Coronavirus, Xi Jinping, and the Mandate of Heaven

"They're starving back in China so finish what you got." — John Lennon, "Nobody Told Me."

"Clean your plate; there are children starving in China" might have seemed like a non-sequitur to a Western kid staring at an unwanted plate of liver and onions. Maybe those Chinese kids were starving because their parents gave them liver and onions, too. But it was also enough of a trope to those growing up in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, that John Lennon could plug it into the lyric of a popular song and no one batted an eye.

It's been a long time now since starving children were a problem in China, and millions of them are too fat for military service. If anything, China is producing too few children of any size to keep the country's bulging retirement-age cohort in the lifestyle to which 21st-century China has become so quickly accustomed. That's what Mark Steyn means when he says that "China will grow old before it gets rich." Beijing sits on a demographic time bomb, as the One-Child Policy has worked so well that Chinese are still following it even after it was repealed.

Demographic bombs detonate slowly, however, and can sometimes be defused. Surely Chinese President Xi Jinping figures he has plenty of time to deal with that. But the outbreak of coronavirus has revealed structural weaknesses in the Communist Party's power and structure, which many China watchers had long suspected.

PJMedia's own Richard Fernandez was one of the first to notice the shift from "Xi sits on top of the world" to "Xi is sitting on a powderkeg, playing with matches."

China's history is more cyclical than any other country I can think of. Part of that stems from the Chinese concept called "The Mandate of Heaven." Simply put, when everything is going well in China, the ruler enjoys heaven's mandate, and the people are content with him. When things turn sour, the ruler no longer enjoys heaven's mandate, and it's pretty much anything goes.

John Locke summed up the cyclical nature of China and the Mandate like so:

Chinese history was never perfectly circular, or that much more predictable than any other country's. But it does seem to roughly follow this pattern, just like in this country some say, "History doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes." While he's officially a communist atheist, one suspects that Xi wonders if coronavirus means he's lost the Mandate of Heaven, and what that might mean for the future of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Xi has kept a low profile during the outbreak, perhaps wanting not to be seen as the symbol of Beijing's troubles in dealing with it. But in a country where nearly one-third of the people are under some kind of quarantine, a leader has to... well, get out and lead if he's going to be considered worthy of the title. Perhaps that why Xi just made what's been called a "rare appearance" in recent weeks, today at a Beijing medical center. His face covered in a mask (we'll get to that momentarily), Xi had his temperature taken and urged "more decisive measures" to combat the virus.

According to Western suckups like Thomas Friedman, Xi's ability to decisively move his authoritarian government is a big bonus for Getting Stuff Done. When the CCP says "Jump," the country shouts "How high?" That is, that's how it looks if you're a comfy Westerner suffering from a common mental condition known as Authoritarian Envy. The truth of the matter is that the CCP is so thoroughly corrupt that Xi's decisive measures aren't measuring up -- and some of the most "decisive" are mostly just for show. Business Insider reported today that "China is sending trucks to spray bleach on entire cities as the country struggles to contain the Wuhan coronavirus," but it's actually a PR stunt to make people feel like decisive action is being taken. The story notes that "health experts say these public displays of germ-busting are probably not doing much to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, and that the disinfection should instead target specific spots, like emergency rooms, and communal surfaces in hospitals."

Probably, but the people can't see that happening on a mass scale. Some of Xi's most decisive actions look less like the effective handling of a deadly outbreak, and more like hurried construction of Potemkin villages.

If you've been keeping up with the news at all, you've come across plenty of stories like these over the last few days:

Millions left Wuhan before the city was put under quarantine.

Inflation in China is running rampant because of the coronavirus.

China is in the grips of a facial mask shortage as death toll grows. (Xi belatedly appearing in public wearing a face mask the public is having a hard time getting doesn't strike me as great optics.)

Xi's decisive measures have been typical of any authoritarian country: Put the best possible face on a bad situation and hope the truth doesn't come out until the crisis has passed. Ever try and keep a lid on a situation involving 400 million people under quarantine? Can't be done. That, and Beijing's history of being damn lying commie bastards, is why no one trusts the official figures they've released on the number of people infected, sick, or dead. You don't want to believe reports of bodies being burned in the streets, but you can't believe much of what Beijing claims.

Rampant disease, I should mention, is one of those historical signs that a leader has lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Xi has another problem on his hands: His own overweening ambition. From the death of Mao until Xi himself, the CCP leadership functioned largely on consensus between the top men. Nobody wanted to see a return to one-man totalitarianism, when Mao was free to murder on a whim while the country barely subsisted. But the CCP was hardly willing to surrender any power, either. Consensus was a way to show the CCP as a whole enjoyed the Mandate: The economy began its long and unprecedented boom, guided by a ruling clique that agreed on all the big details. When trouble erupted, a head or two might roll, but the consensus continued unchanged except for a new head or two to replace the rollers.

But Xi has moved from consensus to one-man rule. No rival power centers remain within the CCP, so there's no consensus committee to roll on if Xi's head rolls off. If Xi stumbles badly, whether it's due to coronavirus or some other crisis in the future, he'll leave behind nothing but untrusted, untested yes-men. Or as Brad Glosserman put it in today's issue of The Japan Times:

Appalling and tragic as this crisis is, the Chinese government’s chief concern is the threat it poses to President Xi Jinping and the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The social contract between the party and the people has been a promise of greater prosperity and security in exchange for acceptance of CCP rule. The government’s response to this crisis has been anything but capable and Chinese lives are at risk as a result. That contract has been broken.

A collapse of central authority in China would hurt the entire world economy. Like amputating a leg at the hip, without proper skill and care the patient might bleed out. For that reason, Beijing's imperial attitude toward its subjects at home and its ambitions abroad is reason enough for the rest of the world to decouple from China's economy as quickly and completely as is feasible. China's Third-World attitude toward public health is a bad risk when combined with global trade: Infectious disease can go global just as quickly as the latest-model iPhone. Xi's fumbling response to the coronavirus outbreak, quickly going pandemic, drives the point home far more than the SARS outbreak did, when China's economy was a fraction of the size it is today.

As Fernandez tweeted, China's collapse is far from imminent but it is "no longer unthinkable." Given the importance of China to the global economy, both as a source of consumer goods and as a vital part of the industrial supply chain, it's time the rest of the world started seriously thinking about the formerly unthinkable.

Xi may or may not lose the Mandate of Heaven with his people, but he and the CCP have broken whatever small trust they once enjoyed with the rest of the world.