Losing the Mandate of Heaven

Losing the Mandate of Heaven, by Aaron Sarin.

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? …

Shrinking…

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. …

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 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.” …

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.