China, COVID-19, Health, Top Stories, World Affairs

Losing the Mandate of Heaven

A pandemic would spread quickly, overwhelming China’s healthcare system, causing a breakdown in social order. Then the old chaos of the past will come again. The mighty CCP of today might suddenly look a weak and vulnerable thing.
~Kerry Brown, 2019 1

Earlier this month, Xi Jinping was exposed to the sharpest critique that any mainlander has dared to make since China’s president-for-life first took power. Xi was blamed for the coronavirus epidemic in the widely shared essay “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear.” True to his subtitle, the author eschewed anonymity. Xu Zhangrun is a law professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. After attacking China’s dictatorial system in a series of articles published in 2018, Xu was demoted and banned from teaching, writing, and publishing. Undeterred, he adopted an even sharper tone in his latest piece.

The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the reality of politics under the Communist Party, he says: “the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state… a storied bureaucratic apparatus… [that] repeatedly hid or misrepresented the facts.” And who is responsible for this jittering edifice, this storied apparatus? “The Axelrod and the cabal that surrounds him”—a lyrical reference to Xi Jinping and the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee. The president is condemned throughout the essay as “self-indulgent… overweening… clueless.” Dispensing with caution altogether, and realising that this may be the last piece he will ever write, Xu Zhangrun goes on to call for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to vote in open elections.

It would be hard to argue with Xu’s rebuke. As of this writing, the epidemic’s death toll is still rising, and many of these deaths can ultimately be traced to the paranoid rigidity of the Xi Jinping administration. By late December 2019, doctors in Wuhan were already sounding the alarm over cases of what appeared to them to be SARS. Instead of listening to their warnings, the authorities summoned eight of these doctors for a dressing-down. They were warned of the punishments they could face for “rumour-mongering.” News of their detention was broadcast to tens of millions: a clear message to anyone else who might have been thinking about discussing viruses in public.

The Party’s leaders actually knew enough to be worried by this point—they alerted the World Health Organisation on December 31st—and yet still they hid the truth from the public. This neurotic obsession with secrecy has certainly cost lives. If the medical community had been informed of the outbreak back in December, hospitals could have stockpiled the necessary supplies. But now there are drastic shortages, and patients are dying in hallways and waiting rooms.

Even the critics of authoritarian dictatorship will usually agree that the system beats democracy for sheer efficiency, but the coronavirus debacle has turned that old wisdom on its head. Where we might have expected cold and methodical governance, we have found dithering bureaucrats, unable to take a step in any direction, paralysed by what Xu Zhangrun calls “systemic impotence.” Weeks went by and citizens swarmed in and out of Wuhan, picking up the virus and transporting it to the far corners of the country. Local government officials stayed quiet, wary of the heavy hand of Xi Jinping. On January 23rd, a citywide quarantine was finally announced, but eight long hours passed before it was enacted—time enough for a million or more to flee the city.

The Wuhan lockdown was repeated in other parts of the country (including significant restrictions in the southern megacity of Guangzhou), and some observers praised the speed with which new hospitals were constructed from scratch. These very visible displays of its power aside, the Party has moved far too slowly at every stage of the crisis. Diagnostic testing required samples to be sent all the way to a laboratory in Beijing, and this delayed the distribution of testing kits to many of the hospitals in Wuhan. Even when testing kits were available, patients still found themselves trapped in a Kafka-esque web of bureaucracy. According to Reuters, the tests have been refused to people who fail to make it through a complex reporting system involving hospital authorities, district authorities, city health authorities, and disease control officials.

None of this should come as a surprise. The cliché about the efficiency of authoritarian systems was always, on closer analysis, something of a low-resolution image. In the old days of the Soviet Union, speedy industrial growth obscured the reality of a fragile system largely devoid of autonomous decision making. During the 1920s, the Communist Party’s state planning committee Gosplan was established with the impressive-sounding mission of creating a series of five-year plans to govern the economy. But over the next 70 years, the vast majority of these plans were radically revised and rewritten, or more frequently ignored altogether in favour of Joseph Stalin’s arbitrary dictates. Indeed, Gosplan actively tried to avoid making decisions at all, because committee members knew Stalin would have them shot and replaced if their ideas produced unwelcome results.2 In the end, fear saps the efficiency of all authoritarian regimes, and the Chinese Communist Party is no exception.

