Xi Jinping faces China’s Chernobyl moment

The coronavirus crisis could lay bare the absurdities of autocracy for all to see

Throughout Chinese history, the reign of an imperial line was believed to follow a pattern known as the dynastic cycle. A strong, unifying leader establishes an empire that would rise, flourish but eventually decline, lose the “mandate of heaven” and be overthrown by the next dynasty.

Similar to Europe’s “divine right of kings”, the mandate of heaven differed in that it did not unconditionally entitle an emperor to rule the Celestial Empire. While on the dragon throne, the “son of heaven” had total power over his subjects. But he did not have to be of noble birth and he could lose his heavenly mandate for being unworthy, unjust or plain incompetent. The right of the populace to rebel was implicitly guaranteed if the heavens were seen to be displeased. Natural disasters, famine, plague, invasion and even armed rebellion were all regarded as signs the mandate of heaven had been withdrawn.

After the powerful peasant emperor Mao Zedong won a civil war in 1949, the Chinese Communist party attempted to dispel such beliefs as unscientific superstition. Since taking power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has encouraged a revival of some ancient traditions and beliefs.

Read more: ft