The New Mandate of Heaven

In Imperial China, whenever a new dynasty came to power, they always faced a challenge to their legitimacy. How could these usurpers justify the overthrow of the Son of Heaven, the man ordained to rule China? The answer was always the same: the old emperor lost the Mandate of Heaven. The idea was simple, a just ruler who brought prosperity to China and its people would earn the Mandate of Heaven, allowing him to govern China as he saw fit. However, should he become tyrannical or incompetent, then that ruler should be overthrown and replaced. In practice, this idea gave credit to meritocratic rule. It forced otherwise all-powerful rulers to be held at least basically accountable for the failures of the regime. It also allowed for people to rise based on merit (the founders of the Han, Song, and Ming dynasties all came from humble origins), laying the foundation for later dynasties whose bureaucracy was staffed entirely by scholars who had passed the state’s standardised tests. Of course, after all this exposition, it’s worth asking: how can this thousands year old concept be applied to China today?

Image courtesy of Voice of America, public domain.

To answer that question, one must look at the Chinese Communist Party’s current situation. At first glance, their position seems fairly strong. The economy is still growing at a robust rate, China’s political clout is constantly expanding, and the party itself still enjoys unchallenged control over the state and media. This strength however is underscored by a growing unrest among China’s working class. The recent riot at the Foxconn plant in Taiyuan was just the latest in a string of incidents involving worker dissatisfaction with the injustices plaguing Chinese industry.[1] This can partly be explained by China’s economic slowdown. While China has avoided the stagnation taking hold of the West, there are troubling signs for the economy’s future. Manufacturing, the cornerstone of China’s economy, has now had its eleventh month of contraction and in spite of the government’s measures to boost growth, the country’s GDP growth will likely continue to slide.[2] Combine this with China’s existing wealth disparities and it is easy to see why people would be so upset over their situation.

This however is only part of the problem. Income disparity and social injustice has always been a prominent feature of Chinese society and though the current economic numbers are disquieting, they far from a disaster. The Communist Party is suffering from far more than a case of economic backlash; it is at risk of losing its legitimacy. Over the last few years, the corruption endemic in the operations of the Party has become increasingly publicised. It was reported that a whopping 106,000 officials were found guilty of corruption in 2009 alone and that the number who had embezzled more than a million yuan ($146,000) had increased by 19% from the year before.[3] Worse, the recent political transition has highlighted the increasingly dynastic character of China’s political system. Suddenly, knowledge of the “princelings,” the sons of China’s ruling elite who essentially run the country’s economy, went from a little-known fact to being front page news. From the rise and fall of Bo Xilai to the exploits of lesser-known princelings such as Jiang Mianheng (the son of former president Jiang Zemin), it has become increasingly obvious that the Communist Party and the economy it runs has been overtaken by a cadre of nobles whose power is derived by birth, not merit.[4] This is in turn creating increasing uncertainty about the Party’s competence and China’s future under their reign. This uncertainty has manifested itself in all sorts of ways, from the panic over Xi Jingping’s seeming disappearance, to the sudden displays of nationalism over a minor island dispute with Japan.[5] Thus, in spite of its seeming strengths, it appears the Communist Party is charting a course towards an uncertain future.

From all these current events, it is nevertheless crucial to frame these developments within the context of the Mandate of Heaven. In spite of its largely Confucian origins, the Mandate still holds enormous significance today. It reminds us that the Party cannot simply invoke a modern rendition of the Divine Right of Kings and expect to get away with it indefinitely. It demonstrates that China’s historical tradition of governance is profoundly meritocratic in character and will ultimately punish those that seek to turn it into a crony state. In this context, it is inevitable that China’s populace will come to view the behavior of the Party as an aberration and historically speaking; that will lead to the loss of the Mandate and their removal from power. If the Chinese Communist Party wants to survive the 21st century, it needs to professionalise itself, to become a true meritocracy and demonstrate to the people that they still have the right to rule China. If they cannot do this, then it is likely that they will suffer the fate of the dynasties before them and if that is the case; then we can only hope that the transition will not be as costly as all the others were.

[1] David Barboza and Keith Bradsher. “Riot at Foxconn Underscores Rift in China.” The New York Times. September 24, 2012.

[2] Aaron Back. “China’s Economy Signals Continued Contraction in Manufacturing.” The Wall Street Journal. September 29, 2011.

[3] “Corruption Up Among Chinese Officials.” BBC News. January 8, 2010.

[4] David Barboza and Sharon LaFraniere. “Princelings in China use Family Ties to Gain Riches.” The New York Times. May 17, 2012.

[5] Tania Branigan. “What’s Next for China as the New Generation of Leaders Take Power?” The Guardian. September 29, 2012.