly for his successor, the fearless, charismatic Charles, Count of Charolais. Philip was godfather to young Commynes, and when the latter is orphaned as a child, the Duke brings him to court, and places him close to Count Charles.

France, meanwhile, has undergone a far more traumatic succession, only a few years earlier. Charles the Victorious, who, with the aid of Joan of Arc, somehow managed to save the nation from English dominion, and from her own civil wars, quarrelled terribly with his son (who once chased Charles’ mistress through the palace with a drawn sword), exiling the young Dauphin, Louis, first to the Dauphiné, and then from France entirely – the young prince was forced to take refuge in, of all places, Burgundy, a glorified beggar at the ducal court. When Charles died, Louis returned to Paris with an avenging fury, purging and disinheriting all those who had wronged him – most of the nation’s wisest and most experienced statesmen have fled to neighbouring princes, and the mood of the nobility is angry and bitter; the king’s own brother plots against him. The king’s writ struggles to run beyond Paris, as feudal vassals like the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, and the Count of Provence, are independent in all but name. In 1465, the year after Commynes comes to Philip’s court, France rises up, the great nobles of the land declaring a ‘War of the Public Weal’, a war of nation against king, for the common good. France is on the verge of a final dissolution, and Burgundy’s triumph will soon, it seems, have no obstacle. At that moment, Charles, the Burgundian heir, rides for Paris at the head of a vast army, his godbrother, Commynes, at his side.

Twenty years later, Burgundy will no longer exist. Its core domains will have been reabsorbed into a resurgent France, along with those of Brittany; while its peripheral territories will have fallen into the hands of the rising Hapsburg dynasty, a geographical anomaly that, Commynes seems to recognise, will set the stage for centuries of war. It’s an astonishing reversal of fate. As Commynes puts it:

It seems to me that at that time [the Duke of Burgundy’s] territories could more truly be called lands of promise than any other domains on earth. They were overflowing with riches and in complete peace – as they never have been since. The standard of living and the clothing of men and women were extravagant; the feasting and banquets were on a more prodigal scale than in any other place I have known of; the bathing parties and other entertainments with women were lavish and lax – if a little on the seamy side. In sum, it then seemed to the subjects of this house that no prince was a match for them – at least that none was capable of oppressing them. And in this world today I know of no princely house so desolate.

This is, at heart, the question that plagues Commynes, the question that he sets out to answer through psychology, through military history, and through philosophy: how could it be that Burgundy could fall so rapidly from such grace?

Commynes’ answer, needless to say, is that God did it. And at first, that might seem like a cop-out, but of course it’s not: Commynes is not insisting upon faith in a Godless world, he’s using the concept of a God within a conceptual system in which God is unavoidable. He is, as it were, only rephrasing the question: if nations fall when they fall from God’s favour, why do nations fall from God’s favour? Commynes’ answer has nothing to do with scripture, and little to do with doctrine: again, Commynes’ God is not a creature locked within a bible, but the animating principle of the entire world. To understand the world is to understand God; and although that might be impossible, that’s not reason not to try.

Commynes never really offers a coherent ideology of fate – that would, after all, be hubris. But he believes in a system in which God helps those who help themselves, yet moderated by a sort of karma. Those who do wrong face justice – in the next life, but also often in this. Evil, foolishness, and violation of the constitutional norms of states and societies are often repaid in the same coin, whether on the land – a prince who breaks his word to others finds his subjects break theirs to him – or in the soul – a prince who plots against his courtiers himself plagued by irrational, paranoid fears of his best advisors.

So while his theories may be lofty and divine, their application is more down to earth, and at the heart of Commynes’ history is a pair of contrasting portraits, psychological and political sketches of the two ‘great men’ who he believes have shaped the fates of their nations, for better or worse: Louis and Charles. One French; one Burgundian. One the paragon of a bygone age; the other the herald of modernity.

Duke Charles the Bold (sometimes translated ‘the Rash’) was, we’re given to believe, almost the perfect mediaeval monarch. He is attractive, strong, and intensely charismatic, the kind of man who can turn a battle by riding through it and exhorting his men one by one. He has an indefatigable energy and, Commynes tells us, an almost supernatural ability to suffer: he asks no more of his men than he is willing and able to undergo himself, and his men know it. He is decisive, and courageous not only physically but politically. His ambitions are sweeping. He can be violent, but he is not unusually cruel for his age, and he is good company for his court.

Louis, on the other hand, is a coward. He is plagued, as even he acknowledges, by a big mouth and a sour wit, and he is constantly offending people. He is not physically impressive. He overtaxes his people, and appears to have little sense of shame; nobody likes to spend time with him. He can’t really be trusted – his nickname is ‘The Universal Spider’ after all – and he is instinctively a vindictive, occasionally mass-murdering, arsehole.

But Commynes’ at-the-time-controversial thesis is that it is Louis who is the great monarch, and Charles the deluded prince who dooms his people.

