Today’s the 22nd anniversary of the suppression of the student protests in Beijing. I remember watching the events on TV, having just been accepted as an undergraduate to start studying Mandarin that autumn, and not having a clue how things would pan out in the coming four years. Two years later, instead of spending a couple of terms in Beijing, we were sent off to Taiwan to study at Shida’s Mandarin Training Center. The CCP, sadly, are still “in charge” of China.
The release today in the Daily Telegraph of leaked diplomatic cables which show that the PLA didn’t enter Tian’anmen Square with all guns blazing isn’t in itself a real surprise, since commentators back then quickly started backtracking on initial reports that tanks had quite literally rolled into the square to crush the students’ tent village, tempering them with an admission that the killings had taken place in the surrounding streets and avenues in the coming hours and days.
But one phrase from the leaked cables set me a-thinking: there was mention that the students had been portraying their demonstrations, and the fact that the widely announced martial law had not in fact been forcibly imposed in Beijing, as indicating that the Mandate of Heaven - the intangible, moral ‘right to rule’ perceived throughout Chinese history - had been revoked from the Communist Party.
How long, though, normally passes between the first signs that the Mandate of Heaven has been lost and the actual fall of a Chinese dynasty? Chinese history isn’t particularly helpful in predicting when the Communist Party will eventually be replaced, but there are a couple of clues as to how it might happen.
The Qin dynasty fell just four years after the first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, died, but his rule had been especially repressive, and his political successors especially weak. The Yellow Turban rebellion that’s generally seen as marking the beginning of the end for the Eastern Han dynasty kicked off in 184, but it was 36 years before the Han finally fell. It took four years for the revolts against Emperor Yang’s wars in the Korean peninsula before the Sui dynasty fell. The Tang, by contrast, limped on for anything from 30 to 150 years after the rebellions that most damaged it, depending on where you count from, while the Yuan lasted for around 17 years after the Red Turban rebellion.
But perhaps the most interesting historical models for the eventual end of the People’s Republic are the Southern Song and the Ming. The Southern Song lasted for 150 years after the entire north of China down to the Huai River valley was occupied by the Mongol armies in 1127, though the Ming plodded on for just a couple of decades after the Manchus in the far northeast stuck two fingers up and declared themselves independent. Both involved a dynasty surviving in a rump form, one in a new capital because its old capital had been captured, and the other in its existing capital, having to cope with the fact that its writ no longer ran in part of its own territory.
If I were a gambling man, which I’m not, I’d put a couple of quid each-way (each-way, mind, not straight on the nose) on the big movers in one of the big coastal cities like Shanghai or Canton staging what amounts to internal secession, realizing that they have a brighter future being able to elect able leaders in democratic elections than being constantly stifled by the corruption and entrenched interests that come with Communism. Think Hong Kong, but on the mainland - a city where foreign investment feels more secure and where the citizens feel as though they have a real stake in their city rather than just being told to “be proud of our Shanghai” or some such tosh. It needn’t even take a military coup, just enough balls from the Party machine in whichever city to call municipal elections and see if Beijing is willing to risk sending the tanks in to stop it. Even the arrival of PSB goons to remove the prime-movers from office would cause economic jitters, not to mention causing a jostling to be seen in the best political light, which in itself could spark democratic change if somebody in a position of real authority thinks they can cement their hold with a legitimate vote.
After my purely theoretical municipal elections, the PRC would start to resemble China in the early seventeenth century, with an enclave in the ascendant still paying homage to the centre but in reality drawing power away until the dynasty finally loses its grip.
Right, that’s that, then. £10 each way on Shanghai to secede and the PRC to fall some time between now and the year 2161.