Cicero’s Advice to China’s Would-be Leaders

As we have noted in essays previously published in The China Story Journal,[1] power transitions are a time when both the thoughtful and the ambitious, as well as those frustrated with the political incumbents and desirous of a new order under their successors avail themselves of diverse means and media to offer freely cautionary advice and policy nostrums.

In the United States, after an interminable presidential campaign, the Electoral College has done its work and reaffirmed the country’s political stasis. On the other side of the Pacific, the equally anticipated, and even more drawn out ‘stability maintenance’ process by which the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘Selectorate’ determines the next decade-long leadership also draws to a conclusion.[2]

In mid year, the noted pro-government thinker Hu Angang 胡鞍钢 offered a view of how China’s particular political arrangements are uniquely suited to that country. He claimed that they provide what he calls ‘a collective presidential system’, one that is more democratic than that of the American polity. Hu also asserts that this system has supposedly allowed China to slough off the long tail of autocratic political tradition. Writing in the Global Times in July, Hu, Director of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies and an economics professor at Tsinghua University, said:

Through case study of the Politburo Standing Committee of the 16th and the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, I have found the following five major mechanisms operating in the ‘collective leadership system with Chinese characteristics’:

  • The mechanism of collective appraisal of candidates, and collective withdrawal and succession of membership, which both terminates the tradition of individual succession of power seen in China’s history and prevents selection of politicians totally through election as practiced abroad;
  • The mechanism of collective coordination and distribution of responsibilities, which is an effective firewall against indecision, buck-passing and opposition in the decision-making process;
  • The mechanism of collective study, which leads to common view through sharing of decision-making wisdom and expertise;
  • The mechanism of collective inspection and investigation, which gives the members a solid ground to speak, to propose and to decide;
  • The mechanism of collective decision-making, which avoids decision by any individual on major issues and allows timely correction of mistakes.

Standing at the core of these five mechanisms is the mechanism of collective decision-making. Viewed from the theory and practice of decision-making, the collective leadership system has its advantages in terms of information sharing and correct decision-making thanks to its democratic nature.[3]

The evolution of Chinese politics following nearly a century of post-dynastic rule by great men (Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, Chiang Ching-kuo, Deng Xiaoping) is thus said to have seen a more complex and balanced system emerge. Praised by some as a ‘model’ of consensual politics, this new collectivity of power blocs and interests has also been much criticised for the policy inertia and hedging that it can generate. Popularly, it is not uncommon for people to speak nostalgically about the era of decisive (if destructive) leaders. Some even hark back to ‘the art of emperors’ 帝王之术, something that fascinated Mao Zedong, an avid reader of traditional Chinese history texts and works on statecraft. Of course, these dark arts are still practiced by leaders today, although they are careful to conceal the magic behind a façade of collective, consensual rule. Furthermore, in China’s back-room and ‘retiree’ politics, studiously ignored in Hu Angang’s analysis, the ‘silken curtain’ 垂帘 behind which retired grandees continue to exert considerable political influence casts a long shadow [9 November update: on observing the first day of the Eighteenth Party Congress in Beijing, one friend summed up the gathering as: 四世同堂,三代同治,二宫垂帘].

As both local and global media in tandem discuss political decisions that will directly effect the US and the People’s Republic of China, and indirectly the whole world, I would suggest that readers take a sidewards glance at European tradition, and more specifically Roman history and one particular ancient Latin text. This is coincidentally relevant in the context of the recent publication of the Australian government White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century (28 October 2012). As Yasmin Haskell, Cassmarca Foundation Chair of Latin Humanism at the University of Western Australia has pointed out, ‘Latin is not an Asian language, but it is a language of crucial importance for the understanding of Asia.'[4]


The Pantheon (interior), commissioned by Marcus Agrippa and built in the ‘Field of Mars’ in Rome, 27BCE (it was subsequently rebuilt). Photograph by Geremie R. Barmé

In the summer of 64BCE, Quintus Tullius Cicero offered his older brother, Marcus, some advice on how to get elected to the Roman senate. The older Cicero is known to history as a great orator, but it is his brother’s advice, Commentariolum Petitionis (‘little handbook on electioneering’), that has been recalled in this 2012 election year by the scholar and translator Philip Freedman in his How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians.[5]

Commenting on Freedman’s timely re-translation of this ancient text, the classicist Mary Beard noted that young Cicero’s advice might not necessarily suit modern American politics:

For decades, if not centuries, Quintus Cicero’s advice has been adjusted in English versions to match our own political systems and processes. Freeman’s translation is no different. Even the idea that the politician should give people hope, a cliché of modern media politics, looks different in the original Latin from the modern English. Freeman’s version has: ‘The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.’ It is, for us, an instantly recognizable thought. But what the original Latin actually says is this: ‘In seeking election you must take care that the state has a good hope of you, and a good opinion of you’—which is quite different from (indeed the reverse of) the modern idea of bringing hope to the people.[6]

I would suggest that sentiments such as ‘you must take care that the state has a good hope of you, and a good opinion of you’, as in Beard’s translation, chimes more sonorously with contemporary Chinese rather than American realities. Indeed, while others attempt to divine the auguries of China’s Selectorate, it is worth reading Freedman’s lively version of the ‘little handbook on electioneering’. Below, I offer a sample of Cicero’s advice, along with the original text:

Always remember what city this is, what office it is you seek, and who you are.
Civitas quae sit cogita, quid petas, qui sis.