Put simply, Louis has two key strategies at all times: avoid any true military contest; and, if in doubt, bribe everyone. He’s a political and military cockroach, constantly retreating, constantly negotiating (with multiple people, in contradictory ways), constantly stalling for time. He reminds me, if you’ll forgive the fantasy/pop-culture reference, of George RR Martin’s Littlefinger: he doesn’t exactly have a plan, as such, but he continually sows chaos, knowing he will eventually, somehow, benefit from it. Every alliance is against him is turned against itself. He follows a terribly Christian theory of politics: if your enemy strikes you on one cheek… thank him, applaud him publically, write the man a great big cheque, and ask him to slap someone else for you.

This is why, partway through the book, Commynes abruptly flees Charles’ military encampment and becomes one of the King’s chief advisors. It’s not just him – everybody does it. The pay is better, and the life much easier.

Ultimately, Louis’ greatest strength is his willingness to appear weak. He may remember slights, but he publically forgives them, and promotes his enemies; he may be opinionated, but he listens to his advisors, and he corrects his mistakes. At times, he even uses his weakness as his trump card, and works to maintain it. He gives advice to his enemies on how to defeat his allies (because he wants his enemies to feel strong, and hence to feel able to wait, rather than weak, and hence desparate to act). At one stage, fearing an explosion among the common soldiers that will destroy an alliance, he intentionally makes himself visibly vulnerable, to shame his allies into de-escalating the situation. It’s behaviour Charles – who at one point humiliates Louis by in effect holding him prisoner – could never endure. Charles is a more traditional, vain prince who cannot abide disgrace – and it’s ultimately that stubbornness that dooms him, and Burgundy, when he first attacks, and then refuses to retreat from the seige of, Neuss, despite being needed urgently elsewhere. It’s what leads to him lying dead in a ditch, his corpse unrecognised. Throughout Commynes’ account, Louis’ prudence, his ruthless exploitation of his own impotence, is contrasted sometimes explicitly but more often between the lines with the vanity and vainglory of the other princes of his age: Louis’ willingness to be weak, whch Commynes suggests is a lesson from his time as a beggar at the Burgundian court, is in effect a form of power. Perhaps the most striking example is when Louis is “forced” to pay “homage” to a number of English lords – he obsequiously sends them regular tribute, via an intermediary who, naturally, needs their signatures to prove to Louis that he hasn’t stolen the money for himself. It’s humiliating for Louis and a clear win for the English, they believe, even if they allow that the transactions can remain secret for the sake of Louis’ dignity… …except that now, if those lords ever give their king advice that’s not in Louis’ best interests, he can reveal (to their king or their public) that they are secretly on the payroll of a foreign power, receiving a regular pension for their services, and he has the carefully-catalogued original receipts to prove it. Only Louis can make being conquered into a form of dominance.

Commynes never exactly gives us a rounded or deep portrait of his king, as we might expect from a modern writer. And yet, through descriptions and through anecdotes, he constructs a striking and understandable image – reading Commynes, we feel as though we know Louis, just as we know Charles. Other characters benefit in this way as well, although many – such as the Count of St Pol – are too historically insignificant for the reader to really invest in. Others are shown briefly, but brilliantly – one of my favourite moments is the only appearance of Emperor Frederick III, who responds to a detailed military-diplomatic proposal with a rambling parable about bear-hunting. It’s a moment that perfectly displays both why Commynes can’t stand the man (he’s over-cautious to the point of inaction, lazy, pretentious and not that bright) – and why he deeply respects him (he’s an old man whose experience has bought him considerable wisdom, and he’s the only ruler secure enough in his position to be able to fob off monarchs with irritating parables without any consequences).

After the two duelling princes, probably the third character in the story is Edward IV, whom Commynes sees only from a distance (it’s disputed whether he may have served as an ambassador to England at some point, but it’s not mentioned here in any case). Edward is a monarch famed for his military prowess and valour, but, unlike Charles, he’s really only in it for the quiet life, prioritising food, women and entertainments. Through overconfidence, he manages to lose his entire kingdom in only 11 days. But this is England, where, as Commynes constantly laments, politics is not very stable or sophisticated – so he’s able to invade England, win two major battles, overthrow and kill the Earl of Warwick, and Henry VI, and the Prince of Wales, and complete a round of mass executions of his enemies, all within the span of another 26 days. Everything hinges on his being welcomed, while still virtually without troops, into the city of London, and Commynes explains the three main reasons why, after some debate, he was given access: his wife had just given birth and, awh, a royal baby, how exciting and cute!; he was deeply in debt to many of the richest merchants in town, who realised that if he didn’t regain the crown he’d never be able to pay them back; and most importantly, he can rely on “the influence of many ladies of rank and rich citizen’s wives”, because after a decade of womanising they were all “very good friends indeed” of his, and they nag their husbands until they let him in. It’s a reputation that gives Louis pause, and one of his priorities in negotiating with the English monarch is ensuring that the man never, ever visit Paris: “He’s a very handsome king,” Louis worries out loud to Commynes. “He’s crazy about women. He could find some clever sweetheart in Paris who would say such nice things to him that she’d make him want to come back…”


It’s a bizarre conjunction of great affairs of state – seasoned with little philosophical asides – with the intimately personal. It’s not, perhaps, great history by modern standards – broader social developments get only a sentence here or there – but it’s a very entertaining way of writing. It’s half Macchiavelli, half gossip column.

