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Table of contents :
Editor and Contributors
Memoir and Reflection
Arresting COVID-19: Perspectives from a Sino-US Joint Venture University
The Onset of COVID-19: Quick Response and Quick Action
Key Lessons Learned
Memory, Storytelling and GIS Digital Archive: Introducing the COVID-19 Memory Archival Project
Overview of Approach
Student Story Map Collection
Separate Realities: Being Wuhanese and American Throughout COVID-19
Hypervisible, Yet Invisible
COVID Is Here
Breaking the News, Over and Over
Bigger Than COVID-19
Observations on Wuhan Residents’ Diaries
On the Epistemic Condition of Pandemic in a Globalized Present
Context and Analysis
Black and White Swans: Pandemics, Prognostications, and Preparedness
The Information Politics of COVID-19 in China
Failures of Upward Reporting
Failures of Downward Reporting
The Political and Economic Consequences of COVID-19 for China
Why Did COVID-19 Not Threaten the Chinese Ruling Regime?
Political and Economic Problems in China Likely to Be Exacerbated by COVID-19
The Coronavirus Human, Social and Political Implications
Edited by James Miller
James Miller Editor
The Coronavirus Human, Social and Political Implications
Editor James Miller Duke Kunshan University Kunshan, China
ISBN 978-981-15-9361-1 ISBN 978-981-15-9362-8 (eBook) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8 © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: © Melisa Hasan This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. The registered company address is: 152 Beach Road, #21-01/04 Gateway East, Singapore 189721, Singapore
China’s knowledge of contagious, epidemic, and pandemic disease is long and deep. The Shuowen dictionary (second century C.E.) defines the term yi 疫 as “[the situation] when all people are sick.”1 Early Chinese medical thought theorized that such diseases could be caused by a form of “evil Qi” (eqi 惡氣), including demons, “winds,” or other external forces that could invade the body and disturb the delicate balance of energies that leads to long life and well-being. However, the development of Chinese medicine saw the increasing rationalization of etiology, and the general rejection of demonology as a widespread cause of disease. Instead, a much more holistic and systematic understanding of disease developed under the rubric of “stimulus and response” (ganying 感應). According to this fundamentally cosmological theory, all phenomena are related to each other through a process of resonance or correspondence. Social, political, medical, and astronomical phenomena were thought to influence each other so that activity in one domain would entail a necessary transformation in another domain. Changes in the seasons or the rotations of the constellations in the night sky, could bring about the downfall of a dynasty or the upsurge of a deadly disease. Taken to its logical conclusion, in such a system nothing happened completely by chance. One of the main applications of this framework to the origin of disease lay in the etiological theory of what we might today call climactic fluctuation. Such fluctuations were thought to produce “pestilential qi” (liqi 癘氣) that developed in the air itself, and could be transmitted from v
one person to another.2 Climatic fluctuations were understood to be that period where the weather is unseasonably warm in winter or cold in summer. Such irregularities in the overall gradual transformation of qi from cold to warm from winter summer were thought to bring about “cold disorders” (shanghan 傷寒) or “warm epidemics” (wenyi 瘟疫). In such cases, we might observe, it is the air (qi 氣) itself, the very substance that enables us to have life, that is both the origin and vector of disease. No wonder such plagues evoke deep terror in human society. The terror of an airborne disease that lodges in one’s respiratory tract producing fever, coughing, and shortness of breath has by now been well documented by survivors of the coronavirus and their doctors and nurses. This volume, however, aims to document and reflect on the entanglement and porosity that such an airborne disease makes clear. It is a truism that the virus knows no borders, and the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the world has revealed the uncomfortable truth of our planetary entanglement, prompting calls for “decoupling” and the end to the economic miracle that “Chimerica” brought to the world. It is all the more relevant, then that scholars at a very young Sino–United States joint venture university should come together to offer initial reflections on the coronavirus, from political, social, and cultural perspectives. In January 2020, Duke Kunshan University’s undergraduate program was in the middle of only its second year of operations. The university, a joint venture between Duke University in the USA and Wuhan University in China was in the midst of a growth phase, recruiting students, faculty and staff, to work in its impressive facilities in Kunshan, a prosperous city located between Shanghai and Suzhou. As news of the outbreak spread, many faculty and students were traveling home for the lunar new year’s break. Those who left campus were not able to return, and as we prepared for the transition to online classes, a number of faculty relocated to Durham, NC to work with colleagues at Duke University. The origins of this volume lie in a conference on the human, cultural, and political implications of the coronavirus, held at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute, and jointly organized with Duke Kunshan University’s Humanities Research Center. It was the first Zoom conference that I had ever planned, and as the 200 participants joined the call at 8.30 am on Tuesday March 3, 2020, it was hard to ignore the sensation that we were marking something of a momentous event. The 90-minute webinar was followed later that day by a more traditional seminar, the last live meeting that I attended. The remarks presented at the webinar and
seminar formed the initial seeds that led to the short essays and reflections presented in this volume. The justification for this interdisciplinary and humanistic approach to the coronavirus developed from my incipient understanding of this disease as a planetary phenomenon that would expose the deep porosity of our bodies and our psyches, and one whose effects would first be felt in a Sino–United States joint venture university. Sometimes it felt that we were being strangled at birth, the immense audacity, vision, and enterprise necessary to give birth to an innovative liberal arts and science university in an increasingly illiberal China seemingly powerless in the face of an invisible enemy. At other times it felt that in the very work that we were doing together, China, United States, and other nations could join together to forge a deeper and more perfect humanity. Little could I foresee what the consequences of this apocalypse would be, but I knew that it would be something that would change the nature of our living together on our planetary home, and that to understand this change required the work of the humanities and social sciences. This short volume brings two styles of work together. Part I focuses on memory and individual experience. It begins with a story of high drama related by Denis Simon, then executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University. Simon relates how the university worked in collaboration with Chinese and United States partners to grapple with and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and offers insights into the nature and value of collaborative relationships in times of crisis. This has implications not only for joint venture universities or business, but on a larger scale relate to the interactions between national governments. The focus on memory and personal experience of what was first known as “the Wuhan virus” continues with the work of the next three contributions. Benjamin L. Bacon and Weijing Xu describe their work organizing and archiving the experiences of students at Duke Kunshan University who were under lockdown during the height of the crisis in China. Yanping Ni analyzes the online diaries of Wuhan residents and recounts both the everydayness and the crises that shaped the common identities of Wuhan residents during lockdown. Moving from China to United States, we read the work of Chen Chen, an undergraduate student at Duke University, who writes movingly of the “hyper-visibility and invisibility” of being Chinese in the United States during the outbreak: “When people, including my friends, talked about China as if it were on a different planet,
