Each winter, I spend a couple of days at the University of Zurich, teaching a module in its executive MBA program on how culture affects management. This year, my two days fell on Feb. 9 and 10, and just as we were sitting down to start the opening session, a student asked me what I thought about the latest government shutdown in the United States. I assumed he was talking about the events of Jan. 20-22, but no, he was referring to something new. Just a few minutes earlier — right before 11 p.m. on Feb. 8 in Washington, D.C., so right before 8 a.m. on Feb. 9 in Switzerland — the U.S. Senate had gone into recess after Sen. Rand Paul had challenged a proposed trillion-dollar spending bill to fund continuing government activities. This made a shutdown at midnight inevitable. For the second time in three weeks, the world's leading superpower had no government.
Some pundits insist on calling what happened a "funding gap" rather than a "shutdown" because the Senate passed the spending bill over Paul's objections a few hours later, and right as our MBA class was ending that day, President Donald Trump was signing the bill into law. No one was furloughed; no government services were interrupted. Even so, it was hard not to share my Swiss students' feelings that this was no way to run a country.
The students were familiar with countries that lacked governments because their political parties could not agree to form a coalition with a workable majority. They weren't alone: Iraq went 249 days without a government in 2010, and Belgium an astonishing 541 days in 2010-11. They also recognized that a party controlling one branch of government might choose to block a spending bill that would allow a rival party, controlling a different branch of government, to pursue its policies, as has happened in the United States at least 10 times since 1976. (There is also some debate over what to count as a shutdown.) What they could not fathom, however, was why a party would refuse to grant itself the money it needed to govern, as has now happened in the United States at least six times since 1977.
My job in the MBA program in Zurich is to add a historical dimension to discussions of the conundrums of contemporary management, so it was perhaps predictable that I would be asked what history can teach us about countries that run themselves in this peculiar way. The answer, I have to report, is not a happy one.
History's Bleak Lesson
The closest analogy I know of to contemporary American governments' willingness to shut themselves down comes from long ago and far away. Four centuries ago, China — like the United States today — was the richest nation on earth. It was free of existential threats from rival states and had a political system that many of its residents thought of as well-nigh perfect but which others perceived as completely sclerotic. Anticipating the later rhetoric of two Americas, one inside and one outside the Beltway, China's Senior Grand Secretary Shen Shixing complained in the late 1580s about "the separation of the interior (i.e., the Forbidden City in Beijing, where the government resided) and the exterior," lamenting that "never since ancient times has a state under these conditions managed to remain in peace and order for long."
On the face of it, 16th century China's government was entirely different from 21st century America's. Rather than a president granted legitimacy by the will of the people, China had an emperor given legitimacy by the mandate of Heaven, a belief that the gods and ancestors had put their faith in his family (in this case, the Ming dynasty, which ruled China between 1368 and 1644). However, presidents and emperors alike faced rather similar problems in governing their vast territories. Despite what the men at the top have occasionally claimed, no one person can do everything, and whether imperial or presidential, rulers found that they had no choice but to recruit enormous staffs of politicians and civil servants to accomplish anything.
Even then, however, the politicians and civil servants often appeared more interested in jockeying with each other for advantage than in advancing the ruler's agenda. In the American case, just 9 percent of respondents to a Marist poll in January 2018 claimed to have a "great deal" of confidence in Congress. In the Chinese case, the historian Ray Huang concluded in his classic book 1587: A Year of No Significance, "while the bureaucracy was created to carry out governmental functions, the most pressing problem it had to handle was none other than the bureaucracy itself."
Tens of thousands of these bureaucrats, recruited through a demanding set of examinations on the classics of Confucian literature, resided in the Forbidden City. In principle, they worked only to carry out the emperor's wishes, but in practice, most worried much more about other bureaucrats — who would determine whether they rose or fell in the pecking order — than about the distant emperor. Ministers regularly exploited this anxiety to build their own private fiefdoms, enriching themselves and feuding with other power brokers. If they saw advantages in it, they might advance the emperor's will. If not, they wouldn't.
Flanking the Bureaucracy
For centuries, emperors had been end-running these bureaucratic roadblocks by building shadow states within the state. One favorite method was to recruit their own relatives and in-laws, who used patronage and other informal connections to get things done despite the civil service. By the Ming dynasty, however, the civil service had blocked this avenue with a rule requiring royal wives to come from relatively low-status families, significantly weakening the power of the ruler's kin. This left emperors with just one resource: eunuchs.
