Street protests are sweeping China against its disastrously draconian “zero COVID” policies that close cities rather than accept effective foreign vaccines.  Protests in Iran against the ruling clerics also endure, provoked by the death of a woman in police custody for insufficiently wearing a mandatory headscarf. And Russia simmers as Putin’s failing and costly Ukraine invasion persuades hundreds of thousands to leave Russia to escape military conscription or the failing economy under Western sanctions.

These turmoils won’t likely of themselves topple these regimes, which have vast coercive resources to protect their rule. State propaganda will labor to deceive these populations into complicity and passivity. Police state apparatus will intimidate, arrest, torture, imprison or kill the most feared opponents.  Economic revenge will be enacted against any perceived dissenters, who will lose jobs, business and livelihoods.  The education system will brainwash students with regime mythology. Artificial intelligence, especially in China, will carefully surveil all protesters, with future repercussions.

And yet, with all their nearly unlimited powers, these despots cannot ever entirely sleep serenely at night. In societies and in governments where all must at least pretend to agree, there’s no way to know the real truth about who is friend or foe.  Public opinion cannot be accurately measured. And there’s no way, behind countless placid facial masks, to know who will remain loyal in times of true challenge.

Police states, staffed by millions of obsequious collaborators, motivated more by self interest than conviction, can persist for decades if the regime remains feared.  But if vulnerability appears, loyal minions can melt away quickly. This sudden collapse happened to the Shah’s regime that Iran’s mullahs replaced. It happened to Chiang Kai-shek whom the Chinese communists replaced.  It happened to the Soviet Union, which Putin tries to recreate. During the last weeks of 1989, the Soviet client regimes of Eastern Europe suddenly dissolved.  Romania’s dictator was one day addressing an initially compliant crowd from his balcony. A few days later, on Christmas Day (for Western Christianity), they faced a firing squad.  Two years later the Soviet Union was quietly dissolved with barely a whimper. 

Xi, Putin and Khamenei, despite their powers, can never be completely confident about their regimes or their personal futures.  So they overreact against even minor challenges.  And they will murder many thousands if deemed necessary. But downfalls can be sudden, often unfolding before strong  defense can be organized.

Recently a talented musician friend shared his rendition of “The Handwriting On The Wall,” an old hymn about the abrupt downfall of Babylonian de facto King Belshazzar. As told in the Book of Daniel, he is blasphemously feasting with his decadent court upon the vessels stolen from the Jewish temple, when an inscription from a detached phantom hand ominously appears on the wall: “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

Belshazzar’s counselors cannot explain the inscription so the imprisoned Hebrew exile, Daniel, is summoned, who pronounces the doom of the king and his court, after which Belshazzar perishes and his kingdom falls to Darius, who honors Daniel. Great pride and self-indulgence precede the seemingly powerful regime’s collapse.  The warning of impending implosion is not understood by the clueless ruler, who cannot construe how he could lose seemingly insurmountable control.  He listens only to his lackeys who benefit from his corruption and must heed his pretensions. Only a discerning and persecuted outsider, who understands the foolishness of the ruler’s self-deception, can accurately interpret the inscriptive warning. 

Here is part of the hymn’s lyrics:

At the feast of Belshazzar
And a thousand of his lords,
While they drank from golden vessels,
As the Book of Truth records,
In the night, as they reveled
In the royal palace hall,
They were seized with consternation—
’Twas the Hand upon the wall!


’Tis the hand of God on the wall!
’Tis the hand of God on the wall!
Shall the record be “Found wanting!”
Or shall it be “Found trusting!”
While that hand is writing on the wall?

See the brave captive, Daniel,
As he stood before the throng,
And rebuked the haughty monarch
For his mighty deeds of wrong;
As he read out the writing—
’Twas the doom of one and all,
For the kingdom now was finished—
Said the Hand upon the wall!

And here’s a powerful rendition of another version from one vocalist.

It’s a warning that applies to all tyrants who blasphemously appropriate to themselves what rightly belongs only to God:  “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Every regime that claims an absolute power for its own self-aggrandizement offends God.  Xi suppresses religion. Khameinei claims to serve God. Putin with the Russian Orthox Church’s compliance claims to serve Christianity.  There is for each one a figurative hand inscribing his providential doom on the wall.  But they do not understand, and they will not even summon a Daniel, whom they would ignore anyway.

Whether in days, months, years or decades, the regimes in China, Russia and Iran will tumble. Their successors may be more just, or even worse. But judgment will be rendered.  The unfolding protests and tumults there may seemingly recede.  But they evince a providential hand that is warning, however unheeded, that the scales of righteousness and justice will be balanced at their expense.