I felt myself internally screaming, “Why don’t you see me? I’m right here.” The first part of this book ends with a dramatic intervention by Zairong Xiang that seeks to excavate the epistemological issues underlying the frequent attitudes and acts of anti-Chinese racism that the virus has brought forth. Noting the pointed criticism of China’s supposedly “dirty” wet markets as an origin of the virus, Xiang recalls his experience of those markets when he was growing up in China and launches both an economic critique of globalization and also a epistemological critique of those who would assert the supposed superiority of European rationality. Part 2 of the book seeks to put the experience of the Coronavirus pandemic into historical, cultural, and political perspective, and to offer some tentative assessments of its impact in those areas. Nicole Barnes shows firstly how a “double erasure of women’s work” during the Coronavirus outbreak contains echoes of similar erasures in the history of war and disease in the twentieth century. She follows this with a historical analysis of race in times of plague and disease, exposing the bigotry in the familiar racist trope of China as “the sick man of Asia.” The next two essays focus on problems of reasoning and knowledge. Carlos Rojas focuses on the fact that the apparently unforeseen “black swan event” of the coronavirus outbreak was in fact widely predicted, modeled and anticipated by both the US government and the United Nations. Ignoring these predictions and models is a means for governments to justify their failure to respond adequately to the viral outbreak. The final two papers focus on the significance of the virus for the legitimacy of the Chinese government. Melanie Manion’s essay on information politics focuses on the key issue of information transparency in China’s communist government. Local governments fail to report problems upwards, and the central government tightly controls the spread of information downwards. This “endemic lack of transparency within China” entails failures of governance that the communist party refuses to acknowledge. Despite these evident failures of governance, Andrew W. MacDonald argues, the authority of the communist party in general and Xi Jinping in particular does not face a serious existential threat. However, MacDonald cautions us to pay attention to the unsustainable
borrowing of local governments and a potential rise in corruption among local officials as serious challenges to the party’s legitimacy. James Miller
Notes 1. Volkmar, Barbara, “The Concept of Contagion in Chinese Medical Thought: Empirical Knowledge versus Cosmological Order,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 22.2 (2000), 148. 2. Volkmar, “The Concept of Contagion,” 150.
Memoir and Reflection Arresting COVID-19: Perspectives from a Sino-US Joint Venture University Denis Simon
Memory, Storytelling and GIS Digital Archive: Introducing the COVID-19 Memory Archival Project Benjamin L. Bacon and Weijing Xu
Separate Realities: Being Wuhanese and American Throughout COVID-19 Yuexuan Chen
Observations on Wuhan Residents’ Diaries Yanping Ni On the Epistemic Condition of Pandemic in a Globalized Present Zairong Xiang
Context and Analysis Historical Echoes Nicole Elizabeth Barnes Black and White Swans: Pandemics, Prognostications, and Preparedness Carlos Rojas The Information Politics of COVID-19 in China Melanie Manion The Political and Economic Consequences of COVID-19 for China Andrew W. MacDonald
Editor and Contributors
About the Editor James Miller is Associate Dean for Interdisciplinary Strategy, co-director of the Humanities Research Center, and Professor of Humanities at Duke Kunshan University. He is the author or editor of six books on religion in China including, most recently, China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future (Columbia University Press, 2017).
Contributors Benjamin L. Bacon is a computational media artist, designer, and musician who creates work at the intersection of sound, computation, networked systems, and mechanical life. His works have been exhibited in the United States, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. He is an Associate Professor of Media & Art and Director of Signature Work at Duke Kunshan University. He is also a lifetime fellow at V2_Lab for Unstable Media. Nicole Elizabeth Barnes is an Assistant Professor of History at Duke University. Her open-access book, Intimate Communities: Wartime Healthcare and the Birth of Modern China, 1937 –1945 (University of California Press, 2018), received the 2019 Joan Kelly Memorial
EDITOR AND CONTRIBUTORS
Prize from the American Historical Association and the 2020 William H. Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine. Yuexuan Chen is a rising senior at Duke University who is studying public policy, biology and journalism. Her family connections to Wuhan and her childhood spent straddling the United States and China guided her writing on the COVID-19 epidemic in Wuhan. Andrew W. MacDonald is an Assistant Professor of Social Science at Duke Kunshan University. He received his B.A. in History and M.A. in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and his M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Politics from Oxford University. His research focuses on political beliefs, attitudes toward minorities, government promotion patterns, and online privacy issues in China. Melanie Manion is the Vor Broker Family Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Duke University. Her research focuses on contemporary authoritarianism, with empirical work on bureaucracy, corruption, information, and representation in China. Her most recent book is Information for Autocrats (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Yanping Ni is a graduate student in East Asian Studies at Duke University. She is currently a graduate fellow in the Duke Ethnography Lab and a Research Assistant in the “Revaluing Care in the Global Economy” network. Her research interests focus on the intersection of the environment, health, and visual culture in China. Carlos Rojas is Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies, Gender, Sexuality, & Feminist Studies, and Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University. He is the author, editor, and translator of numerous works, including Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Transformation in Modern China. Denis Simon is Senior Adviser to the President for China Affairs at Duke University. He also is Professor of China Business and Technology in the Fuqua School of Business. From 2015 to 2020, he served as Executive Vice-Chancellor of Duke Kunshan University, a Sino–United States joint venture sponsored by Duke, Wuhan University and the city of Kunshan. He holds an M.A. in Asian Studies and a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley.
EDITOR AND CONTRIBUTORS
Zairong Xiang is the author of the book Queer Ancient Ways: A Decolonial Exploration (Punctum Books, 2018). He is the Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and the Associate Director of Arts at Duke Kunshan University. He curated the “minor cosmopolitan weekend” at the HKW Haus der Kulturen der Welt (2018), and is the editor of its catalogue Minor Cosmopolitan: Thinking Art, Politics and the Universe Together Otherwise (Diaphanes, 2020). Weijing Xu is a media artist, designer, and researcher who works at the intersect of computation, cybernetics and network systems, biomedia and wearable technology. She has exhibited in Asia, America, Europe, and Australia. Her Silkworm Project, Spun Silk Artifact is permanently collected by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is Assistant Professor of Media & Art at Duke Kunshan University.