That intimacy, indeed, is sometimes almost shocking in its modernity. Commynes is emphatically not writing a mediaeval hagiography – sure, he he doesn’t go into many details on the sexual side of things, and he glosses over many things that might be of interest to a modern reader. But he depicts his characters as human beings – human beings who he in many cases knew extremely well. This is particularly striking in the later parts of the narrative, when the fortunes of the princes decline in turn. Charles is beset by mental illness after a military defeat, and although Commynes never uses that exact term, there’s little ambiguity in his description – he’s not shy about calling it an illness, and he’s not shy about the fact it’s primarily an illness of the mind. He even hypothesises a little about the appropriate treatment. The doctors and priests of the day favour blood-letting, and making the man bloody well shave properly for a start; Commynes, on the other hand, suggests beginning with humility before God, before moving on to talking therapies, discussing one’s fears and shames openly out loud, not worrying about disgrace, in a safe environment with a trusted friend or advisor (as “it is ineivtable since we are men, that deep griefs stir violent passions”). Sadly, trust is a rare commodity for rulers, which may explain why so many of these princes are at least a little mad…

Charles the Bold, Commynes’ first master

[It’s another example, incidentally, of how God is used in this world-view, not as a tool of superstition but as a call to reason. Commynes believes that when a man like Charles loses a campaign, it’s appropriate to ask what went wrong. But he mustn’t become lost in self-recrimination, and religion offers him a way out: instead of asking what is wrong with him, he can ask why God may have failed to favour him on this occasion. It allows reflection and consideration of one’s actions, without self-blame. Throughout the book, we see this mindset in which God is central not because of what he does – Commynes does not believe in a God who actively performs miracles willy-nilly, and does not even particularly stress God’s role as a rule-giver, except indirectly – but because of how human beings act toward Him…]

Similarly, Louis’s quality of life rapidly deteriorates when he suffers a series of debilitating strokes. At one point, Commynes literally has to hold the king as he spasms, and Louis’ speech is at least temporarily so impaired that Commynes has to translate what may be a deathbed confession to a priest who can’t understand what the king is saying. To say that Commynes was close to his subjects is an understatement.

It’s true that the book is closer to a series of anecdotes than to an academic historical analysis, although there are elements of the latter: Commynes does lay out a fairly detailed chronology of the wars and the diplomacy, and does his best to explain events in geopolitical, psychological and theological-philosophical terms. But it’s the anecdotes that stand out, combining a clear and personal touch with a lacing of dry, observational humour. It’s suprising just how modern Commynes feels in style, if not always in beliefs, and many moments continue to resonate with modern readers, either because of how things have changed (Commynes’ frequent exasperation toward the barbarian English and the way their leaders never fail to be equipped with a suspiciously convenient prophecy) or because of how they haven’t (Commynes’ old-man complaints about self-important minor celebrities these days constantly telling you to “speak to my people!”…). And while there are moments of tragedy, there are also a suprising number of moments of pure farce. At one point, for example, Louis is hosting a messenger from one of the Duke’s vassals, who is thinking of coming over to Louis; Louis, pretending joviality, baits the man into doing insulting impressions of the Duke, pretending to be a little deaf so that the man does his impressions as loudly as possibly; but, in the time-honoured traditions of Frence farce, what the messenger doesn’t realise is that Commynes is crouched alongside the Burgundian ambassador, hiding behind a suspiciously large screen in one corner of the room. The ambassador is outraged on the Duke’s behalf, and Louis succeeds in sowing even more disquiet between the Duke and his vassal.

[Other monarchs would have seen the vassal as an ally, helped him, and used him against the Duke. But Louis knows you can’t trust a traitor. Instead, by weakening the vassal still further by betraying him to the Duke, he forces the vassal to come to him in a more fearful, and hence dependent, state, while distracting the Duke, and pretending friendship with him. In Louis’ world, you help your enemies and you hurt your friends…]

[Of course, sometimes Louis sees the right time to strike directly. He summons one enemy/friend to court, for example, by pleading for his help in a difficult time, saying that he could really do with having “a good head” around to advise him at a time like this. He then, having dictated the letter, observes to his henchmen by way of explanation: “I do not mean us to have his body – only his head. The body can stay where it is…“]

The greatest virtue of this books, however, and of Commynes as an author, isn’t just his access, or even his deadpan wit (which is always interesting, and amusing, but too dry to really be lovable). Instead, it’s his wonderful honesty. Now, apparently in the 20th century it was fashionable, particularly among offended Belgians, to paint Commynes as a serial liar, fundamentally dishonest in every word – but while that seems hard to believe to me (or to the editor of this translation), it doesn’t really matter in terms of the book’s value as a narrative, rather than as a historical source. Because either Commynes is truthful, or else he’s the most gifted liar in literary history, and in either case it’s the impression of honesty that is so powerful in reading these memoirs. Commynes has his own opinions, but he is scrupulously even-handed in discussing even his personal enemies. His goal throughout – perhaps reflecting the origin of this project as source material rather than a published text – is not to definitively paint history, but to understand it, and that requires him to see both sides of every dispute, and recognise the virtues as well as the vices of every participant. The result is a far more complete and sympathetic portrait of his life and times than we might expect… and a more accurate depiction of the conflicting thoughts common in his age.

