Xi Jinping and the "Mandate of Heaven"



It's mid-February 2020 and the rule of China's strongman leader, Xi Jinping, is being assailed from many directions.


Xi's list of woes? A slowing economy (hurt in part by a trade war with the United States, a lending bubble, and an African Swine Fever epidemic), a continuing crisis with a restive Hong Kong, growing criticism of his policies re: the Uighurs and others in Xinjiang from the international community, and an apparently botched response to the still-growing epidemic of coronavirus.


What do these calamities and threats mean for a ruler who has spent the past eight years cultivating an aura of his own essentialness - while purging potential rivals and dismantling the system of succession set into place by China's less-cult-of-personality-obsessed post-Mao leaders?


What might befall today's Chinese leader - who exercises absolute control over 1.4 billion people - but whose grip on that power might appear to be slipping as China seemingly careens from one crisis to the next?


Perhaps a bit of history could prove instructive?


Over 3,000 years ago the Zhou people, from the western part of China, overthrew the Shang Dynasty. During the resulting Zhou Dynasty, the emperor reigned as the “Son of Heaven”, with the approval of the gods - known as the "Mandate of Heaven" (in Chinese, tiān mìng, 天命 ).


One of the key concepts underlying the Mandate of Heaven? The ruler's great power came with a moral obligation to use it for the good of his people. If the ruler failed in this duty, then his state would suffer terrible disasters and he would lose the right to govern. 


So, in ancient times, floods, diseases, local rebellions, famines or military defeats were often seen as signs that the ruler must go.


Around 300 BCE, the Chinese philosopher Mencius (in Chinese, Mèngzǐ, 孟子) explained the concept of the Mandate of Heaven - and how certain signs might be deemed relevant in deciding whether a ruler was past his shelf-date - this way: "Heaven does not create people for the sake of the sovereign. Heaven made the sovereign for the sake of the people."


The Zhou ruled for almost 1,000 years (until 256 BCE). And then? The concept that a ruler was empowered by the Mandate of Heaven (to varying degrees) persisted in China under all the subsequent dynasties. And - here's where we get back to Xi Jinping - the "Mandate of Heaven" still has relevance today.


Inside China? The coronavirus - causing millions to fear for their health and with a destructive impact on the economy and everyday life - may be the last straw.


Anyone who claims to know what will happen next is not to be trusted. China is just too big and complex.


But? After a seemingly unending chain of crises? Is the fall of Xi out of the question?


And should Xi be forced out?


What then?


Is a break-up of the CCP's iron-fisted control over all of China as we currently know it impossible to imagine?




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