Memoir and Reflection
Arresting COVID-19: Perspectives from a Sino-US Joint Venture University Denis Simon
Abstract The tumult produced by the onset and spread of the COVID19 virus has had a demonstrably chilling effect on the nature of Sino-US relations. American and Chinese leaders have hurled multiple accusations about the origins of the virus across the Pacific; US officials have been particularly dismayed by the lack of transparency by their counterparts in China during the initial advances of the coronavirus in Wuhan and Hubei province. Remarkably, however, in contrast to the initial mishandling of the COVID-19 virus by PRC officials at the national level, the situation within the Sino-US joint venture universities, e.g. Duke Kunshan University, was quite the opposite, with both sides cooperating and moving in tandem to protect the safety and well-being of the students, staff and faculty. This win-win experience highlights the potential mutual benefits of a more collegial, highly collaborative US-China partnership if and when both sides choose to work together with a set of shared goal and objectives. Keywords US-China relations · Joint venture universities · Duke Kunshan University · US-China cooperation
D. Simon (B) Duke University, Durham, NC, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 J. Miller (ed.), The Coronavirus, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8_1
Overview The onset of the coronavirus epidemic has set in motion a range of forces that promise to alter the dynamics of Sino-US relations for a long-time to come. Both countries have suffered immensely from the rapidity with which the virus overtook their respective societies and the challenges they each faced in bringing the virus under some form of comprehensive control. The fundamental differences between the American and Chinese political systems and cultures as well as their different demographic and ethnic structures produced very different responses. With the international spread of the coronavirus into a global pandemic came a broad range of barbs, accusations, criticisms and finger-pointing between Beijing and Washington DC. The ensuing war of words about how the virus started in Wuhan and how it was handled only has served to heighten existing tensions stemming from their still not-yet-fully unresolved “trade war” and has generated bad feelings across the Pacific, including the use of racially-charged language by the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, who purposely labelled COVID-19 “the Chinese virus.”1 In many respects, the on-going unabated conflicts between the world’s two most important nations has deprived both countries of many potential medical and related benefits that could have come from better communications and closer cooperation at an earlier point in time.2 Interestingly, while at the macro political level, tensions flared and blatant falsehoods about the source of the virus were thrown across the Pacific,3 at the micro or operational level, the situation was quite the opposite. People-to-people diplomacy continued to work well as many Americans helped to provide needed PPE (personal protective equipment) and other items to China during the first three months of 2020. Then, as the situation in China improved sharply and the virus spread across the US, numerous Chinese organizations and citizens came to the aid of their American friends with shipments of masks and other needed medical supplies, etc. As the Executive Vice Chancellor sitting inside one of the only nine approved joint venture universities (at Duke Kunshan University), I had a front row seat during the initial evolution of the virus in China. Fortunately, once the initial clouds of uncertainty and information blockage faded away about the Wuhan situation and greater transparency occurred, there was a concerted effort to strengthen the bridges of cooperation and communications among all the key players
ARRESTING COVID-19: PERSPECTIVES FROM A SINO-US …
involved. Among the nine JV universities, three involve US institutions: NYU-Shanghai, Wenzhou Kean University, and Duke Kunshan University. While each of the three differ in many key respects, during the course of the first 3 months of the epidemic, the Chinese and American partners on both sides of the Pacific Ocean quickly mobilized capabilities and personnel to address the rising threats to the well-being of their students, faculty and staff. The situations at NYU-Shanghai and Duke Kunshan University were particularly challenging because the former has a student body composed of 50% PRC students and 50% international students, while the latter has about 35% international students and 65% PRC students. Using the lens of the developments at DKU during the January–April 2020 period, this paper provides analytic insights into the approach and policies adopted by the key players to confront the threats and risks posed by COVID-19. The discussion highlights the win-win outcomes that resulted from the almost seamless working relationship that was forged along the way between DKU and its American counterpart at Duke University as well as with Wuhan University and the city of Kunshan. Most important, learning from the experience of DKU, the paper suggests some lessons for Sino-US relations, especially in terms of the benefits that might accrue to both sides from enhanced coordination, expanded collaboration, and improved communications. Not only are there apparent beneficial outcomes in terms of the bilateral relationship, but it also has become increasingly clear that a better working relationship between Beijing and Washington could be extremely helpful in terms of addressing and arresting the global spread of the virus and other similar types of problems across the globe.
The Onset of COVID-19: Quick Response and Quick Action As it became clear that the situation in Wuhan and Hubei Province regarding COVID-19 was far more serious than initially had been understood,4 the DKU leadership recognized by mid-January 2020 that it needed to take rapid concerted action to protect the campus community.5 The arrival of the Chinese New Year holiday coincided with the dispersal of students, staff and faculty; most of the Chinese students and staff returned home to celebrate the holiday with family, while many foreign students and faculty chose to travel in China, other parts of
Asia, and other parts of the world. This left a small number of key staff on campus to oversee the general situation as was normally done on extended holidays; some international students who chose not to return home and a modest number of Chinese students all decided to spend the holiday on campus. Several Chinese staff from the Kunshan/Suzhou area remained in the area as did the Chancellor, FENG Youmei, who was from Wuhan but had decided to stay on campus to oversee the campus during the Chinese New Year holiday. Just as the campus began to clear out, however, the news emerged from the Chinese government that all education institutions needed to take special precautions to address the rapid spread of the coronavirus. This led to an immediate critical decision to organize an emergency task force to take the necessary protective actions. As a Sino-US joint venture, the leadership had faced many challenging situations in the past; the differences in culture and political systems had not always led to a common perspective on appropriate actions or decision criteria regarding academic affairs, student issues, financial matters, etc. In the case of COVID-19, however, something was different. Working with inputs from various sources in the US, including Duke University and following the increasingly serious tone of Chinese government directives, it became clear that evacuating our students was a top priority. A decision was made to provide financial support for all Chinese and international students to return to the safety of their homes. The only exception were the students from Hubei province who simply could not return home due to the growing severity of the virus. In the end, our campus ended up with about 60 of our 725 undergraduate and graduate students remaining on campus. We also imposed a complete lockdown for the entire campus. This was no small decision. No outside food deliveries, no Starbucks deliveries, no packages, etc. The campus was closed to all visitors, all vendors, and most service personnel. Soon after the bulk of the students departed, including all but two international students from Vietnam, the three major US airlines flying to China decided to shut down service, e.g. United Airlines quickly decided to cut service on February 5th. The shutdown of the US carriers led to a decision to evacuate other international staff as seats became scarce and the virus showed no signs of ebbing; staff and faculty who already had been overseas decided that a return to China was not a good idea. On February 2nd, US President Trump put in place an executive order that the US would halt the travel of China passport holders to the US unless they had a direct family relationship.6
ARRESTING COVID-19: PERSPECTIVES FROM A SINO-US …
