The mandate of heaven and coronavirus

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At the risk of appearing crude, crass and unfeeling, this article is going to focus on the political and economic consequential dangers of the coronavirus. This should not be taken in any way as an attempt to belittle the deaths of 805 Chinese (as of the early hours of Sunday morning) or the grief that their friends and families are suffering. Every human life is precious. But as the death toll mounts and the quarantine is extending, the economy suffers and this suffering will result in political consequences.

In Hubei Province there are an estimated 50 million people in quarantine. That is 50 million people who are now not working. Neither are they in the shops, restaurants or cinemas spending money. The Chinese government have imposed severe travel restrictions throughout the country and restricted gatherings in public places in every major city.

The onset and spread of the virus coincided with China’s New Year celebrations which are a cross between Christmas, New Year, Easter and birthdays. An estimated 15 percent of the annual consumer spending is spent during the New Year celebrations. Very little was spent this year. Economists expect China’s growth rate to drop from 6 percent to as little as two percent for the first quarter of this year, and if the authorities do not contain the spread of the virus quickly it will fall even further as it develops a cumulative effective.

This will, of course, have an impact on the rest of the world. China is now the world’s second largest economy. A major slice of the world’s goods are produced in Chinese factories, many of which have already been closed to prevent the spread of the virus. These factories need to buy raw materials to produce their goods. Oil-producing countries are being particularly hard hit as the price of black gold has dropped 18 percent in the past month. Australia is expected to be hit hardest. The Australian currency is already diving as a third of Australia’s exports go to China and Australian tourism is heavily dependent on free-spending Chinese tourists.

The economic contraction is having political consequences. The Chinese government is the perfect example of the axiom that authoritarian governments succeed only as long as they are able to deliver the goods to a docile public. When they fail to do so in China they risk what the Chinese call losing the “Mandate of Heaven”

This concept has been around since the start of the Zhou Dynasty in the second millennium BCE. It is the closest thing to a check on unbridled Chinese rulers that exists in Chinese politics. Exactly how it works and why was best explained by the Chinese philosopher Mencius in the 4th century BCE when he wrote: “The people are of supreme importance; the altars of the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler. That is why he who gains the confidence of the multitudinous of the people will be Emperor… When a …lord endangers the altars of the gods… he should be replaced.”

The Mandate of Heaven is still very much a part of modern political thinking. It was invoked by the students at Tiananmen Square and is a part of the conversation in the demonstrations in Hong Kong where the economy has been shrank by 1.2 percent in 2019 and may contract by as much as 5.9 percent in 2020 according to the Dutch Bank ING.

In China the anger that leads to a slippage of the mandate now has a human focus. Li Wenliang was a Wuhan-backed Chinese doctor who died this past week from the coronavirus. Back in December he noticed some unusual flu-type symptoms in his patients. He warned medical colleagues that it might be the start of a Sars-type virus. Li was quickly visited by police and told to “stop spreading rumours.” It took the authorities three weeks and an unknown number of deaths before they made any significant moves to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Exactly how many lives would have been saved—including Li’s—if the Chinese government had acted back in December when Li first blew his whistle is unknown. But Li’s death has combined with the spread of the disease and economic problems to spark widespread anger. In the first week of February 1.5 billion protests have been lodged on Chinese social media. This is despite the best efforts of the infamous Chinese firewall. The spread of Coronavirus means that the Mandate of Heaven sits less securely on the shoulders of Xi Jingping and the Chinese Communist Party.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Laurence Cox 10th Feb '20 - 2:40pm

    The spread of Coronavirus means that the Mandate of Heaven sits less securely on the shoulders of Xi Jingping and the Chinese Communist Party.

    There is also the effect on the economics of the USA. Major US companies build much of their products in China:

    The only bright side of Coronavirus is that if it causes a recession in the USA later this year, it could kill Trump’s chances of re-election.

  • All the concentration on the virus in the media is distracting from the problems at home. It is as if Johnson is happy that he has not to explain anything that he is doing on the state of Brexit (I will NOT drop the word) and the country.

  • I do not see why we should be other than grateful that the Chinese government is taking robust action.

  • A ‘holier than thou’ attitude regarding whistleblowers is not appropriate considering the actions of our own NHS.

  • Stephen Booth 12th Feb '20 - 4:06pm

    I read this week that Li was an opthalmologist. One can easily imagine that other medical colleagues might dismiss warnings for a specialist doctor outside the field of general clinical medicine.

  • Paul Barker 12th Feb '20 - 5:50pm

    Its worth remembering that Russian Communism collapsed about 73 Years after their seizure of Power. China was “Celebrating” 70 Years of Dictatorship just a few Months ago.

    Russia might have made a transition to Full Democracy & The Rule of Law with more help from The West, lets hope we dont make the same mistake with China if they have a genuine Revolution.

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