6 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff discusses the decline and fall of China’s short-lived but important Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) plus a few lessons from its overthrow that today’s Chinese Communist Party has learned quite well.
|Red Turban rebellion leader and first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang
Kublai Khan ruled as first emperor of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty from its establishment in 1279 to his death in 1294. Before founding the Yuan Kublai had also ruled as Great Khan of the Mongol empire from 1260.
After his death the larger Mongol empire fell into disarray with competing khanates vying for supreme power. Even when Kublai was alive the khans governing outside regions of the empire were already accusing him of becoming “too Chinese” and no longer a true Mongol. Although he was officially “Great Khan” of the combined empire, Kublai Khan only had unchallenged power within Yuan China and seeds of division were already being sown between khanates: the Chagatai Khanate of central Asia, the Ilkhanate of Persia and the Middle East, and the Golden Horde of Russia and Eastern Europe.
Once Kublai died, he left behind a string of short-lived and unimpressive successors who were unable to or uninterested in strengthening and reuniting the empire. In one thirteen-year stretch (1320-1333) the Yuan was ruled by nine different emperors.
There was another self-inflicted wound. The post-Kublai Yuan increasingly relied on the same economic elixir that hastened the collapse of the prior Southern Song dynasty: monetary inflation.
Visiting Italian merchant Marco Polo noted that, when entering Yuan China, all merchants were required to surrender their gold and silver—whether in the form of coins or bars—in exchange for Kublai Khan’s paper money.
Incidentally the “give up your gold” edict echoes of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 executive order that forced Americans to surrender their gold coins and bars to the Federal Reserve in exchange for $20.67 in paper money (the private ownership of gold was only decriminalized in 1975 by Gerald Ford).
After Kublai Khan’s death his successors resorted increasingly to the printing press to fund administration of the empire—and their palatial lifestyles—eventually leading to high inflation which drained the economy. Although Marco Polo commented positively on the ease by which commerce was conducted using Mongol sovereign notes, bringing the idea back to Italy where it eventually took hold in Europe, he left China before witnessing the inflationary havoc wreaked by future Yuan emperors.
ZHU YUANZHANG AND THE BLACK DEATH
But compounding problems most of all for the Yuan was the scourge of natural disasters, mostly drought and an epic plague.
The same Black Death that wiped out one-third of Europe is believed to have started within the Yuan empire. It worked its way through China during the early 14th century, ravaging the population which is estimated to have declined from 123 million in 1300 to 65 million by 1400. Some provinces are believed to have suffered 90% mortality. Carried by Silk Road commerce, the plague hitched a ride into central Asia, the Middle East, and by ship to Italy and the rest of Europe in 1347.
The plague was far-reaching not only because of the devastation it wrought, but also because the upheaval forged a Chinese rebel leader who would emerge from the ashes to command peasant armies that overthrew the Yuan itself. His name was Zhu Yuanzhang.
Zhu was only a small peasant boy from the modern-day province of Anhui when the plague and famine came to his small village, wiping out his entire family and most members of the hamlet. Parentless and without any surviving family, Zhu was sent to a monastery for care. Once an adult Zhu concluded that a life devoted to religion was not for him and left, for a while even resorting to begging, but eventually he found a place in an underground anti-Mongol resistance group named the Red Turbans.
It was there that Zhu discovered he had a talent for organization, politics, and military leadership and over many years he navigated through internal Red Turban power struggles to emerge as its leader. With indigenous Han Chinese suffering from drought, hunger, plague, inflation, Yuan corruption, and full of hatred for their alien Mongol conquerors, Zhu found fertile ground to recruit and organize rebelling peasant armies.
Zhu won battle after battle against the weakened, corrupt Yuan. Once he gained control of southern China he established his capital in Nanjing (meaning “southern capital”) and marched on the northern Yuan capital of Khanbaliq. The Yuan emperor Toghon-Temür, who had long since retreated from governing into wine, women, and tantric rituals, didn’t put up a fight and fled, abandoning China altogether to the safety of northern Mongol territories.