What is remarkable about the 5–6 weeks between the onset of the virus in mid-January and the ensuing period is the degree to which all the partners in the joint venture actually worked together in an almost seamless manner to address the needs of the DKU community—not just those located in Kunshan or even in China, but all around the world. With a student body from over 40 different countries and a faculty from 13 different countries, it was not easy to keep track of where everyone was located. The Chinese government at the local, provincial and national level was constantly in touch with DKU staff to collect concrete data about the location of the various members of our community; continuous efforts were made by our key staff on campus and elsewhere to gather and report the necessary data as accurately as possible. In retrospect, one of the key success factors that ultimately helped Jiangsu health authorities moderate and arrest the spread of the virus across entire province was their ability to act on reliable feeds of data not only from DKU and other local universities, but also local communities to make relevant control decisions.7 After an admittedly rather bumpy, inauspicious start, the formal emergency task force units set up by the PRC government at multiple levels served as an effective mechanism to ensure that local and eventually national policy decisions were being made based on real-time accurate data. As an academic institution, after protecting the health and safety of the DKU community, our next priority was to begin consideration of how we would continue forward with our education mission. DKU classes are taught within a modular format; the university operates on a calendar based on four 7-week modules: Fall 1, Fall 2 and Spring 3 and Spring 4. DKU’s academic calendar is more aligned with Duke University in the US, and so unlike the other JV universities, DKU already had begun Spring classes in early January. Faculty and students had finished approximately three weeks of the Spring semester. The need to turn to an online delivery model began to be talked about among China’s education-related government agencies as part of a policy initiative called “Suspending Classes without Stopping Learning.” Fortunately, DKU’s American partner at Duke already had an experienced team in place to work with our campus to facilitate the transition to an online delivery capability. Due to the contributions of Duke colleagues and the close working relationship that was forged very quickly, DKU was able to establish a full online university in just three weeks! I use the term “online university” because we did not simply put courses online, but we also
created a series of new virtual student experiences to complement what was going on inside the classroom, e.g. virtual programming for students interested in the arts and the DKU United project to strengthen our students’ sense of community. The availability of new software technologies such as Zoom, WeChat, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, etc. helped to make the overall online delivery and learning experience much richer and more dynamic than the nature of online education in the past. On March 28th, the PRC government decided to restrict the travel of all non-PRC passport holders back to China.8 This was done in response to the recognition that while the number of indigenous examples of COVID-19 had been greatly curtailed across the country, the appearance of new cases largely derived from imported sources—PRC returnees coming back home as the situation around the world was getting worse.9 To ensure that a Phase Two of the virus did not occur from a growing number of imported instances, the government instituted international travel controls, severely restricting even the number of Chinese airlines flying in and out of China. As of June 2020, the overall health situation in China has continued to improve, especially in cities such as Shanghai, though the restrictions on foreign travel to China remain very much in place. As part of the Ministry of Education’s phased re-opening plan, some joint venture universities decided to re-start classes for their seniors and graduate students at the end of April after they received special government clearance to re-open their campuses with explicit guarantees regarding safety and health monitoring. The expectation among most of the joint venture schools is that the situation in the Fall will return to normal with face to face delivery being implemented once again. In contrast to its US and UK counterparts at other joint venture universities, the senior leadership at Duke Kunshan University decided that a return of students was not a good idea because of continued risk concerns and related logistical challenges. Having leveraged a great deal of learning from the online delivery experience in the Spring 3 module, the online delivery of the DKU curriculum proceeded ahead for the Spring 4 module. On-going discussions between Duke and DKU are continuing to occur about how to deal with the Fall 2020 semester, especially given the fact that the virus conditions in the US have become increasingly severe. This has opened up a very new, innovative possibility: some newly admitted Chinese and international students who anticipated enrolling at
ARRESTING COVID-19: PERSPECTIVES FROM A SINO-US …
Duke for the Fall 2020 semester might start their undergraduate education with Duke on the DKU campus—with classes being taught by a combination of DKU and Duke faculty in a hybrid fashion.
Key Lessons Learned With the tensions between the US and China continuing to grow due to a plethora of allegations and insults being hurled across the Pacific in both directions, it is important to step back to draw some lessons from the experiences of Duke Kunshan University during the coronavirus epidemic. Why did the cooperative relationship between the Chinese and American partner(s) hold up so well during such a very harsh and severe crisis? Several reasons stand out in this regard. First, there was a very clear and functional division of labor between the Chinese and American senior leaders. The Chinese leaders focused their time and attention on working with the PRC government agencies, including the Jiangsu Education Department, the Suzhou Education Bureau, and the Kunshan Education Bureau, while their American counterparts coordinated communications and action plans with Duke University in the US. The respective leaders made sure that they were working with realtime information, some drawn from PRC government channels and some from the world-wide media, US government sources, and the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. For Chinese colleagues, it was important to be in full compliance with government directives as many of the documents highlighted adverse consequences for those persons and institutions that failed to obey PRC government directed actions. For US colleagues, it was important to overcome any apparent information deficits that might exist in China and to ensure that there were not any serious breaches in terms of information accuracy. The information was shared via the DKU Emergency Task Force co-directed by the Chancellor and the Executive Vice Chancellor, which meant that there was a relatively open forum for the exchange of critical information. Later, several Duke colleagues joined the Task Force meetings to share additional information and insights. Second, as noted, despite examples of previous philosophical and operational disagreements in the past, the imperative nature of the crisis was quickly felt and understood by both sides. Under such circumstances, there were fewer debates over minor issues; everyone understood the need for rapid action and action-oriented decision-making. Meetings were held
2–3 times each day and if there was communication needed with Duke in the US, some of DKU colleagues slept very few hours and vice versa on the US side. The sense that there was a serious common threat that knew no nationality or ethnicity helped to overcome the types of acrimony that sometimes had been present on previous occasions. The internal DKU team via the DKU Emergency Task Force operated in a cohesive fashion as every person rose to the occasion of this serious epidemic. Finally, there was strong cooperation across the board from faculty and students as well as the staff once the full severity of the coronavirus epidemic was grasped. After a bit of wrangling over the timing of campus departures and reimbursements for travel, everyone worked together as part of one larger community facing the same critical danger. The situation was helped along by a full-scale communications effort directed at parents, students, faculty and staff. As the US partner in the joint venture, Duke had received numerous inquiries and expressions of concern from American parents about their children attending DKU; it was quickly recognized that the coronavirus problem was not simply a DKU or China problem. The issue was gradually, but steadily becoming both a Duke issue and a US-China issue. By immediately conducting a full-court press in terms of information availability and pro-active communications, the entire community was able to operate with the same information in hand. This attenuated attention to communications occurred in both Chinese and English, and was aided by a very active social media presence. During such crisis moments, it is easy for the Internet to get filled with false rumors and misinformation; the rapid response to the need for accurate information pre-empted what could have been a field day for so-called “fake news” to circulate far and wide. Social media could have become the Achilles heel of the DKU situation, but instead it became one of the key success factors in helping to maintain calm during a period of great uncertainty. Overall, as this analysis suggests, it turns out that the comments from Duke President Vince Price during one of his initial visits to China was prescient. In referring to Duke Kunshan University, he stated that “DKU is a beacon of light within the turbulence surrounding US-China relations.” DKU was able to weather the severe storm brought on by the coronavirus. According to available information, not one case of the coronavirus was reported from within the entire DKU community. All three partners—Duke University, Wuhan University, and the city of Kunshan, worked to support the many needs of the university during its most trying
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times. While the unplanned additional financial outlays needed to support the faculty, students and staff during the height of the crisis were not insignificant, all the sponsoring parties agreed that the safety and wellbeing of the community was the top priority without exception. The good will and trust garnered from sharing this almost catastrophic experience together will go a long way towards sustaining the joint venture in the coming months and years as the full impact of the coronavirus in economic and social terms has yet to be felt. Perhaps after widespread Chinese media reporting about how DKU and the other joint venture universities acted as responsible members of the Chinese higher education system, senior leaders in Beijing and Washington can overcome some of their misgivings and mistrust to work together in a much more cohesive and collaborative manner for mutual benefit and the benefit of the world.