Because if the book is interesting as a specific history, and as a guide to statesmanship, it’s most fascinating as a window into a bygone age – a window refreshingly devoid of the usual stained glass. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this comes close to being absolutely required reading for any fan of fauxdiaeval fantasy or historical fiction, and should certainly be obligatory for anyone wanting to write a story set in a similar culture.

Most strikingly, Commynes provides a very different picture of twilight of the middle ages not because of differences in how he sees the ruling systems, but because of the context of those systems. Put bluntly: this is not a little world of feudal clockwork; this is a vast, largely empty world in which a tiny number of feudal overlords play their games amid a vast ocean of people who, most of the time, don’t care in the slightest. Yes, by modern standards all these rulers are brutal dictators. But what Commynes shows us, and which is essential to understanding that brutality, is the naked weakness of a mediaeval prince, and the near-total impotence of all their structures of power. Charles, after all, yearns to construct an empire, but even this great leader of a great nation cannot accomplish it; Louis’ driving ambition is to modernise and harmonise the French legal code and bring a universal rule of law to the whole nation, but even this intelligent and ruthless man cannot accomplish it. These are men beating their heads against unbreakable walls, while at the same time holding on for dear life.

Surprisingly, it is the people who are at the heart of Commynes’ perception of politics. He is not a great fan of the ordinary people trying to rule themselves – he rolls his eyes at the predictable brutality and naivity of the endless revolutionary committees of the Low Countries – but he believes unshakeably that power comes only through the consent of the people. He sings the praises of the Parliament of England and its democratic powers – while he has no time for commoners making decisions, he does see them as a valuable veto force standing in the way of tyranny and foolish monarchs. But for him, the question is not whether the people should have power – that is an absurd question, because it suggests that there is any way to remove power from the people – but how it can be better organised. The power of the people is omnipresent throughout this narrative. It’s the power that lynches dozens of nobles every day whenever anger breaks out in a Belgian town (the nobles may be bastards, but they’re mostly legal bastards, whereas the commoners send for the hangman the moment they’re in charge); it’s the power that slaughters every English straggler and leaves their bodies in ditches, regardless of what peace treaties may be made between monarchs, and the power that sends commandos creeping through the streets of Peronne, happily willing to murder both King and Duke in their beds. It’s the power that coalesces a bunch of Swiss peasant farmers into what will become the most feared military force of the age; it’s the power of the common soldiers, who in the end decide not only how to fight, but whether to fight, whatever their generals might want. When the Pazzi family decide to launch a coup d’etat in Milan, it’s the power that determines, in a matter of minutes, which family will have its entire membership swinging from the church rafters by the end of the day, and which family will be in power. Above all, it’s the power of cities to control their own walls.

Because again, this is a huge world, and these are very small kings. In all these wars, very few armies are ever larger than the militia that could be mustered by a medium-sized town: a city like Amiens or Liege is a major challenge even for a monarch to subdue, and a city like Paris or London is effectively impregnable – the size of army necessary to either beseige or storm such a city simply is not achievable in this era. The fate of kingdoms rests, therefore, on the whim of common townsfolk. It’s the people of London who choose to accept Edward IV – then almost without resources – as their king, and in so doing doom the Earl of Warwick; just as it’s the people of Paris who decline to yield to the Duke of Burgundy and his allies, and in so doing leave Louis as their king and France as a viable nation.

Louis the Universal Spider, Commynes’ second master

As for those princes – well, it’s not long into the book that we’re thrown into the Battle of Conflans, and we see its absurd chaos, its contingency, its nonsense. Commynes tells us quite explicitly; monarchs and generals may form up their strategies, but there is no monarch on earth who can direct a battle according to his plan. A general does not so much direct his army, as ride it. So too, a monarch sits in his saddle upon the roiling chaos of his nation, prodding here, whipping there, offering carrots in one direction or another, but by and large able to do no more than desperately keep his seat, or else fall and be unceremoniously trampled.

These men are half statesmen, half petty mafiosi. It’s very easy for simplistic accounts to see them as only one and not the other – all politicians, or all robber barons. But Commynes shows us how they can be both at the same time. “In all of them were good and evil” he warns us, speaking of the great princes of his day, “for they were human beings.” 