Li Wenliang has emerged as the most vivid symbol of the Party’s latest failure. Li was one of the Wuhan doctors disgraced for discussing the coronavirus on social media. A few days after his police warning, he contracted the virus himself, and on February 6th he died. It was during the period of Li’s short illness that the Party apparently realised its error and decided to absolve the doctors, but still the central government would accept no blame for the tragedy. Instead, the Supreme Court (which is controlled by the CCP) scolded the local government in Wuhan—an unusual move, no doubt designed to create a scapegoat for surging public anger. The truth is that the city’s officials had been faced with an impossible job. They obediently followed orders, and now they will be punished for it.

The frustration that always simmers beneath the surface of modern Chinese society has been bubbling up in recent weeks. “We are not dumbasses, we are not brainwashed,” said one anonymous Wuhan blogger. “We all fucking know what this country really is. We just have no ways, no power—our bodies are made of flesh and blood. We can’t beat full metal jackets and tanks.”

Li Wenliang has risen to the status of national hero for these dissenters, and several academics (including Xu Zhangrun) have signed an open letter calling on the government to issue a posthumous apology to Li. Now the Party’s leaders are panicking just as much as their hapless underlings in the Wuhan government. They have forcibly quarantined the citizen journalist Chen Qiushi as punishment for reporting on the chaos inside the city’s hospitals. Users on the social networking site Douban have been ordered to stop posting the lyrics to the Chinese national anthem, because the line “Rise, people who do not wish to be slaves” has been recategorised as radical content—an extraordinary move for a nationalistic regime, and a hint at how desperate things must be back in the Party headquarters at Zhongnanhai.

The economic impact of Xi Jinping’s mistakes will be considerable. It was only a few weeks ago that Party chiefs forecast 7.5 percent GDP growth this year for Wuhan’s home province of Hubei. Needless to say, this target is no longer feasible. Share prices fell by 10 percent in the fortnight following the Wuhan quarantine. Supply chains have been disrupted, factories remain closed, and widespread panic has almost erased business for hotels and restaurants throughout the country. J. P. Morgan economists have estimated that the epidemic would reduce annualised global gross domestic product growth by 0.3 percentage points in the first quarter, but now they think this figure will be much higher.

Perhaps the Party will contain this crisis. But the coronavirus embarrassment has exposed serious flaws in the system, and these flaws will eventually prove the Party’s undoing. To understand why, we need to evoke the concept of the Mandate of Heaven—the ancient dynastic belief in divine justification for the emperor’s rule. Throughout the long empires of the past, any large-scale failure (or even natural disaster) demonstrated the loss of Heaven’s favour, giving the people the right to rebel against their now-illegitimate leaders.

China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping sowed the seeds of the next rebellion when he embarked on his course of economic modernisation back in the late 1970s and 1980s. There can be no doubt that this course was vital, transforming China from the crippled and impoverished sick man of Asia into the rising behemoth of modern times. But it also signalled the beginning of the end for the current dynasty. The Communist Party had embraced a form of state capitalism even though it clung to the old authoritarianism—a system fatally undermined by the kind of inefficiencies that we’ve seen in recent weeks. This created an imbalance, and while observers have spent 40 years waiting for the balance to be redressed by top-down democratic reform, the failure of their predictions does not mean that the imbalance can be maintained forever.

Chinese citizens frequently refer to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when explaining the Party’s failure to carry out political modernisation. Maslow was a 20th-century American psychologist best known for his theory that we need to satisfy basic physiological needs before we can move on to more abstract, “higher” needs, such as self-actualisation. This questionable theory has proven very useful for the Chinese Communist Party. We need to get rich first, the government tells the people. When our fundamental material needs have been taken care of, then we can start worrying about abstract ideas like human rights.

But the truth is that the Party has no intention of fulfilling those more “advanced” needs, nor will it ever need to, just so long as it can keep using the indefinite delay tactic of Maslovian theory. How rich is rich enough? Who can say? It will always be possible to convince the public they are not yet secure, no matter how wealthy. This arrangement works like an unwritten, unspoken contract. The people implicitly agree to overlook their lack of political and civil rights, while the Party agrees to make the people rich. Wealth creation has become the only thing that matters. And here, finally, we see the great vulnerability of the Chinese Communist Party. In the event of a major economic crisis and the subsequent breaking of the contract—a scenario made all the more likely by the flaws inherent to an authoritarian system—the authorities will lose the Mandate of Heaven.

The CCP is well versed in the dynamics of dynastic rule. Back in 2014, Vice President Li Yuanchao stated bluntly that if the Communist Party could not continue to improve people’s standard of living, then it would fall from power.3 The authorities have spent decades attempting to get round the problem by indoctrinating citizens with the idea that there is no distinction between Party and people. They hoped this would make uprising literally unthinkable. But a concept like the Mandate of Heaven runs far deeper in Chinese culture than anything so historically recent as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Has the Party really managed to educate the concept out of people? Is it possible for politics to reroute culture? Maybe, maybe not. Cultures are dynamic and ever-changing, but the influence of politics on these changes remains poorly understood. The question will be put to the test when the Chinese economy collapses. On that day, Xi Jinping will find out if some of the old ways are still breathing beneath the rubble of communism.


Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield and currently working on a book about the nation-state system, cultural universals, and global governance. He regularly contributes to and you can follow him on Twitter @aaron_sarin  


1 Kerry Brown – CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019), pp. 223-4
2 Daron Acemoğlu & James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Profile Books Ltd., London, 2013 edition, orig. 2012), pp. 128-9
3 Brown, op. cit., pp. 213-4


  1. Yep, authoritarian rule can give the impression of efficiency because it can have the advantage of giving uncompromised direction towards a specific goal. Many of us would have seen dozens of diggers working on the site for one hospital, a few less diggers would have been more efficient - even if the job took slightly longer.

  2. Actually it is not established that a dictatorship is more efficient, this is not even new. Several thousand years ago republican Rome understood that while there may be the occasional need for a dictator in a time of peril they limited the term to a year. Anyone who argues that an established dictator is more efficient is like arguing that an unaccountable monopoly is more efficient than a competitive business. Dictatorships are not ruled by angels and in only a short time they become corrupt and self serving and require repression to stay in power. Subjugating a population with an authoritarian police state is a massive mis-allocation of resources and is the antipathy of efficiency.

    We humans seem to put up with a lot injustice when the cost of change entails a whole lot of pain. When the cost of the corruption begins to greatly exceed the cost of change, then maybe the system can be overturned. Unfortunately the Chinese population have displayed a remarkable ability to endure massive suffering dished out by their government, 50 million dead, yet their government survives. Have the Chinese people or their culture become less compliant since the Great Leap Forward?

    I watched in hope back in 1989 when Lady Liberty was erected in Tiananmen Square and we know how that turned out. Maybe this time will be different, Xi may not have complete control of information as his predecessors had or maybe he will be scapegoated and toppled in an internal coup, but I am not betting on the demise of the government. If anything I suspect their brutal government will use the opportunity of this epidemic to covertly remove those they have awarded low “social credit” scores, i.e. their dissidents. If not outright taken away and secretly killed, those with low social credit scores will likely not get medical treatment and left to die.

  3. An important element is that the mandate of heaven passed from the Party to Xi Jinping in 2018 consolidation of all power into his own hands allowed him to make himself president for life, ending the two-term limit which the Party had instituted after Mao. That limit was specifically designed to protect the Party’s power by preventing it from being all invested in one man just as the Magna Carta was designed to protect the nobility’s power from being all invested in one man, the king.

    Yes, the personal self-interest of those barons and Party leaders was key but so was the interests of their successors - that is the system itself. The disastrous excesses of Mao not only hurt Party leaders, they threatened the Party’s rule because Mao had become the Party so any opposition to him became opposition to the Party itself which works only so long as he kept the Mandate of Heaven, ie that opposition didn’t reach the tipping point of becoming successful at which point the entire edifice crumbles.

    If Xi were 2 years away from forced retirement, as he would be now were he still limited to two terms, the politics would look very different. An orderly change of leadership could spare the Party and blame could be laid at his feet. He might even be induced to fall on his sword early “for health reasons” and allowed to retain some behind the scenes wealth and power.

    The problem of the single party state is that it quickly ceases to be a party at all, becoming mere quislings of the supreme leader. The French aristocracy’s fate at the guillotine was sealed when their powers were subsumed into the monarch’s and their roles reduced to those of merely courtiers under the monarch’s motto “l’etat c’est moi,” - “I am the state.” When that monarchy lost its mandate it took the nobility down with it.

  4. It’s a good thing the government had the foresight to disarm the people. That’s going to come in very handy right now. I predict the Xi regime will survive this crisis because there’s literally nothing anyone can do about them.

    “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”
    – Mao Tse-Tung

    A wise man, that Mao. He knew how to keep the powerful in power. It is the same in any society, whoever can hurt other people will always rule. It’s a smart move to keep that power from the hands of the people, if you want to rule them.

    “The power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can’t kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you.”
    – Ender Wiggin

    For our hard left readers, and any of those “it’s not real socialism” types, you will be interested to read Xi Jinping’s actual ideology, written by his own hand. The man is very well-read and knows his subject.