Notes 1. Renee DiResta, “For China: The “USA Virus” Is a Geopolitical Ploy,” The Atlantic, April 11, 2020. 2. “Research Finds Huge Impact of Interventions on the Spread of COVID19,” The Guardian, March 11, 2020. 3. Shayan Sardarizadeh and Olga Robinson, “Coronavirus: US and China Trade Conspiracy Theories,” BBC Monitoring, April 26, 2020. See also Xinhuanet, “Reality Check of US Allegations Against China on COVID19,” Xinhua News Agency, May 10, 2020. 4. Aimee Cunningham, “People Who Didn’t Know They Had COVID-19 Drove Its Spread in China,” Science News, March 17, 2020. 5. David Ignatius, “How Did COVID-19 Begin: Its Initial Origin Story Is Shaky,” Washington Post, April 2, 2020. See also “The Origin of COVID19: The Pieces of the Puzzle of COVID-19’s Origin Are Coming to Light,” Economist, May 2, 2020. 6. “Trump Administration Restricts Entry into US from China,” New York Times, January 31, 2020. See also “Trump’s Claims That He Imposed the First China Ban,” Washington Post, April 7, 2020. 7. Sharon Begley, “Once Widely Criticized, the Wuhan Quarantine Bought the World Time to Prepare for COVID-19,” STAT News, February 21, 2020. 8. “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China National Immigration Administration Announcement on the Temporary Suspension of Entry by Foreign Nationals Holding Valid Chinese Visas and Residence Permits,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, March 26, 2020. 9. David Cyranoski, “We Need to Be Alert: Scientists Fear Second Coronavirus Wave as China’s Lockdowns Ease,” Nature, March 30, 2020.
Memory, Storytelling and GIS Digital Archive: Introducing the COVID-19 Memory Archival Project Benjamin L. Bacon and Weijing Xu
Abstract The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project is an educational and scholarly initiative that seeks to preserve individual and shared experiences and reflections during the COVID-19 outbreak through rich media storytelling and geographic information system (GIS) mapping. In this chapter, we introduce the archive project and story map collection as an inquiry into participatory and immersive digital archiving as a means for understanding personal memory, experience, identity and agency in the media aftermath of a global pandemic. Originally initiated as a response to emergency online teaching during the early stages of the COVID-19 lockdown, we explore the pedagogical potential of the ArcGIS StoryMaps platform in the undergraduate classroom. Through analysis of archive story maps and comparative studies with earlier community-based disaster-oriented online archives, we present new insights into the media moment of 2020, and how that shapes perception and understanding of complex events. Finally, we reflect upon the
B. L. Bacon (B) · W. Xu Duke Kunshan University, Kunshan, China e-mail: [email protected] W. Xu e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 J. Miller (ed.), The Coronavirus, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8_2
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function of virtual memorials and how they might facilitate discourse and contribute to broader geocultural dialogues. Keywords Memory · Archive · Coronavirus
In the winter of 2019, a novel coronavirus was quietly spreading through the city of Wuhan, China. As a global catastrophe gradually revealed itself to the world in the ensuing months, both official and private channels grappled with the rapid changing nature of this new reality. Global disasters are often convoluted and multidimensional, appearing in cascading multitudes across geographies and time. In the media frenzy of 2020, our experiences of the pandemic are further mediated and framed through information and communication infrastructures and institutions of the day (Recuber 2016). In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, individual and community voices have sought out online platforms to participate in dialogue and assume ownership of meaning-making and memory preservation of shared experiences. In the context of the Web 2.0 culture, digital archives provide a vehicle and mnemonic device for fluid historical narratives generated by grassroot populations (Popple et al. 2020). The following documents one such approach. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project is an educational and scholarly initiative that seeks to preserve individual and shared experiences and reflections during the COVID-19 outbreak through rich media storytelling and geographic information system (GIS) mapping. In this chapter, we introduce the archive project and story map collection as an inquiry into participatory and immersive digital archiving as a means for understanding personal memory, experience, identity and agency in the media aftermath of a global pandemic. Originally initiated as a response to emergency online teaching during the early stages of the COVID19 lockdown, we explore the pedagogical potential of the ArcGIS StoryMaps platform in the undergraduate classroom. Through analysis of archive story maps and comparative studies with earlier community-based disaster-oriented online archives, we present new insights into the media moment of 2020, and how that shapes perception and understanding of complex events. Finally, we reflect upon the function of virtual memorials and how they might facilitate discourse and contribute to broader geocultural dialogues.
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The impetus behind this research stems from the authors’ reflections of past personal experiences with viral outbreak and cultural dynamics between East and West in light of the present global crises. The stark contrast in pandemic understanding and response across cultures is shocking, but these differences were already present years before. One recollection of a classroom discussion in 2011 between Beijinger’s and New Yorker’s foreshadowed the responses of China and the US in 2020. There exists an urgency to bridge the gaps between different realities, as collaboration and unity is essential in overcoming existential risks of the future. The Covid-19 Memory Archival Project was presented at The Coronavirus: Human, Social and Political Implications conference at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute, jointly organized with Duke Kunshan University’s Humanities Research Center, held on March 3rd, 2020. The ideas presented here expand upon the original oral presentation.
