The Year of the Rat could not have got off to a worse start. China is in the grip of the worst human epidemic since the SARS outbreak 18 years ago, with more than 100 dead and 5,900 infected. The country is already living with the aftermath of two other catastrophes — African swine fever that killed 100 million pigs and bubonic plague that infected three people late last year.
2020 is Geng Zi in the Chinese calendar, the 37th year of the 60-year cycle. In history, it brings crises: in 1840, the First Opium War with Britain; in 1900, the Boxer Rebellion; and in 1960, the Great Famine that followed the Great Leap Forward, during which an estimated 30-40 million Chinese died of starvation.
These omens bode ill for China’s leaders. Like Mao Zedong, President Xi Jinping is superstitious and pays attention to these signs. In traditional thinking, natural catastrophes are a portent for dynastic change. The Master of Heaven is sending signs that he is dissatisfied with those who rule over his lands.
On July 28, 1976, an earthquake measuring 7.6 demolished the city of Tangshan, killing 242,000 people. It was one of three deadliest quakes in recorded history and came without warning. Within six weeks, on September 9, Chairman Mao died in Beijing. It did not bring the end of the Communist Party, but the leaders who took over from him reversed the economic policies he had followed for 30 years and took the country on a completely new course.
Mao himself was superstitious. He refused to enter the Forbidden City, the former palace of the Emperors that dominates the centre of Beijing. He feared his presence would disturb the spirits of the dead emperors who reside there and that they would take their revenge against him.
Xi knows all about superstition. He spent several teenage years in the village of Liangjiehe in a remote area of Shaanxi province in central China; for a period, he lived in a cave there and came to know the rural residents and their beliefs. His study of history shows the importance of omens.
In 1911, 63,000 people died in northeast China, then called Manchuria, in the worst outbreak of bubonic plague in the world since the Great Plague of London of 1665-66. In October 1911, the Qing dynasty was driven from power, after 267 years of Manchu rule.
The 1911 plague was caused by diseased marmots, a kind of squirrel. The three cases of bubonic plague last year in China were also caused by contact with diseased marmots. It caused the closure of more than 300 villages in six provinces and regions in north China.
The outbreak of African swine fever that devastated China’s pork industry last year is of similar Biblical proportions. Starting in August 2018, it caused the death of one quarter of the world’s pigs. In 2018, China accounted for more than half the global pig population; it is the most popular meat.
By late September 2019, the disease had caused economic losses of $141 billion. Qiu Huaji, a leading Chinese expert on porcine infectious diseases, said that the fever was no less devastating “than a war, in terms of its effects on the national interest and people’s livelihoods and its political, economic and social impact.”
While the government ordered compensation for the losses, individual farmers did not receive all they were owed, because of the enormous debts of local governments and their unwillingness to pay the full amount. Because of the disease, China imported 1.5 million tonnes of pork in the first 10 months of last year, up nearly 50 per cent on the same period in 2018.
The coronavirus has the potential to be even worse. The death toll is rising rapidly and the virus has reached 12 countries. There is no known vaccine. The economic toll is already devastating, with more than 40 million people in Wuhan and surrounding cities on lockdown. It has caused the closure of cinemas, entertainment and tourist venues at the peak holiday period of the year. Last year China’s GDP rose by an annual 6.1 per cent, its lowest growth for 29 years. Most economists expect less than six per cent in 2020.
Managing this nightmare virus is a severe challenge for China’s leaders — as it would be for any government. It is also a test of its international credibility. If it fails, foreign managers will leave their factories, hotels and offices, and foreign students and tourists will refuse to come.
For the fortune tellers and the superstitious, the most important thing is not so much the question of human failure and whether better management could have prevented these disasters or mitigated their consequences. It is more what they tell us about the will of Heaven and the signals being sent to the Middle Kingdom about the fitness of its rulers to govern.
Late in the evening, as President Xi pores over the latest reports of the coronavirus, he too will be thinking of his future and that of his dynasty.
(Please note: Coronavirus infection and death rates correct as at time of publishing)