The depiction of women is also of interest (among many other topics). Commynes is writing in an extremely male-dominated world, and most of the women of the story go entirely without mention (there’s no way to tell, for example, that Commynes himself is married, and you’d have to read very carefully to notice that either the Duke or the King were married). Commynes essentially takes it as read that it’s men’s role to dominate, politically and socially, just as that’s also the role of the upper classes. And yet there is a refreshing lack of misogyny. Commynes doesn’t have to insist that men are superior, or argue that women shouldn’t have power – because in his culture, those questions don’t even arise. God has simply willed that men have power – there’s not need anyone inventing notions like male superiority to explain why that may be. Which means that when individual women do have power, Commynes has no grounds to object. He may depict Marie of Burgundy as naïve – after all, she inherited one of the greatest empires of Europe when she was still a teenager – but he doesn’t fail to respect her goodness, her popularity, and the beginnings of a sharp intellect. He is almost fearful, yet respectful – and depicts Louis as almost fearful – of the intelligence and ruthlessness of the Duchess of Savoy. The autonomy of women seems greater than one might expect here: not only can women veto arranged marriages at least some of the time, they can even insist upon love-marriages, even when strongly against the interests of the families and nations. Louis, for instance, is forced to accept the marriages of the Duchess’s two daughters, which strengthen his enemies, when the Duchess points out that the women are in favour of the matches, and that they’re not just political ploys. Similarly, even at a time when Marie is tantamount to held hostage by commoners, they are unable to pressure her into marrying their preferred candidate (Commynes wryly notes that it was seeing him and getting to know him that probably doomed his suit with her…). There are also surprisingly hints at a chivalry out of keeping with the general violence of the world: during a war, when soldiers are being murdered on the streets, Louis has his secret messages conveyed by a young woman, on the grounds that a woman alone can travel freely without harrassment, where a man would be at risk of attack by brigands. [Commynes, interestingly, does not make clear that it’s actually a woman who ends up imprisoning him in a tiny cage for six months…]

In short, where these memoirs excel is in vividly, intimately and fair-handedly depicting this late-mediaeval world and its characters, and in doing so with wit and insight.


Where they fall down, however, is in the sheer complexity of the events under discussion. It’s here that Commynes does indeed fail to be a true historian: what we are given is not so much a narrative as a whole mass of information, in mostly (but not always) chronological order. Take any few pages, and the sequence of events appears clear, because Commynes writes clearly; but as the pages mount up, so does the sheer assembly of places, dates, titles and, every few sentences, shocking betrayals. [Betrayals that sometimes fail to betray anyone, because the betrayal is betrayed before it can betray anyone…*] It’s not unclear, it’s just… a lot. It’s very dense, and that’s why it too me a surprisingly long time to read through the book, because after ten pages or so of the count of this and the bastard of that and trying to remember which one is Corday and which ones is Cordres, I just needed a change of scenery. Of course, that’s partly my fault, for not being in the righ frame of mind – as I say, Commynes does try to make these confusing events understandable, and I’m sure if I were in an academic mood I’d have no trouble with it, but as light entertainment reading I found it was making my head hurt.

[It doesn’t help that Commynes adopts mediaeval naming practices, which is to say he usually called people by their titles. This means that the same person can be known by two different names in one sentence (at one point he notes something along the lines that a person has been of service to the Count of Charolais, and was rewarded by the Duke of Burgundy – the latter being the same person as the former, but several years later), while the same name can refer to multiple different persons (as the name is inherited when its holder dies). When you have people like the King’s brother, who wears about six different titles in six years, this can get confusing…]

Some help, to be fair, is provided by the translator/editor, Paul Murray Kendall, who remains largely on the sidelines but who does chip in with the occasional explanatory footnote. Those coming to the text for academic reasons may be frustrated at how little commentary is provided, but for the casual reader I think it’s about the right amount – enough to let us understand what’s going on, but little enough that the narrative still feels like the work of the original author. Further background information on the author and his time period are provided in a forward, which could perhaps be more detailed in places but does probably as much as is strictly required. As regards the translation itself, it’s pretty good – there are moments when it seems to veer too far into modern colloquialism, or else too far into stilted archaism, but this will be a problem with any translation of a historical text that attempts to retain something of its character while still fully conveying its original meaning. By and large, I think the tone is successful – it has a clarity and straightforwardness that suit the style of the author, without appearing to try too hard to be contemporary. One small irritation is the way Kendall edits out some of Commynes’ tangents, replacing them with brief summaries – this is either done too much, or else it’s done too little. I can understand why an editor would want to trim the fat here and there, as Commynes does ramble on a little at times; but Kendall includes so much of the original text that it’s a little head-scratching why he’s bothered to edit out the handful of extra pages that he’s excised, while leaving other things in – I think I’d have been happier either with a more ruthlessly focused text, or else the whole thing in all its glory. But as we do only lose a handful of passages, this is honestly a very minor quibble.

[Another such quibble: not only as the translator stuck on the striking but non-original title, “The Universal Spider: The Life of Louis XI” to Commyne’s text, but the SAME translator has also written his OWN biography of Louis XI, using the exact SAME title. This is understandable – “The Universal Spider” has to be one of history’s coolest soubriquets, and it’s understandable the writer didn’t want to waste it on just one book title – but also probably a bit of a pain for people trying to find this specific edition (which is, incidentally, the old Folio Society edition).]