Overview of Approach First launched on March 1, 2020, The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project was developed with the support of the Health Humanities Lab and Humanities Research Center at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in China in collaboration with Duke University, and with faculty and student participation from the University of North Carolina in the USA. As a US-Sino joint venture between Duke University and Wuhan University, DKU’s diverse community of student, faculty and staff come from many provinces in China, as well as a variety of nationalities. In late January, during the week of the Chinese New Year holiday, the news of a deadly virus broke out across the country. Many individuals were traveling in the midst of the largest human migrations in the world. As the nation went into emergency lockdown, our students and faculty found themselves stranded across geographies. Universities across China postponed the start of school, as administration and faculty prepared academic content for online delivery. It was under these circumstances that a small group of DKU faculty and administrators traveling abroad at the time regrouped at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina to discuss approaches to conducting undergraduate liberal arts education in a digital context. Displaced and facing an uncertain future, bound by academic responsibility paired with individual experiences that mirrored
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the larger collective, The COVID-19 Archival Project emerged through collaborative discussions as a creative solution to turn a dire situation into a unique opportunity and teaching moment. For our purposes, ArcGIS StoryMaps presented an ideal platform infrastructure that allowed complex layers of media and narrative to be overlayed into a spatial mapping framework. First used as a scholarly and pedagogical tool in the 1980s in geography, GIS quickly became popularized in fields such as environmental sciences and urban planning. More recently, it has expanded its applications into the social sciences and humanities, inciting discussions around mapping, bias and power, with new emerging areas of study such as “critical GIS”, also known as “public participation GIS” (Wilson 2015). As increased use of GIS tools brought the act of mapping into the digital sphere, the concepts of maps and mapping also changed. Beyond detailing geographical domains, through networked connections, maps are no longer self-contained material objects, but provide a navigational pivot into societal, cultural and political landscapes. In his “Linked Geographies: Maps as Mediators of Reality”, Stefaan G. Verhulst posits that these new mapping tools “permit a democratization of reality”, facilitating pluralism (Verhulst 2008). In our approach, we utilized story maps as the digital medium for collection and transmission of individual reflections of self and community. Through hyperlinks, the boundaries between the private and public are blurred. The platform’s capability to juxtapose static media, interactive media, and personal narration in a dynamic way, allowed students under quarantine restraints to interrogate online materials and mass media in conjunction with their own experiences towards extracting meaningful discourse. Disaster and trauma documentation practices in the digital age is well established. One notable archive in the narrative genre is the WhereWereYou.org archive that details accounts and testimonials of ordinary people’s thoughts and feelings post 9/11 (Where Were You | September 11th, 2001 2001). Launched only 4 days after the attacks, stories were collected for a year following the historical event. The landing page presents prompts that help potential contributors consider their experiences within a unifying framework, tying individuals together in solidarity. Entries are presented in similar format with basic information and written text. Another example is the teach311.org site ([Teach311 + COVID19] Collective 2011). Initiated by a group of scholars, academics and educators, the collective focuses on the collaborative research of disasters past and present in the Asian context, with the goal of bridging the gap
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between public understanding and scholarship (Teo and Onaga 2019). In this second case, experience and knowledge is preserved through essays, field notes, interviews, photographs, diary entries and video lectures. In the examples of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (Hurricane Digital Memory Bank 2005), and most recently, A Journal of the Plague Year (Share Your Story · A Journal of the Plague Year · COVID-19 Archive 2020), the inclusion of interactive maps highlights the geographical dimensions of today’s disasters. In all afore mentioned cases, the need to identify locality is clearly visible, a heightened awareness indicative of the present century, impressed upon the collective subconscious through the saturation of satellite imagery in visual culture. However, locality is but a data point in these narratives, collected along other data points within a static blog information infrastructure, rather than a dynamic interface where data points intersect and interact to form hybrid virtual realities. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project departs from the restrictions of the blog platform towards a more fluid language of content production that allows for flexible experimentation and interpretation. Following personal memory practices of recent decades, students are guided to develop their own media language, both as a tool for learning and understanding, and a means for creative expression. In Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s systemic account of memory, the act of remembering is described as meaning-making in itself. It is not a recount of events, but rather our experiences of them. These perceived experiences illustrate an ephemeral depiction of the individual and his or her place in the world, performing and suturing together interconnected concepts of individuality, self, community, and place (Smith and Watson 2002). Along these lines, stories presented in the form of recollections allow students to process their trauma emotionally, while evolving towards a thoughtful, empathetic and holistic approach towards recent events. In the next section, we analyze examples of student work that demonstrate personalized strategies towards formulating complex images of identity, social critique and the everyday mundane.