China was now ruled by Chinese again and Zhu founded the Ming dynasty in 1368, crowning himself as Hongwu emperor.
From the Chinese perspective the fall of the Yuan and rise of the Ming marks the end of Mongol affairs, but it’s noteworthy to mention the Mongols still held an enormous empire that stretched all the way to Eastern Europe. In 1368 they had only been expelled from China and continued to rule their retained territories for nearly three more centuries before being conquered by Manchurian armies in 1635 who themselves went on to successfully invade China in 1644.
Interestingly Zhu Yuanzhang's rebellion and overthrow of the Yuan, a story from 650 years ago, provides valuable lessons for modern Chinese leaders—particularly the present-day Communist Chinese Party.
PLAGUES, DYNASTIES, AND THE CCP
Not only did plague devastate a Chinese population that already hated the Yuan and set the stage for a successful rebellion, but plague would also devastate the Ming dynasty 270 years later and precipitate another rebel leader who overthrew it as well (more on that when we get to the fall of the Ming).
Furthermore, a less severe plague broke out in China as its last dynasty, the Qing, was declining and, while not the primary cause of the Qing’s fall, historians at least associate an outbreak of disease with the end of that dynasty too.
All in all, plague accompanied the end of China’s last three dynasties in 1368, 1644, and 1912, and plague was the primary factor befalling two of the three (the Yuan and the Ming).
CCP officials are more than aware of this history.
Hence when a strange disease named “Wuhan coronavirus” broke out in late 2019, communist officials instantly recognized the nascent threat to their own regime. Although CCP officials wield massive control over media and many of their citizens’ eyes and ears, they know they are still disliked—even hated—among a considerable share of the population.
When what was later called Covid began to spread throughout the country and government officials realized they wouldn’t be able to contain it, the CCP sprang into action to ensure their dynasty would not meet the same fate that befell the Yuan and the Ming.
As early as December 2019 Chinese state media began broadcasting stories about the “American virus” that was deliberately unleashed on China by U.S. military athletes at the October Wuhan military Olympic games.
While the CCP refused to allow outside observers into the Wuhan Institute of Virology for nine months after the initial outbreak, state propaganda accused the United States government of creating the virus, repeatedly alleging Fort Detrick, Maryland’s US Army bioresearch lab had concocted the bug and demanding the WHO launch an investigation of the army base—all to distract everyday Chinese from pondering their own government's hand in the pandemic.
Propagating more “evidence” to confuse the public, CCP-controlled media reported on a strange flu-like outbreak at a single retirement home in Virginia around late 2019, attempting to convince Chinese audiences the United States must be to blame for not only China's Covid problems but the entire world’s.
Strangely, that flu-like outbreak never got beyond the retirement home, hardly consistent with the super-transmissible Covid virus that spread like wildfire through the USA in March and April of 2020.
In late 2019 as the virus overwhelmed Wuhan most internet and mobile communications were shut down by CCP officials and residents were locked in their homes. The Economics Correspondent has an acquaintance who hails from Wuhan and who, on New Years Eve ending 2019, told the Correspondent he had received multiple smartphone messages from friends and family in Wuhan that the government was shutting down electronic communication and he might not hear from them soon.
Shortly afterwards the messages went silent.
Hence Yuan dynasty history provides both CO Nation and the Chinese Communist Party with valuable lessons about the threats a plague can pose to authoritarian government power. From the very beginning CCP officials understood very well the hazard that Covid presented to their regime and they used every power in their possession—namely lockdowns and propaganda disseminated through their tightly controlled media apparatus—to shift blame away from Beijing towards Washington DC so a confused Chinese public could find fewer reasons to rise up in revolt.
In 2019 no repeat of the Yuan or Ming’s downfalls ever got out of the starting gate. Beijing officials, well learned from their own history, made sure of that.