*this is a book in which a vassal can attempt to murder his liege and their entire family with a cannonade, and the next page we can be told with a straight face that “never was any man more loyal to another than [vassal] was to [liege]”. Oh, and while he’s trying to murder his liege’s family with cannons, the vassal also sends out two flasks of wine, because the liege’s daughter is giving birth, and it seems the decent thing to do to ease her labour a little. I mean, obviously he’s not going to not murder her or anything, but it would be unchivalrous not to give a woman wine when she’s in labour…

Marie the Rich, the tragic Duchess of Burgundy

In conclusion, in writing a text entirely for his age, without the pretenses of history (indeed, several times Commynes declines to describe some well-known event, because “you”, being people of the same era as him, will no doubt know just as much as he does…), Commynes has inadvertantly written something both invaluable as a historical document, and at the same time timeless. It’s a fascinating resource for anyone interested in the time period or its culture, not only for its intimate, first-hand account, but also for its combination of unvarnished honesty and wry irony; it is also remarkable as a study in political leadership, and one that has had a great deal of influence throughout the centuries. It’s dense with action and a little prone to tangents, and casual readers probably shouldn’t expect to skim through it all in an afternoon unless they have excellent heads for details, but fundamentally it’s an entertaining and understandable account, translated attractively. I thoroughly recommend reading it.

And if that’s my conclusion, what conclusion did Philippe de Commyne reach, half a millennium ago? In the end, this student of statescraft is left extolling the virtues… of the quiet life.   By the end of the book, Louis is dead, his life crippled by paranoia – a king, Commynes says, who had so often condemned his enemies to dungeon cells is left, in his castle reinforced with iron towers, with no more freedom than a single courtyard, across which he is too frightened to walk to mass. Charles is dead, his lust for glory and military fame ending anonymously in the dirt – his mind and his courage stripped from him, and his body at the last left naked and unmarked in a common field. Marie is beautiful, witty, and phenomenally wealthy, held virtually hostage by her people, and dead of a tragic accident. Edward IV is dead; and his sons are dead, killed (Commynes believes) by his brother, and his brother is dead on the field at Bosworth. Charles, Duke of Berry, is dead, as is Francis, Duke of Brittany, and Frederick III will soon follow. Commynes, from being the closest friend and advisor to the king, is cast into an iron cage. France is set for a new round of wars, and Burgundy, Commynes’ homeland, has been destroyed and subjugated. So why, in the end, wonders Commynes, should anyone bother with ambition? Nobody can more fully subjugate a man than by his own fears; to be fearless is to treat others well, and that requires having as little to do with great affairs of state as possible. And so I’ll end where our author ends, and give Philippe the final words…

“Thus you have seen so many great men dying within a few years of one another, men who laboured so hard to increase their power and attain glory, but who experienced such sufferings and toils, and thus shortened their lives – and perchance their souls could be the worse for it…

…But to speak plainly, as a man who has no learning, save for some little experience he has gained, would it not be better for them and all other princes, and for men of medium station who have lived under these great ones and will continue to live under those now reigning, to choose the middle way in these matters? That is, to burden themselves with fewer cares, to work themselves less hard, to undertake fewer enterprises – and to have greater fear of offending God and persecuting their people and their neighbours by cruel means… …and, instead, enjoy ease and honourable pleasures? Their lives would be the longer for it, illnesses would come later, and their deaths would be the more regretted by a greater number of people, and looked forward to by fewer, and they would have less reason to fear death.

The most splendid examples of humanity give us to realise what an insignificant thing is a man, and how miserable and brief this life is. Neither the great nor the small, as soon as they are dead, are anything; and everyone holds the corpse in horror and loathing, while the soul, on the instant, must be judged. And already sentence has been passed upon it, according to the works and merits of the body.” 

Home-Baked Charts #5: Birthplaces of China’s New Leadership

At the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last month, hundreds of Chinese officials were elevated to new positions within the Party hierarchy. This gives us a chance, among other things, to look at where within China its politicians were born, to see if any regional patterns stand out. 

Let’s start with the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest-ranking group in the Party: 

Although Xi Jinping was born in Beijing and Zhao Leji in Qinghai, both of their ‘ancestral homelands‘ were in Shaanxi province. Similarly, Wang Huning, though born in Shanghai, has his ancestral home in Shandong province. Xi Jinping, Wang Huning, and Zhao Leji are the three holdovers from the previous 19th Politburo Standing Committee. Xi was also on the 18th and 17th Standing Committees, going back to October 2007

Next is the Politburo, which now has 24 members, including the seven Standing Committee members:

Three Politburo members (including Xi) were born in Beijing; four were born in Fujian, where Xi spent most of his career before becoming general secretary of the Party in 2012. Xi was in Fujian for 17 years until 2002, which was more than half of his career between 1979 and 2012: 

Beyond the Politburo, there is the Party Central Committee, which currently has 205 full members, roughly two-thirds of whom made it on to the Central Committee for this first time this year. I was able to find the birthplaces for 194 of those 205; the 11 I couldn’t find I will list below: 

The 11 Central Committee members I could not find birthplaces for were the following: Wang Zhijun, Wu Hansheng, He Hongjun, Zhang Lin, Zhang Hongsen, Hou Kai, Hu Yuting, He Junke, Gao Xiang, Huang Jianfa, Lei Fanpei  

Most Politburo and Central Committee members were born in eastern or northern China – not surprisingly, where most of China’s population lives – whereas far fewer were born in the country’s western or southern provinces. See for example the difference between China’s most populous province, Guangdong, in the southeast, and China’s second most populous province, Shandong, in the northeast.

 population density map (right) and topographic map (left) of China 
China’s provinces by population (x-axis) and area (y-axis); for purposes of comparison, also included are California, Texas, and Alaska

Native-born populations of provinces like Guangdong were highly under-represented on the Central Committee. This is true even after adjusting for the fact that Guangdong had not yet become the most populous Chinese province 50-70 years ago, when most of the current Committee members were born: 

Part of the reason for the under-representation of provinces like Guangdong might be that when the current leadership generation was young, many fewer people in these provinces spoke Standard Northern Mandarin primarily or fluently as do today. In other words, these outcomes could be the result of regional differences that existed in the past, which no longer exist to nearly the same extent today, yet linger in the form of Party personnel simply because almost all of its top positions are filled by older men.