Student Story Map Collection The student story map collection resulted from a handful of undergraduate courses at DKU during spring term of 2020. In addition to in-class mentorship and guidance, an in-depth tutorial that introduced storytelling methodologies and resources as well as ArcGIS narrative text and
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other multimedia features (The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project Tutorial 2020) was created and made publicly available on the archive site (The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project 2020). Further support manifested in the forms of a personal story map created by faculty and multiple online workshops introducing the project and its digital toolkit to the larger DKU community (Our Story: Kunshan To Durham 2020). The highlighted stories below largely come from Asia, addressing Asian cultural discussions within a global context. One case is selected from the United States, a photo journalistic work of everyday life under quarantine. In “Advance!Advance at all Cost!!”, the author documents the tumultuous emotions of a Chinese student’s complex relationship with his home country during the early stages of the pandemic outbreak. Citing science fiction, online gaming, poetry, quotes from leaders of industry as well as news feeds and scientific data, he wrestles with the competing feelings of anger towards government corruption, overwhelming pride of Chinese fortitude, guilt over personal enaction and the harsh realities of financial loss through his family’s first-hand experience amidst an economy in standstill. He concludes his journey with a reflection of the complexity of love, ending on a quote from the poet Qing Ai, stating “now I truly understand what this poem means and how does the poet feel when he wrote this poem. I love my country. 我爱我的祖国” (Advance!Advance at All Costs!! 2020). “Humanity Crises Under the Surface of Coronavirus” details another student’s journey towards awareness of the invisible and evolving undercurrents of social and cultural discrimination. While racism and racist discourse are at times painfully visible in the public consciousness, tribalism and more nuanced cultural discriminations at times can be overlooked. In a narrative of self-reflection and criticism, the author recalls her own discriminatory behavior towards Wuhanese friends after debates around virus naming and cultural shaming emerged in international discourse. She goes so far as to highlight her own cruel language towards others in her story map through WeChat screenshots, exposing her own ignorance while calling out for awareness (Humanity Crisis Under the Surface of Coronavirus 2020). In another account, “Shrouded in Darkness 2020”, a Taiwanese student based in mainland China during the pandemic inspects the dark realities of political agendas at play through the lens of face mask donation. During the early outbreak, relationships between the different East Asian governments were strained and unstable. Propaganda machines
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each churned out their own narratives in support of leadership decisions. The author interrogates the extreme anti-Chinese Taiwanese propaganda and questions his own government’s consideration for the larger welfare of humanity. When confronted with older generation family member’s attitudes towards their Wuhanese neighbors, he poses the important question of whether humanity can sustain tolerance and empathy in times of crises as well as peace (Shrouded in Darkness-2020 2020). While these powerful personal narratives offer thought-provoking realities of identity, nationalism and social justice during the pandemic, other story map entries focus on the everyday mundane. “Witness Pandemic” is a collaborative photo journal produced by graduate journalism students from the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. This entry was uploaded in the beginning of May, over a month after North Carolina announced a state-wide stay at home order. Documented at a time when the official news cycles reflected a language of national anxiety and panic, the photo collection present an alternative reality to the layers of unfolding crises in the United States (Witness Pandemic 2020). Similarly, “Life in the Square” offers a “normalized” perspective of pandemic life in Beijing. By systemically documenting the public square visible from her window every day, the author learns about the “regulars” from afar, exploring new forms of serendipitous connectivity with strangers in the time of social distancing (Life in the Square 2020). A final genre of story map present in submissions includes artistic and poetic renditions of inner emotion and turmoil. Entries such as “The World Beyond Quarantine” utilize experimental and stop motion animation techniques paired with poetry in presenting a black and white reality of the author’s pandemic experience (The World Beyond Quarantine 2020). “A COVID-19 Story from Nepal” contrasts photographic images with their hand-sketched counterparts, sometimes from repetitive perspectives, sometimes slightly altered. Through techniques of layering, the author conveys the real alongside the private and internal of everyday life in Nepal (A COVID-19 Story from Nepal 2020). These story map entries present to us a dynamic and complex portrait of the inner private lives of young individuals during the pandemic. Despite the tender age of these authors, their refusal to accept institutionalized narratives in favor of personalized explorations and nuanced dialogue is commendable. The versatility of the ArcGIS StoryMaps framework allows us to see through stories the inner worlds of their creators in four dimensional ways. There is value in the resolution the platform offers
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for individuality and expression. However, it would be remiss to say that there are no limitations. In the final section, we reflect upon our experience with the ArcGIS StoryMaps in The COVID-19 Archival Project, and speculate on further exploration of methodology and approach in utilizing GIS tools for critical research and pedagogy.
Conclusion The phenomenon of the archival multiverse has reshaped our imaginations of what memory, experience, history and heritage can be, redefining the concept of the archive and its many practices. Fueled by the rise of the internet and self-publishing culture, traditional archiving methods give way to crowd sourced processes, allowing the many to co-author a collective narrative, providing “a substantial counterbalance to the dangers posed by the creation of digital humanities macroscopes” (Prescott 2020). As immersive, embodied, spatial technologies mature and popularize, new opportunities are presented for the archivist. However, literacies of these technologies pose a stumbling block for wider rollout and adaptation, especially in earlier stages. In the case of The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project, much effort was devoted to familiarizing participants with the platform environment and cultivating individualized media expression. Yet the turn towards a geospatial approach across disciplines is inevitable. Already, the media that we consume is innately referential of place. Photos and videos taken with our smart phones are embedded with location data. We share our experiences on Facebook, Instagram and WeChat through spatial tags. GPS navigation systems have replaced our own biological sense of geographical location. Our lives, whether digital or physical, are already largely framed by these platforms and instruments. Like a prosthetic, everyday devices provide a continuous data stream of space and place, and yet for many, interpretation of this data still sits in traditional information infrastructures, rendering these new realities invisible. As Roger M. Downs notes, “… it is important to understand the links between the geospatial revolution and the geographic sense of self. People adapt to technologies, and technologies are adapted to human needs” (Downs 2014). One might argue that perhaps a new digital geospatial cosmology is called for. This new concept of “situated knowledge” transforms the virtual archive from a data representation to a platform for discourse and dialogue (Jackson 2020). Critical GIS presents
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a new investigative methodology between representation and intervention that merges together the complex planetary spheres of this moment in time.
References A COVID-19 Story from Nepal. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https://arcg.is/1yy8Sm. Advance!Advance at All Costs!!. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https://arcg.is/159P8r. Downs, Roger M. 2014. Coming of Age in the Geospatial Revolution: The Geographic Self Re-Defined. Human Development 57: 35–57. https://doi. org/10.1159/000358319. Jackson, Tom. 2020. I’ve Never Told Anybody That Before. In Communities, Archives and New Collaborative Practices, ed. Simon Popple, Andrew Prescott, and Daniel H. Mutibwa, 1st ed., 93–106. Bristol University Press. https:// doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvx1hvvd.13. Humanity Crisis Under the Surface of Coronavirus. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https://arcg.is/040qnj. Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. 2005. http://hurricanearchive.org. Life in the Square. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https:// arcg.is/O5nK4. Our Story: Kunshan To Durham. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https://arcg.is/4faH0. Popple, Simon, Daniel H. Mutibwa, and Andrew Prescott. 2020. Community Archives and the Creation of Living Knowledge. In Communities, Archives and New Collaborative Practices, ed. Simon Popple, Daniel H. Mutibwa, and Andrew Prescott, 1st ed., 1–18. Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10. 2307/j.ctvx1hvvd.7. Prescott, Andrew. 2020. Community Archives and the Health of the Internet. In Communities, Archives and New Collaborative Practices, ed. Andrew Prescott, Simon Popple, and Daniel H. Mutibwa, 1st ed., 251–268. Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvx1hvvd.24. Recuber, Timothy. 2016. Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster. Temple University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv rdf341. Share Your Story · A Journal of the Plague Year · Covid-19 Archive. 2020. http://covid-19archive.org. Shrouded in Darkness-2020. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https://arcg.is/1XejXq0.
