China's last emperor, Deng Xiaoping, understood these dynamics of power. As the sinologist Lucian Pye puts it: "Deng's quiet approach to leadership conformed to important norms in traditional Chinese political culture, a political culture that was shaped by the role model of mandarin bureaucrats and semi-divine, superman emperors, leaders who all operated out of sight, secretly behind the scenes." Mr Deng's economic reforms, for instance, introduced mass television ownership to China, but the former patriarch shunned the new medium as an instrument of personal influence. Professor Pye points to the astonishing fact that Deng rarely appeared in public and almost never used the mass media.
The world now waits to see how China's opaque political culture will evolve in the post-Deng era. The leader who is supposed to inherit the "mandate of heaven", President Jiang Zemin, is indeed closeted behind high walls, not those of the Forbidden City but of Zhongnanhai just next door, the well-guarded leadership compound.
But China's imperial days are surely over. Regardless of the lack of emperor qualities to be found in Mr Jiang or any other senior figure, the Deng reforms have created a country whose integration into the world economy and growing middle class are demanding more transparency, not less.
About half the population was not born or was too young to remember Mao's China. They are accustomed to the freedoms that Mr Deng's reforms brought; students can choose their jobs, millions of farmers can seek work in the cities, anyone with the money can buy an aeroplane ticket, and people's lives are no longer at the mercy of whatever party organisation holds one's personal "file". The urban middle classes, who may have studied abroad, enjoy foreign films and music and share the aspirations of Western counterparts. They profess the traditional respect for strong leaders (Margaret Thatcher is much admired) but do not want another emperor figure. Their strongest complaints are against corrupt, self-serving government and party officials - the modern-day mandarins in fact - precisely because they are unaccountable.
In post-imperial China, people talk disrespectfully in private about the current leadership in terms that could never have been addressed to Mao and Deng. Mr Jiang is no more a public hero among his constituents than John Major. The uncertainty is whether the ageing leadership, which can recall the days of absolute party power, will so misjudge this mood as to create just the sort of social backlash that it is anxious to avoid. It is to the government's advantage that there is an enduring horror among the Chinese of political chaos. The older half of the population has vivid memories of the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 until Mao's death in 1976 - and has learnt to prefer any government to none at all.
Mr Jiang and his colleagues are also well aware that China's development as an economic superpower demands more openness and predictability. Continued growth is still largely dependent on foreign investment, running at more than $30bn a year. After the initial rush to pour in money, foreign companies are now more circumspect, and want reliable financial information, contracts that can be legally enforced and a stable regulatory system. They certainly do not want to be subject to the whims of an elusive emperor.
Further integration into world financial systems is needed to complete the second, much more difficult, stage of economic reform. Deng unleashed an economic boom by simply lifting Mao's insane edicts for China. The Communist Party now has to solve the less tractable problems of bankrupt state enterprises, a debt-ridden banking system, the collapsing health and pensions system, and how to produce enough grain. All of which are fearsome, but would be easier to address with outside technical help.
What, then, must be going on behind those walls at Zhongnanhai? Even in Deng's heyday, the emperor had to work with a team. Indeed, it is arguable that Deng was given too much of the credit for the reform of the Eighties, much of which was put in place by the former party chiefs Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both subsequently shoved aside. The idea that China must function with a collective decision-making process is not new, the question is whether it can do so without a clearly superior leader.
Part of the reason for Deng's pre-eminence was his ability to negotiate a way through the conflicting demands of party elders. Yang Shangkun, the 89-year-old former president, and Peng Zhen, 95, are two such individuals whose revolutionary credentials are second only to Deng's, and who are back in the collective power frame. Among the current leaders, the prime minister, Li Peng, and the head of the National People's Congress, Qiao Shi, are Mr Jiang's two most powerful possible adversaries, though neither can claim to have any greater emperor qualities than the current president. Will Mr Jiang have the skill to negotiate a deal which accommodates such figures to their satisfaction?
Part of the normalisation process that has made a start in Chinese politics since Deng assumed control at the end of the Seventies is that leadership manoeuvring tends to be more tied to personal reward than ideological conviction. There is a consensus on continued economic reform, and on its possible pitfalls. So Mr Jiang's key task initially may be a matter of sorting out "jobs for the boys".
Mr Jiang's mistake would be to try to seem more of an emperor than he is. At the moment he is head of state, party chief and military commander. In the run up to this autumn's full party congress - an event that takes place only once every five years - it will have to be decided whether one man should hold all these posts. At the same time, a new job is needed for Mr Li, who must step down as prime minister in March 1998. One possibility is that both he and Mr Qiao become deputy chairmen of the party, with Mr Jiang recreating the job of chairman for himself. Months of backroom deals will be needed to sort this out.
Four days into the post-Deng era, the transition is going as smoothly as could be hoped. But Chinese politics is notoriously unpredictable. The situation is stable, but not secure. Arguably it is now, and not up until Wednesday night's passing of Deng, that China is a heartbeat away from political crisis. If the 70-year-old Mr Jiang himself were suddenly to drop dead, China could well face turmoil. So the challenge for this less-than-paramount leader's reign is to ensure that the political system matures to a point where the world does not have to worry about the emergence of his political successor.