  5. Have a look at the vid of Dr Bruce Aylward and his team, after their recent investigation of the virus in China.
    It’s a bit long. But the first 15 minutes pretty much covers it.
    Basically, China seems now on top of it
  6. I think it is important to state that I am currently writing this in my apartment in a major Chinese city under quarantine lock down where I have been since late January. I’m not going to give away too many details as I don’t want to dox myself to either a western or eastern audience except to say that I am teaching in a university, am from an English speaking nation and have been in China for 10 years.

    I have been reading Aaron Sarin’s work for a while and I find, what might be called in the vernacular, his “Hate boner” for China is really quite remarkable. He seems to be angry when the Chinese do something badly but even more angry when they do something well. Certainly Beijing has made mistakes in this novel situation but what standard are you holding them to, Perfection ?

    Surely the question is not if they could they have done better, knowing what we know now but rather which nation could have done better with what they knew then. It’s interesting to speculate how a nation of comparable size (say India) or comparable wealth (say The USA) would have done or currently is doing with the epidemic.

    Comparing the current Chinese system to Soviet central planning is well off the mark, the Beijing central committee has studied that collapse very well and won’t be making those mistakes. Referring to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was even more bizarre. Maybe there are some Chinese academics who orientate their lives around the philosophy of a 20th century American Jewish psychologist but if there are I certainly have never met them or anyone else who has. Who I have met are members of the communist party, many also businessmen, engineers or scientists who faithful perform the ancient rituals on Tomb sweeping day and consider it perfectly normal to do so.

    This is the main problem I have with Aarin Sarin’s analysis of the Chinese political system, it’s not a child of 1930 German fascism or 1917 Russian Bolshevism., it’s Chinese. The standard term has it as socialism with Chinese characteristics but I would call it Chinese-ness wearing a pair of socialist trousers. Confucius and Hanfeizi have much more influence on the CCP than Marx or Lenin especially since the Soviets fell flat on their face. The CCP is ruling from a very old play book. Again and again I have seen the Chinese face a problem and look back to what a previous dynasty did under similar situations. Then they just do that only bigger, faster and better.

    In conclusion, China is run by the Chinese in a Chinese style for the Chinese people, not for the acclaim of western intellectuals like Aaron Sarin. Judge them on their results not the color of their flag.

  7. It seems you’re conflating the commie government with China in general.

    Do the Chinese people really want a repressive, one-party surveillance state? Is abuse of Tibetans and Uyghurs something the (Han) Chinese people rejoice in?

    I encourage you to make this case in an article for @quillette.

  8. Thank you for your reply to my reply to the article, of course I cannot speak for the Chinese but I must say the idea that any one should “rejoice” in the government to be very odd. Do you, or does any one rejoice in their accountant, doctor or plumber ?
    Rejoice verb def. “feel or show great joy or delight.”
    Government is a job of work, certain things have to be done and central government is the way to do it. For the Chinese there are certain jobs the government must do now as they did in ancient times. How well they do them is the measure of the quality of the government. Grain has to get to market, the waterways and the highways have to be maintained to water the fields and keep the traffic flowing. Bandits must be suppressed and the border secured to keep out the barbarians. Diplomats receive delegations from and negotiate treaties with foreigners. This is the same as it has been for millennia. The people don’t need to rejoice in it, it just needs to be done, just as the plumber needs to fix the toilet and the accountant needs to balance the books. It seems to be the Westerners who feel the need to find spiritual uplift in their government, some sort of proof that they are among the righteous elect or on the right side of history. It’s not a Chinese concept at all.
    As for the Tibetans and the Uyghars, I imagine that the educated Han Chinese would make the very cogent point that they are both doing better now than at any point in their very long history. Food, health, safety and education are better now than they have ever been, and by a huge margin. Tibet was a feudal theocracy and Xinjiang is being roiled by an Islamist separatist insurgency. Abraham Lincoln didn’t tolerate separatism and neither does Beijing.
    Here is a point for you to consider alone, I don’t need to know your answer, you can keep it to yourself. When did you first hear about Xinjiang and the Uyghars ? Was it because you have a natural curiosity about the cultures of indigenous ethnic groups ? Or was it because the Washington media said that the plight of the Uyghars is something that you should be concerned about if you wish to remain one of the righteous elect ?
    As for the point about Confucianism I will certainly consider submitting something for publication by Quillette on the topic.

  9. Very well said, Jake.
    (Say I, speaking as one having lived, studied, worked in China in the seventies and eighties, now in HK).
    I don’t carry any water for Xi Jinping, but China doesn’t deserve all the current opprobrium in its handling of the virus. WHO has again praised China’s efforts, also HK and Singapore.

  10. If China beats the virus, I would expect it to strengthen Xi’s position. Xi will be given credit for overcoming a major national crisis, and Chinese society will have advanced with respect to biotechnology and biomedical practice.

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