On the other hand, perhaps the under-representation of high-ranking officials born in certain provinces does reflect ongoing regional differences within the Party system, in which, roughly speaking, the north and east is the dominant political core of the country, in comparison to the deep south or west. Or maybe there are other explanations for these differences that are only indirectly related to politics, reflecting regional economic or cultural traits that have led people toward certain careers.

Whatever the reasons are for it, similar regional patterns hold, to varying degrees, in the birthplaces of China’s new Central Military Commission chairmen, and in the birthplaces of China’s provincial party chiefs (aka party secretaries) and government chiefs (aka provincial governors, mayors of municipalities, chairpersons of autonomous regions, or chief executives of special administrative regions):

The two who were born in Beijing, namely Xi Jinping and Zhang Youxia, respectively the chairman and (one of two) vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, have similar backgrounds. Both had prominent fathers born in Shaanxi. Zhang’s father was a founding general of the People’s Liberation Army, who during the 1940s led its Northeast Army Corps at the same time as Xi’s father was its political commissar. 
Jiangsu and Guizhou are today the only provinces with native-born party secretaries. Both are somewhat notable individuals: Jiangsu’s party chief Wu Zhenglong, who has served in Jiangsu since 2016 (in roles such as party chief of the provincial capital, Nanjing, and then as governor of the province), previously served as party chief of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi, following the removal of the previous Taiyuan party chief during Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, of which Shanxi was targeted more intensely than any other province. Before that, Wu served in Chongqing during the administration of Bo Xilai, before Bo’s infamous fall and Xi’s rise in 2012, after which Wu became secretary-general of Chongqing’s party committee. In Guizhou, meanwhile, the current party chief is Shen Yiqin, who previously served as (according to Wikipedia) “the first female Governor of Guizhou, the first Governor of Bai ethnic heritage, and the first Governor to have been born in province since 1993”.

As for provinces like Guangdong, no current provincial chiefs were born there, and there has not been a native-born party chief there since Xie Fei, a Politburo member, in 1998. And yet the party chiefs of Guangdong have mostly been significant political figures. All but one of the past five of them since 1998 have joined the Politburo Standing Committee. (The exception, Hu Chunhua, was snubbed last month: not only was he not added to the Standing Committee as had been expected, but he also lost the spot he had held in the Politburo). Most recently Li Xi, Guangdong party chief from 2017-2022, was elevated to the Standing Committee, and now serves as the head of China’s anti-corruption department (replacing Wang Qishan, who was himself a vice-governor of Guangdong earlier in his career). The other three 21st century Guangdong party chiefs added to the Standing Committee were Li Changchun, Wang Yang, and Zhang Dejiang. [Among a number of important roles, Wang and Zhang also served as the party chiefs of Chongqing immediately before and after Bo Xilai; Zhang was also party chief of Zhejiang immediately before Xi Jinping, and then went to Guangdong just after the SARS outbreak began there; Wang meanwhile was the politician most associated with the relatively liberal “Guangdong model” of development]. The current party chief of Guangdong, who just started the job in October 2022, is Huang Kunming, who previously worked with Xi Jinping both in Fujian (Huang’s birth-province) and in Zhejiang.

Earlier still, major figures who served as Guangdong party chief include Zhao Zhyiang, who later became the Party’s General Secretary until he supported the 1989 student protests; Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun, who became Guangdong’s party chief after the Cultural Revolution and presided over the province’s economic re-opening, then later spent his retirement living there; and marshal Ye Jianying, Guangdong’s first party chief and governor in the Communist era, who was born in Guangdong and who later became the top military leader involved in overthrowing the Gang of Four and backing Deng Xiaoping after the Cultural Revolution.

Provincial government chiefs are generally considered less powerful than provincial party chiefs, and it is more common for provinces to have native-born government chiefs than party chiefs. Currently there are five native-born provincial government chiefs: in the province Henan, in the two special administrative zones Hong Kong and Macao, and in the autonomous regions Xinjiang and Guangxi (2 of China’s 5 autonomous regions; their government chiefs are an ethnic Uyghur and ethnic Zhuang, respectively. Similarly, Inner Mongolia’s government chief is an ethnic Mongol, though she was not born in Inner Mongolia).

To focus yet again on Guangdong, the only Guangdong-born governor at present, Lan Fo’an, is the governor of Shanxi provice. He previously worked for the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the unit of the Party in charge of the anti-corruption campaign. Conversely, the governor of Guangdong is Shanxi-born: Wang Weizhong, who was previously the party chief of Shenzhen, and before that was the party secretary of Taiyuan, Shanxi’s capital, in 2016, following the especially intense anti-corruption campaign there. Wang replaced Ma Xingrui (born in Heilongjiang), Guangdong’s governor until the end of 2021, who has gone on to become party chief of Xinjiang.

