China's President Xi could learn from Qing emperors: Historian Jonathan Spence

President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, echoes China's traditional emperors in his consolidation of power and majesty of his undertakings, such as the South-North Water Diversion, an ambitious engineering project to divert water from the humid south to the parched north, begun by his predecessor Hu Jintao.

And, says historian Jonathan Spence, Mr Xi could find a great deal to learn from Qing emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng, two of China's most capable rulers.

In a phone interview with The Straits Times recently, Professor Spence of Yale University said he sees Mr Xi's problems as similar to Kangxi's in scope and range, as opposed to later Qing emperors whose problems were less varied and more domestic.

Kangxi, who ruled the Qing dynasty in 1661-1722, inherited an unstable empire. He had to deal with a wide spectrum of problems, including fighting foreign enemies to consolidate the Qing empire, flooding and managing foreign influences.

"Likewise, Xi has a huge expanse of problems -foreign policy, colossal water and pollution problems, corruption and deciding on the best people for various portfolios."

To deal with this multitude of problems, he said, Mr Xi would have to learn to be like Kangxi, whom he describes as a "paragon of flexibility". Kangxi was known for his open-minded curiosity, Prof Spence said, such as his consulting of Jesuit advisers.

The Qing emperor demonstrated his flexibility also in coming up with various ways to tap the intellectual capabilities of Han Chinese scholars who were resistant to serving a Manchu emperor. These included having a nomination system so that even when these scholars refused to take the imperial examinations, they could still be nominated to serve the emperor, and allowing them to write the history of the Ming dynasty which the Manchus had vanquished to establish their own Qing dynasty.

In short, Kangxi was able to develop a range of responses to a wide range of problems to deal with these effectively.

Mr Xi would require this flexibility "to work out interlocking spheres of problems, and to deal with the contradictions of doing many things at once," Prof Spence said.

Prof Spence knows better than most with regards to Kangxi's thinking. He wrote Emperor of China: Self portrait of K'ang Hsi, in an autobiographical style, by drawing on letters which the emperor wrote to trusted ministers, officers and eunuchs.

Prof Spence is credited for popularising Chinese history in the West and for writing in an engaging and readable style. Among his better known works are The Search for Modern China, a seminal textbook on Chinese history from the Ming dynasty in 1600s; God's Chinese Son, about the leader of the Taiping Rebellion; and The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, about the Italian Jesuit who entered China in 1583 to spread Catholicism.

Speaking at the Yale-NUS College in March, as part of the Tan Chin Tuan Chinese Culture and Civilisation programme, he told the audience that Mr Xi had done "extraordinary work" although he thought that the leader's high-profile anti-graft campaign might "earn him a backlash".

Since taking power in late 2012, Mr Xi has carried out a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign, culling some 100,000 Chinese Communist Party members for misbehaviour, but also reaching deep into the party's belly to prosecute top-ranking "tigers" like former security chief Zhou Yongkang.

When quizzed on this during the phone interview, he said that while Mr Xi's anti-corruption campaign was extraordinary, it wasn't unprecedented.

Noting that several emperors had battled corruption, he singled out Qing emperor Yongzheng's anti-graft drive as the most well-documented campaign that the current administration could draw lessons from.

He said the biggest issue he saw in Mr Xi's anti-corruption campaign was in balancing the personal and the professional.

"In expanding your influence, you need to spread yourself out, and search for more loyal, reliable people. Because China is so large, these people in turn form large bureaucracies, so there is this tension between personal relationships and government contacts."

"Xi has to deal with anti-graft in a cumulative way, because he is dealing with so many levels of government and people with high levels of power," he added. "He's got to be careful... He may be a princeling, but he's not from a founding (Communist) family."

Prof Spence nailed down Yongzheng's success to "good, highly confidential system of intelligence" and strong surveillance of officials.

Yongzheng (1722-1735), who was Kangxi's successor, reformed the tax system, which was prone to corruption. He accumulated accurate information through the palace memorial system, which allowed officials to report directly to the emperor, and appointed new men to key offices. These efforts paid off and cut down corruption particularly in China's northern regions.

When asked what Mr Xi could learn from Yongzheng, Prof Spence said: "I assume that Xi has good knowledge of the investment opportunities that his own officials can exploit. Yongzheng had good, close advisers, but he was always suspicious of them. He kept his communications confidential, and would keep a watch on them, file and revise the information he knew of them repeatedly."

It would appear the Chinese are already drawing lessons from history. On April 2, the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), led by top anti-graft buster Wang Qishan, announced the setting up of in-house anti-graft inspectors in key Communist Party organisations.