Eunuchs had two big attractions for rulers. First, no matter how powerful a eunuch became, he would never be able to found a rival dynasty. And second, most aristocrats found eunuchs so contemptible that they were loath to join them in rebelling against an emperor. Further, surprising as it might seem today, plenty of ambitious men were willing to castrate themselves as a route to high office, and 16th-century emperors typically employed 20,000 of them. Skillful emperors could play their eunuchs off against the Confucian bureaucrats, thereby keeping real power in their own hands. But faced by an unskilled emperor, the eunuchs and literati might make common cause against the throne.
This was precisely what happened after 1572, when a 10-year-old succeeded to the throne as the Wanli emperor. The Senior Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng and the eunuch Director of Secret Police Feng Bao cut a backroom deal to divide power between them and proceeded to run China very effectively, passing tax reform, promoting industry and keeping the peace. (Zhang was arguably the most talented minister in the whole of imperial China's history.) But when Zhang died in 1582, Wanli posthumously stripped him of his titles, fired and exiled Feng, and purged their lieutenants.
Kowtowing to an Empty Throne
By splitting the civil service-eunuch alliance, Wanli returned Chinese politics to business as usual, conducted through gossip, innuendo, interminable ceremonies and mountains of paperwork. He played the game reasonably well for a few years, but from 1586 onward, his maneuvers increasingly focused on a single goal: squeezing his first son out of the line of succession in favor of his third. If he still had allies of the caliber of the deceased Zhang and disgraced Feng, Wanli might have succeeded in ramming this goal through, even though the core value of civil service training was strict adherence to tradition. In their absence, though, his maneuvers only united the bureaucracy against him.
Wanli tried flattery, bribery and bullying (dozens of bureaucrats died during the beatings he imposed for insubordination), but by 1589 he had decided that the only option he had left against a government that would not cooperate was to shut it down. Selectively at first, he began ignoring the documents his administration sent him, even though this meant that no major legal decision could be taken or top administrative position filled. Cunning ministers responded by sending him subtly worded denunciations, but Wanli ignored these too.
As the struggle dragged on through the 1590s, Wanli steadily upped the ante. He stopped going to functions of any kind, leaving ministers and ambassadors to call meetings at which they could do nothing more than make speeches and kowtow to an empty throne. Decisions were left unmade; unread memoranda piled up by their thousands. Finally, in 1601, Wanli shut down his government almost completely and withdrew into a private domain of sex and drugs, effectively leaving China without a central government.
The Ming dynasty never recovered from Wanli's government shutdown. Even after he died in 1620, the government remained paralyzed as factions fought over who to blame for the decades of gridlock.
The consequences were catastrophic. By 1612, more than half of the government posts in the empire were vacant. Lacking judges, courts had backlogs of cases years long. Tax rolls went decades without being updated (not that there would have been enough officials available to collect the revenues). After vigorous reforms in the 1550s-80s, during which long stretches of the Great Wall of China were rebuilt in stone and equipped with cannons, the army was left to disintegrate without pay. Diplomatic initiatives to keep steppe nomads from raiding the northern frontiers were abandoned, and pirates took control of parts of the east coast.
The Ming dynasty never recovered from Wanli's government shutdown. Even after he died in 1620, and his successors resumed signing memoranda and meeting with ministers, the government remained paralyzed as factions formed and fought over who to blame for the decades of gridlock. Ignored by Beijing, entire provinces drifted away from central control, and Manchu invaders faced little opposition as they overran the borders and finally seized Beijing in 1644. The last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, hanged himself, pinning on his robes a pathetic suicide note: "I, feeble and of small virtue, have offended against Heaven … Removing my imperial cap and with my hair disheveled, I leave to the rebels the dismemberment of my body. Let them not harm my people." But Chongzhen's dying wish was not granted. Over the next 20 years, probably 20 million Chinese died from violence, disease and starvation.
Parallels and Contrasts
In the first column I wrote for Stratfor, I suggested that we learn most from history not when we compare a current situation with a past one — and assume that if the two cases are alike in some ways, they must be alike in all ways — but when we look as closely at the differences between them as the similarities. If we do this, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that even though the Wanli shutdown is the closest historical parallel to America's shutdowns since the 1970s, the contrasts are in fact stronger than the parallels.
Most obviously, the longest American government shutdown to date has been 21 days in 1995-96, as opposed to 19 years of complete shutdown under Wanli, followed by a further 12 years of partial shutdown. Furthermore, the Wanli situation only went on as long as it did because the emperor occupied the throne for 48 years. No American president can last more than eight — and it is hard to imagine any president who presided over months, let alone years, of shutdown being re-elected. America is not Ming China.
That said, there are also differences within the differences. The world moves much faster in the 21st century than it did in the 17th, and a superpower probably no longer needs to go two decades without government to break itself. Just how often and how long a government can afford to shut itself down remains unclear, but the lessons of the past suggest that my Swiss students were right about one thing. Shutting down the government is no way to run a country.