In contrast, all three of the governors of Guangdong who preceded Ma, from 1996-2016, were born in Guangdong, and spent their entire careers there. Before that, Ye Xuanping (the son of Guangdong’s first party chief and governor, marshal Ye Jianying) was governor of Guangdong, his native province, from 1985-1991, and mayor of Guangzhou (Guangdong’s capital, one of China’s major cities) from 1980-1985. [A more recent Guangdong-born mayor of Guangzhou, Wang Qiangliang, was one of the higher-ranking figures brought down by the anti-corruption campaign in 2014. Guangzhou’s current mayor is a northerner, who took up the job at the beginning of this year following the simultaneous resignation of the city’s previous (Guangdong-born) mayor Wen Guohui and (Hunan-born) party chief Zhang Shuofu]. Previous native-born governors of Guangdong, Chen Yu and Ye Jianying, served from 1948-1953 and 1957-1967. Serving between them was Tao Zhu, from neighbouring Hunan; it was only in 1969 that a northern-born governor was first appointed to the province.
This chart comes from an article by Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution earlier this year, showing how the length of provincial party chiefs’ and government chiefs’ tenures have declined during the past generation

The high-ranking central secretariat of the Party Central Committee has a different regional pattern, with none of its secretaries born in coastal provinces apart from Fujian. But with only seven secretaries, it is a small sample size: 

Looking back at all of the Standing Committee members over the course of the past three decades, again the basic pattern holds, with the north and east predominating and the south and west unrepresented. Even for some of the most populous provinces like Guangdong and Sichuan, or for that matter Henan (the populous but poor interior state in north-central China), there have been zero Standing Committee members appointed at any of the past six party congresses who were born in those provinces:

*Here I’ve double-counted: for any individual who served on two separate Standing Committees (or in Xi’s case, four), they were counted twice on the map above

Similar patterns might also hold true more widely, for Politburo and Central Committee membership. For example, according to another article by Cheng Li: “Southern China has been grossly underrepresented on both the 18th and 19th Central Committees (CCs), holding only one and two percent of seats, respectively, even though the region makes up 12 percent of China’s population and 13 percent of its GDP. There was not a single representative from Guangdong — despite it being China’s richest and most populous province — among the 205 full members of the 18th CC, and there is only one full member representing the province on the 19th CC: Minister of Human Resources and Social Security Zhang Jinan (1957), who was born in Guangdong. Zhang is expected to retire from his ministerial position soon.Like the 18th Politburo, no current Politburo members were born in the southern or southwestern regions, which together make up more than a quarter of China’s population and more than 20 percent of the country’s GDP. The absence of Cantonese and Sichuanese representatives in the two recent Politburos sharply contrasts with the early years of the reform era when the country was largely led and influenced by heavyweight leaders from Guangdong (like Ye Jianying) and Sichuan (like Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and Yang Baibing).”

In contrast, the birthplaces of the earlier, revolutionary era of the Party leadership show a different pattern, in which the north and the east do not predominate, Guangdong is not un-represented, and Hunan province in particular (Mao’s birthplace, among others) figures highly:

I’ll end by quoting a third article by Cheng Li: “Over the last century, the Chinese national leadership often disproportionately recruited elites from certain geographic regions that were perceived to be important in each period. When Sun Yat-sen, a Cantonese native, founded the Republic of China after the Revolution of 1911, his fellow Cantonese, especially those who attended the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou, comprised a significant portion of the political and military elite during the first couple of decades of the Republic. Similarly, when Chiang Kai-shek controlled the nationalist government in the 1930s and 1940s, his fellow Zhejiang Province natives occupied some of the most important posts in the government, including military and intelligence operations. As for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres, most veteran leaders, known as “Long Marchers,” came from central China –– Hunan and Hubei provinces, in particular. This geographic orientation was mainly a result of the origins of the Chinese Communist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, as initial support came from peasants in these areas. Many peasants-turned-revolutionary soldiers later became national leaders of the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC). Approximately 41 percent of the members of the Eighth Politburo of the CCP formed in 1956 were born in Hunan, and about one-third (33 percent) of the members of the Ninth Politburo in 1969 were born in Hubei. Altogether, leaders from provinces in central China occupied more than half of the Politburo seats in each of these two Party Congresses (59 percent and 52 percent, respectively). The “gang of four” (sirenbang) leaders who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, especially toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, were largely from Shanghai. They wielded enormous power and influence over the country in the final years of the Mao era, when they promoted many fellow Shanghai natives to important positions. Under the leadership of both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China experienced disproportionate representation of leaders from the east coast, with large contingents hailing from Shandong and Jiangsu provinces. On the 15th CC in 1997, about 45 percent of full members were born in eastern China. According to a study of military elites in the 1990s, well over one-quarter of high-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) came from Shandong Province, and altogether 52 percent of China’s top military officers were from eastern China.”
10 Yuanshuai (‘marshals’) and Da jiang (‘grand generals’)