The Beijing flood has gotten me to thinking about the Mandate of Heaven (as my last post suggests). To repeat: natural disasters have historically been taken as signs of the loss of imperial regime legitimacy in China. And Bill Bishop reminds us that floods have a particularly important political-cultural meaning:
Since the legendary Yu the Great Chinese have associated flood control with dynastic legitimacy, so expect the central leadership to be very concerned about the response to this disaster.
In Imperial China, when bad things happened - natural disasters, peasant uprisings, civil wars, etc.- people would worry that Heaven (tian - 天), in its most general sense of a diffuse fate or destiny, was removing its mandate from the powers that be. To lose the Mandate of Heaven was to have fate and destiny turn against you, and it was time to find a new leader, a new Son of Heaven (the emperor's modest title), with some better heavenly mojo.
But how did this work, exactly? Menicus 5A5 gives us a good view, referring to the ancient sage-kings Yao and Shun:
Wan Zhang said, "Did it happen that Yao gave the realm to Shun?"
Mencius said: "No. The Son of Heaven cannot give the realm to someone."
"But Shun did possess the realm. Who gave it to him?"
"Heaven gave it to him."
"When heaven gave it to him, did it ordain this through repeated instructions."
"No. Heaven does not speak. This was manifested simply through Shun's actions and his conduct of affairs."
"The Son of Heaven can present a man to Heaven, but he cannot cause Heaven to give him the realm. The lords can present a man to the Son of Heaven, but they cannot cause the Son of Heaven to make him a lord. A great officer can present a man to the lords, but he cannot cause the lords to make him a great officer. In antiquity Yao presented Shun to Heaven, and it was Heaven who accepted him. He displayed him to the people, and the people accepted him. This is why I said that 'Heaven' does not speak.' This was manifested solely through his actions and his conduct of affairs."
So, to put in in modern political terms, legitimacy is not transferable from one person to another but depends on a broader sense of efficacy as expressed in effective policy and positive outcomes. This is somewhat reminiscent of "performance legitimacy," the notion that any particular political regime will be seen as legitimate insofar as it "delivers the goods" - i.e. provides a minimum of economic development and reliable public goods. "Heaven" simply adds the sense that certain outcomes were fated, though maybe not predestined (there is, I believe, a difference between Confucian and Calvinist notions of fate...).
None of this is particularly remarkable. But it brought to mind the way in which legitimacy is reproduced - or how attempts are made to reproduce it - by the Chinese Communist Party.
Mao, and the people immediately around him in the power hierarchy, seemed to ignore the Mencian understanding of the Mandate of Heaven when they attempted install Hua Guofeng as Chairman of the Party.
You remember Hua Guofeng, right? The man who filled more of the most powerful positions in the PRC simultaneously (Chair of Party, Prime Minister, head of the military committee) than anyone else. He then went on shortly thereafter to lose it all. Hua turned out to be a poltiical lightweight who was steamrolled by the shrewder Deng Xiaoping. It was Hua's political downfall that opened the way for "reform and opening" in late 1978 and onward.
It seems that Hua was never able to establish sufficient legitimacy to keep himself in power. And why was that? From the Mencian perspective we can see the problem immediately: Mao had attempted to invest him with a mandate of sorts by himself. Hua's chief claim to power was the supposedly personal endorsement of Mao, captured in the famous line: "with you in charge, I am at ease" - 你办事我放心. But as Mencius could have told him, "..The Son of Heaven cannot give the realm to someone."
Another problem emerged when Deng Xiaoping tried to engineer the transfer of the Mandate to, first, Hu Yaobang and, then, Zhao Ziyang. In those cases, a split in the Party leadership, something Mencius did not contemplate, undermined the interpretation of "the conduct of affairs." Conservatives at the highest levels of the Party worked against what they considered "bourgeois liberalization." But the political turmoil in the late 1980s also suggests that the Party leadership was ignoring an important facet of the Mencian approach to political legitimacy: the question of whether or not "the people" accept the person who has been put forward for a leadership position.
Mencius develops this idea further in 5A5, giving us lines that have been taken as a hint of proto-democracy:
Heaven sees as my people see, Heaven hears as my people hear.
This suggests that the experience of the people - we might even say popular opinion - is a vehicle for the expression of the Mandate of Heaven. Heaven sees and hears through the people; so, how the people act is a sign of Heaven's intention (if we can call it "intention"). It is not too far a stretch, and modern Chinese democrats have happily made this extension, to say that what the people say, or how they vote, could also be a means of determining political legitimacy.
In 1989, the people said - many people in cities all around the country said - they respected Hu Yaobang, who had been deposed before he had died. And Zhao Ziyang took up their cause, embracing a Mencius-like attitude that what the people said was indicative of the heavenly mandated course of political action. Deng and other conservatives rejected this and imposed their own new leadership and regime.
From a Mencian perspective, then, we might say that there has been an incipient legitimacy crisis in the PRC ever since 1989, when Deng did not accept the Mandate of Heaven as expressed through the eye and ears and, perhaps most importantly, voices of the people.
Fast forward to 2012, as we await a new leadership transition. The high level meetings are underway, as a small group of men decide who the next small group of men will be to claim the Mandate of Heaven to rule China. They are, however, making the same error, in Mencian terms, as Mao and Deng before them. They think the Mandate is something they can transfer to other people. It is not. Legitimacy is something, ultimately, that they cannot control through backroom deal-making on who gets what job. Rather, legitimacy will reside in how the people perceive the actions of the regime.
And this is where this week's flooding in Beijing comes in. Occurring at the moment of leadership transition, the flooding must heighten concern among the political elite, creating as it does the impression of a weakening of the Mandate precisely when they are are (erroneously) trying to transfer the Mandate.
Moreover, the popular outcry over the flooding is a reminder of a larger problem for the Party: its institutional incapacity for calibrating popular opinion. Elections would serve this purpose in a more systematic manner, but Leninist Party stalwarts resist genuine political competition. Instead, we get episodic outbursts of popular outrage and hurried adaptation by the powers that be. That has worked for some time, but it may not be the most effective way of gauging what the people are seeing and hearing.
As we come closer to the grand leadership transition at the next Party Congress, just remember what Mencius said: "No. The Son of Heaven cannot give the realm to someone."