CHINA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Have China's rulers forfeited the 'Mandate of Heaven'?
, August 17, 2013
When Gough Whitlam led the Australian Labor Party to power in 1972, after the party’s 23 years in the wilderness, he claimed he had a “mandate” for change. As Professor Leslie Marchant of the University of Western Australia pointed out at the time, this phrase of Whitlam’s was derived from a Chinese term for dynastic change which was not entirely appropriate in this context.
The Mandate of Heaven has been traditionally understood in China as meaning the divine right to rule. Once a Chinese dynasty loses this blessing, its doom will be foretold by a number of omens, such as natural disasters, famines, wars and public discontent.
The establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China was proclaimed by Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949. “New China” hardly saw a moment of peace until Mao died in 1976.
Mao’s lunatic breakneck bid, from 1958 to 1962, to catch up with and surpass the West — the so-called Great Leap Forward — resulted in a famine that killed an estimated 45 million Chinese.
Some two years after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping consolidated his role as the country’s supreme leader. Then China took its first faltering steps on the road to prosperity, by repudiating socialist economic planning and allowing the flourishing of free enterprise and individual endeavour, thereby lifting hundreds of millions of peasants from poverty.
That is how the story goes. Just how true is it? And some 600 million Chinese people are now said to be middle-class. One might ask, by whose definition?
As the saying goes, “Westerners eat to live, Chinese live to eat.” Chinese people define themselves by what they eat. The so-called middle-class don’t starve, but they don’t get the food they want, either.
The Chinese love pork, but China can’t produce enough pork to satisfy the appetite of the middle-class. So it was not entirely without logic that China’s biggest pork producer, Shuanghui International, should bid for the United States’ largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods.
What was surprising was that many Americans thought the Chinese wanted to export pork to America. Not only is China incapable of producing enough pork to satisfy demand in China, but many Chinese people distrust the quality and safety of Chinese pork — with good reason.
Only recently, hundreds of dead pigs were found floating down the Huangpu river into China’s commercial capital, Shanghai. Why? No-one could quite make out. Everyone knows that meat from dead and diseased swine commonly ends up in Chinese rice-bowls. Not only does America produce more pork for China to buy; it produces healthier, cleaner meat. This is a selling point for Chinese consumers.
Or take Chinese dairy products. In 2008, 300,000 infants fell ill, some of them terminally, by drinking infant-formula milk contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical used in the production of plastics, crockery and fertiliser. When added to milk powder, it gives the false impression of raising the protein content, but if consumed can cause kidney stones and renal failure.
Even the executions of those found responsible for dosing milk with melamine has not halted this practice. It is now a crime to import more than a certain quantity of infant-formula milk from New Zealand, which the Chinese believe produces the best infant formula. The Chinese don’t trust Chinese milk.
Many Chinese tourists now travel, frequently unaccompanied, to Taiwan. I always ask travellers returning from Taiwan what they liked best about the island. Without exception, the answer is the food.
At first, I thought it was because Taiwan’s chefs were better than mainland China’s. Most Sinophiles will say Taiwan has the world’s best Chinese food for sheer variety and artistry. Was that all? Apparently not. It is the abundance of Taiwan’s food that leaves the most lasting impression on visitors from mainland China. You can enjoy not only the sheer variety of food, but have as much of it as you want.
So, it turns out that the Chinese middle-class cannot obtain what they most desire — decent, wholesome food in sufficient quantities to satisfy them. In China, food is more than nourishment; it is a marker of status. An honoured guest will be taken to a restaurant and treated to a multi-course banquet. The quality of the banquet is a demonstration of the esteem in which the guest is held.
Of course, many Chinese young people are bigger and healthier than their parents. The so-called “little emperors” produced under China’s one-child policy have been given the best of everything and are usually better educated. But this does not add to their contentment, because they know what they are missing out on.
A change of dynasty after a relatively short time is not without precedent. China’s Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), established by the Mongolian Kublai Khan, lasted less than a century until replaced by the Ming Dynasty. The Ching Dynasty, rotten to the core, simply toppled when given a decent push by the Nationalists in 1911.
Today’s communist regime may look solid, but its economic foundations are decaying. China’s GDP is stalling and could even shrink. In which case, the Chinese people’s expectations for a better future will be dashed.
The greatest grievance people can suffer is to be deprived of what they feel they have rightfully earned over a lifetime of struggle. And that feeling of grievance against the government is beginning to manifest itself in China now.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who spent several years in China and has visited most of the country’s provinces and major cities.