The Mandate of Heaven (天命) belongs indisputably amongst the most ancient and conceptually richest political ideas. Dating back to the transition from the Shang to Zhou dynasties, over three millennia ago, it refounds the legitimacy of government in a conditional natural right (in contrast to the unconditional natural right asserted by the supplanted rulers of the Shang, and by divine right theorists in the occidental world). Tianming invests regimes whose performance expresses virtuous capability. Legitimacy is not, therefore, a formal endowment, but a substantial discovery, demonstrated through the art of government.
The claim that Tianming amounts to a realistic theory of political legitimacy requires far more support than this tentative short post will offer. In particular, it has to be defended against the objection that Tianming reverts to a tautology, either empirically or logically (or both). The Mandate of Heaven might be formulated: For so long as a regime succeeds it will endure. Is this not, from the perspective of empirical history, an empty retrospective judgment, or sheer redundancy, and under logical consideration, a thinly disguised pleonasm?
Tianming could be dismissed on these grounds if its negation were inconceivable. Then, indeed, it would communicate no information. Yet this is not at all the case.
Perhaps the most relevant evidence for this is the provocative thesis found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’ancien régime et la Révolution that the successful promotion of social development is more threatening to regime stability than the complete absence of such achievement. This is an argument widely discussed in China today, for obvious reasons. If it holds true, the idea of Tianming — in anything other than its shallowest and most sophistical sense — is directly contradicted, in theory and fact. Reciprocally, it has to be acknowledged that the idea of Tianming poses an implicit challenge to the Tocqueville thesis, subject to confirmation or disconfirmation by historical events. The stakes of this (yet inarticulate?) controversy could scarcely be higher.
An intriguing reflexivity enters into the topic at this point, because the conditions for the confirmation of Tianming are related, through intricate nonlinearities, to the prospects of the PRC regime. Is development success rewarded or punished by ‘heaven’ (the nature of things)? If the latter, dialectical ruin ensues, as the high are brought low. If the former, economic ascent and political stability will have demonstrated their compatibility, revolutionary chaos will be precluded, and the rebalancing of the world order towards the western Pacific will continue. Under such conditions, there is every reason to expect that global trends will be incrementally ‘Confucianized’ with international political thinking increasingly inflected by Chinese characteristics. Simultaneously vindicated and promoted, the idea of Tianming will then find a wider receptive audience than it has ever known before.