Your must diligently cultivate relationships with these men of privilege. Both you and your friends should work to convince them that you have always been a traditionalist. Never let them think you are a populist.
Ii rogandi omnes sunt diligenter et ad eos adlegandum espersuadendumque iis nos semper cum otimatibus de re publica sensisse, minime popularis fuisee.

Be sure you work to get young men from noble families on your side and keep them there.
Praeterea adulescentis nobilis elabora ut habeas vel ut teneas.

Do not overlook your family and those closely connected with you. Make sure they all are behind you and want you to succeed. This includes your tribe, your neighbours, your clients, your former slaves, and even your servants. For almost every destructive rumor that makes its way to the public begins among family and friends.
Deinde, ut quisque est intimus ac maxime domesticus, ut is amet et quam amplissimum esse te cupiat, valde elaborandum est, tum ut tribules, ut vicini, ut clients, ut denique liberti, postremo etiam servi tui; nam fere omnis sermo ad forensem famam a domesticis emanat auctoribus.

If men are sufficiently grateful to you, as I’m sure they are, everything will fall into place.
Quod si satis grati hominess essent, haec tibi omnia parata esse debebant, sic uti parata esse confido.

Believe me, no one with any brains at all will pass on the chance to strike up a friendship with you, especially as your competitors are not the sort anyone would want as friends. Your opponents could not begin to heed the advice I am giving you, let alone follow it through.
Nemo erit, mihi crede, in quo modo aliquid sit, qui hoc tempus sibi oblatum amicitiae tecum constituendae praetermittat, praesertim cum tibi hoc casus adferat ut ii tecum petant quorum amicitia aut contemnenda aut fugienda sit, et qui hoc quod ego te hortor non modo adsequi sed ne incipere quidem possint.

After this turn your attention to the special interest groups, the neighbourhood organizations, and the outlying districts.
Deinde habeto rationem urbis totius, collegiorum omnium, pagorum vicinitatum.

Finally, as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show. Dignified yes, but full of color and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.
Postremo tota petitio cura ut pompae plena sit, ut inlustris, ut splendida, ut popularis sit, ut habeat summam speciem ac dignitatem, ut etiam si quae posit ne competitoribus tuis existat aut sceleris aut libidinis aut largitionis accommodata ad eorum mores infamia.[7]

Freeman’s translation of Quintus Tullius Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis contains many other delights, and I recommend them to the reader. This is not entirely irrelevant either to would-be leaders or to China-watchers. Again, as Yasmin Haskell points out:

The Chinese already appreciate the importance of these [Latin] sources. Several years ago they were sending local students on scholarships to learn Latin at European universities. Today … they are training up thousands of Chinese teachers of classics – not the Chinese classics of Confucius and Lao Tzu, that is, but those of ancient Greece and Rome.[8]



[1] See The Ten Grave Problems Facing China, 8 September 2012, and The Five Vermin 五蠹 Threatening China, 4 November 2012.
[2] Susan Shirk defines the Selectorate as the ‘group of people within the party who have the power to choose the leaders’. See her China: The Fragile Superpower, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, p.40.
[3] 胡鞍钢:政治局常委会制度比‘个人总统制’更民主, Huanqiu Opinion 《环球网评论》, 3 July 2012. This translation is from Hu, ‘The Collective Presidential System with Chinese Characteristics’, China US Focus, 16 July 2012.
[4] Haskell noted that much of the early (and generally positive) European contact with various Asian civilisations was led by accommodationist Jesuits. Their lingua franca was Latin. Remarking on the cultural and linguistic narrowness of the White Paper, Haskell remarked:

Latin is not an Asian language, but it is a language of crucial importance for the understanding of Asia. It is, for example, the key to a vast horde of untranslated texts – on subjects from Chinese geography, history and chronology to flora and fauna, medicine, linguistics (including the first grammars of Chinese and Manchu), and astronomy, dating from the 13th to 18th centuries. It is no exaggeration, as a leading Belgian scholar on Chinese /European cultural relations in this period has written to me, to say that the whole field of early modern Sinology was born in Latin.

See Yasmin Haskell, ‘We Must Look to an Ancient Tongue to Understand Asia‘, Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 7 November 2012.
[5] Quintus Tullius Cicero, How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, translated and introduced by Philip Freeman, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
[6] Mary Beard, ‘How to Win the Election (Without Super PACs)’, NYRblog, The New York Review of Books, 28 October 2012.
[7] Cicero, How to Win an Election, translated by Philip Freeman, pp.2-3, 8-9, 8-9, 28-29, 30-31, 40-41, 44-45 and 76-79. For a famous Chinese tract offering advice to a ruler who, although he had no concern for electioneering, did care about the opinion of others, see the minister Wei Zheng’s (魏徵, 580-643CE) ‘Ten Thoughts for the Emperor Taizong’ 諫太宗十思疏 (Taizong was the founder of the Tang dynasty, Li Shimin 李世民), written in 637CE:




[8] Haskell, ‘We Must Look to an Ancient Tongue to Understand Asia’, op. cit. In June 2012, the Beijing Foreign Studies University opened Latinitas Sinica – a Centre for Latin Language and Culture. See Bernard Lane, ‘Interest in Latin Fuels a Revival‘, Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 7 November 2012.