Heaven’s mandate

An old idea gets a new airing

Heaven’s mandate

CCTV complex: architectural wonder known locally as 'the Underpants'

Throughout China’s long history, a belief has prevailed – since the time of the Zhou dynasty in 1000 BC – that the ruler’s legitimacy is conferred by the “mandate of heaven”. Natural disasters and social uprisings occur when that mandate has been withdrawn. Such times see dynasties fall and get replaced.

To take two ‘recent’ historical examples. Famine and flooding occurred shortly before the fall of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. And a 1907 famine that killed 24 million was a timely precursor to the end of the Qing period (the dynasty actually fell in 1911).

Talk of the ‘mandate’ has recurred in China’s blogs in recent months. Last year’s earthquake in Sichuan, and this year’s drought (see WiC 2), are viewed by some as telling omens.

A mandate to govern in more modern times usually includes a responsibility for job creation. So the government will be worried by the growing number of unemployed migrant workers. They are now reckoned to number about 20 million.

In January, Xinhua – which speaks for the government – made some unusually blunt statements on the issue. It warned that 2009 could be a year of mass social unrest.

Senior Xinhua reporter, Huang Huo wrote: “If in 2009 there is a large number of unemployed rural migrant labourers who cannot find work for half a year or longer, milling around in cities with no income, the problem will be even more serious.”

The ‘problem’ escalated this week. Hundreds of migrant workers rioted in Tongxiang, a city in Zhejiang, leaving six police vehicles smashed, 100 protesters wounded and 20 others in detention. The incident was triggered by a road accident, in which a migrant worker from Henan was hit by a man on a motorcycle – who bloggers say was an auxiliary policeman. The South China Morning Post reports that when police arrived on the scene they were attacked by other migrant workers. The situation escalated when riot police were sent and had to fight their way out.

Such incidents are alarming to the party leadership in Beijing; social uprisings are another key sign that the ‘mandate’ is under threat.

In amongst the famines, floods and social unrest, there have been individual acts of nature said to signifiy moments at which the ‘mandate’ is allegedly withdrawn. A famous example occurred in 1421. Emperor Zhu Di had just finished building the grandiose Forbidden City in Beijing, only for it to be struck by lightning and largely burned down. For the ageing emperor this proved a mortal blow from which his authority never fully recovered.

Can parallels be drawn to a recent event? Last week, the CCTV building in Beijing – a similarly grandiose project – was engulfed in fire. The striking modernist complex, which was scheduled to open in October, has been the subject of criticism for its estimated Rmb5 billion ($730 million) price tag. Some think the fire a form of retribution: that the state television channel spent too extravagantly on its headquarters.

CCTV is obviously closely connected with the government; and there is a school of thought that the money could have been better spent on schools and helping the poor. The government is alive to the criticism and the symbolism.

But at a more literal level, it should be pointed out that, unlike the fire at the Forbidden City in 1421, the conflagration at CCTV was put out before it caused total devastation. And rather than a lightning strike from heaven, it was ignited by a stray firework.

Indeed, despite the unfortunate death of a fireman, the authorities contained the CCTV fire and saved the iconic headquarters building – a brilliant (and bizarrely shaped) emblem of China’s modernisation.

This alternative interpetation – a government fending off disaster through swift and decisive action – will please Chinese officials. And for those who buy into such historical superstitions, it may even prove that the current mandate of heaven remains very much intact.

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