Tag Archives: Disease in China

The Wuhan Epidemic and the Mandate of Heaven

I’m going a bit off-topic to talk about China, but I’m currently on extended vacation due to the coronavirus out of Wuhan, so in some ways it feels on-topic. I won’t talk about why these viruses so frequently develop in China, but rather why they have a tendency to spiral out of control.

Emperors have ruled China since the murky depths of prehistory. Each dynasty derived its legitimacy—the right to rule—from the Mandate of Heaven. Essentially each dynasty’s rulers have served at the pleasure of heaven. Part of their role was to intercede with the gods to ensure good crops and protect against natural calamities. When a dynasty collapses it is marked by a great tragedy, usually a natural disaster—the signal for political change. This is why when a natural disaster strikes Taiwan, the Chinese leadership usually offers snippy comments on Taiwanese politics. They’re assholes—sure. But, they’re assholes with a political philosophy.

The Mandate of Heaven is an anachronism; but, in many ways so is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP doesn’t have a very clear mandate to rule. Nobody voted for them. The Party is atheistic, so presumably they weren’t chosen by the gods, and do not serve heaven. Why are they there?

I often see Western media talk about the CCP deriving its legitimacy from its ability to ensure continued prosperity. That’s true, but it misses the broader point. In a real sense, the CCP is just the latest dynasty to rule China. The majority of China is still undereducated and segregated from the world. The old ways hold sway, whether in technology, agriculture, medicine, or politics. CCP rule operates under the Mandate of Heaven, whether they like it or not.

If a cataclysm and chaos mark the end of a reign, then the opposite—periods of calm—must show heaven’s continued support. Prosperity and a relative lack of natural catastrophes are indicators the CCP continues to hold the Mandate of Heaven. The natural result—and visible sign—of such silky smooth trouble-free rule is social order and harmony. That’s one reason maintaining social order is the most important feature of Chinese governance.

In addition, the Chinese government has  a top-down centralized structure. A characteristic of such organizational structures is officials don’t want to risk their boss’s ire by kicking bad news up the chain. That’s just the way it is. (Soviet Russia was the same, watch Chernobyl).

When something happens that threatens social order, the instinct is to sweep it under the rug. Outbreak? What Outbreak? During SARS, the last epidemic that started in China, doctors were told by top provincial authorities not to educate the public about the virus. Hospitals just sent patients home for bed rest. Most knew nothing about Western medicine, ignored the advice, and simply continued daily life, infecting others. The current 2019-nCoV outbreak in Wuhan has followed a similar trajectory. Wuhan authorities initially tried to keep a lid on information regarding the epidemic. They literally preferred to let people die than acknowledge the true situation.

So vital is preserving a sense of social order and harmony, combined with the strong desire not to be the bearer of bad news, that during Spring Festival celebrations, Wuhan party officials did nothing to mitigate the worst effects of the public revelry.  A particularly egregious example was authorities, knowing about the epidemic, allowed state television to promote a municipal banquet—in the infected zone—where a hundred thousand guests ate together, dipping their chopsticks into the communal food, Chinese style. Also, at the beginning of the holiday hundreds of thousands were allowed to board trains and planes to infect other passengers, and then to spread the virus throughout China, and to a lesser degree the world. It wasn’t until the virus went international, and Wuhan authorities could no longer turn a blind eye, that measures to control the spread of the virus began to be taken.

When I was a child, a family friend, who was an epidemiologist, [drunkenly] contented that the thing that would eventually take out humanity was a virus—and that it would come from China.  Thus far I’ve seen nothing that contradicts his prediction.