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Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. 2002. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, Second Edition. University of Minnesota Press. https://doi.org/10.5749/minnesota/9780816669851.001.0001. [Teach311 + COVID-19] Collective. 2011. [Teach311 + COVID-19] Collective. http://teach311.org. Teo, Grace, and Lisa Onaga. 2019. Making Meanings: Introducing the Teach311.org Interview Collection. Verge: Studies in Global Asias 5: 46–58. University of Minnesota Press. https://doi.org/10.5749/vergstudglobasia.5. 1.0046. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https://arcg.is/1OLGz1. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project Tutorial. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https://arcg.is/z4Ljb. The World Beyond Quarantine. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https://arcg.is/fWun1. Verhulst, Stefaan G. 2008. Linked Geographies: Maps as Mediators of Reality. In The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age, ed. Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui, 191–205. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv65sxn0.19. Where Were You | September 11th, 2001. 2001. http://wherewereyou.org. Wilson, Matthew W. 2015. Paying Attention, Digital Media, and CommunityBased Critical GIS. Cultural Geographies 22: 177–191. https://doi.org/10. 1177/1474474014539249. Witness Pandemic. 2020. The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. https:// arcg.is/1W5i8O0.
Separate Realities: Being Wuhanese and American Throughout COVID-19 Yuexuan Chen
Abstract Navigating the coronavirus pandemic as a Chinese-American college student and journalist in the U.S. with roots in Wuhan was full of surprises. In particular, the first months of the pandemic showed me the importance of being able to empathize and connect with experiences outside of our own realities. The delayed response to coronavirus in the US was exacerbated by an inability to listen to the voices of other nations experiencing the crisis prior to its landfall in the US. By othering ChineseAmericans, we lost precious time in responding to the pandemic and exposed a deep-seated indifference to diverse voices in our society. In my own experiences as an American university student reporting on the realities of my family’s hometown in Wuhan, I observed first hand the inability of my fellow Americans to recognize the Chinese experience with coronavirus as indicative of our own future, and the refusal to learn from Asian strategies against the spread of coronavirus. In an interconnected world that requires collaborative solutions, COVID-19 has emphasized the dangers of U.S. cultural isolationism, systemic racism, hubris and the uncompassionate responses that are the result.
Y. Chen (B) Duke University, Durham, NC, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 J. Miller (ed.), The Coronavirus, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8_3
Keywords Wuhan · Identity · Coronavirus · Racism
A student in the audience at our coronavirus seminar asked whether it would make a difference if China had access to Western social media to have ordinary Chinese people’s voices heard. I responded no because Chinese voices aren’t heard or taken seriously in the U.S. in any case. Whether it’s war in Syria, sanctions in Iran or suffering somewhere in Africa, the ‘other’ can tell their stories, but it doesn’t make much of a difference when people fundamentally don’t see the other as equal and worthy of life and empathy. In a country where interconnectedness is replaced with individuality, it was unsurprising—yet no less hurtful—that most people around me couldn’t grasp the chaos and despair unraveling across the Pacific.
Hypervisible, Yet Invisible Being Chinese during the coronavirus outbreak in February made me feel hyper-visible and invisible at the same time. When people, including my friends, talked about China as if it were on a different planet, I felt myself internally screaming, “Why don’t you see me? I’m right here.” In such a globalized world, China can’t be considered a world away anymore, especially since so many identities and lives like mine straddle both countries. Although every other news headline was coming out of Wuhan in late January and early February, I felt an emptiness to each story—full of numbers and quotes but no life, and often portraying the same culturally insensitive, inaccurate and sinister China picture that I’ve seen my whole life. I know most of America doesn’t see China as a place with all kinds of people just like here, but the level of callousness and carelessness of much of the reporting coming out of China nevertheless shocked me. The imprecise and exoticized usage of the phrase ‘wet market’ is the first example that comes to mind. In a small attempt to fill those gaps, I wrote “Wuhan is home and its doctors are family” in one sitting on February 6 for the Duke student newspaper where I was the Health and Science editor. It was supposed to be published in the next few days and in print, but a story on a basketball game was more pressing than the humanitarian disaster that was putting
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all of China on hold and affecting every person with some kind of China connection at Duke. Then, when my article was supposed to be published again, the editor in chief said that a breaking news story about a swastika painted on the bridge took precedence. Finally, on February 14, after feeling gaslighted into thinking that my story wasn’t time-sensitive or important, my story went live. The outpour of hundreds of responses from the Duke community and beyond shocked me to my core. My editor felt that the story wasn’t urgent, but every response I received to it came with a great sense of urgency. Every message about how someone was able to connect to my story left me in tears. I grew so used to the constant contempt for Chinese people that I could never have imagined my story on “Wuhan coronavirus” would garner zero negative responses and was even featured in my hometown paper, at the publication where I interned last summer in South Africa and on a medical supplies donation NGO site. Even at Duke, with a sister school outside of Shanghai created under a partnership with Wuhan University and a substantial Chinese student and faculty population, the general dialogue on coronavirus in February— although touched by my story—continued to be largely unconcerned. It was merely a touch. As the Health and Science editor, I continued to pitch coronavirus related stories which were met with my editor saying, “We’ve already done a lot of COVID-19 coverage.” I met with my dean to discuss summer plans and mentioned that I got the Kenan Fellowship grant for a project in South Africa that probably won’t happen because of coronavirus. She said that coronavirus wasn’t anything worse than the flu for healthy people, which echoed the New York Times COVID-19 information panel stating that coronavirus was a less immediate threat than the flu. I didn’t correct her because I understood that people in America didn’t get exactly how bad the situation was in Wuhan (and how difficult it was becoming in places like Iran, South Korea, Singapore and Japan). No normal flu could wreak that level of havoc anywhere in the world. It’s not SARS, it’s not influenza—there was no accurate modern comparison for the horror that COVID-19 caused in unprepared, caughtoff-guard situations. My best friend said that I and my other suitemate from Beijing went overboard by telling the other two rowdy suitemates that after spring break, they weren’t allowed to have social gatherings in the living room. It wasn’t that serious, she said.
These are all people I care about and respect. They mean well. They heard what I was saying, but weren’t listening. It was so much worse than what people could imagine to be put effectively into words and I was internally crying: why don’t you get it? At the same time, I questioned my sanity.
COVID Is Here From the end of January to the beginning of March, I felt like I was living a double life. It seemed like everything was normal where I’d go about my day attending class, skating practice and meetings, but every night, I would go back to my dorm room to waves of terrible news about Wuhan, where most of my family lives—praying to some sort of higher being for any kind of respite and normalcy. I also joined Dr. Gregory Gray’s Duke One Health lab in early February, and I remember him saying right away that it wasn’t a question of if, but when coronavirus was coming to Durham. COVID-19 was already spreading in Singapore where some of our colleagues were. He advised all of us to prepare some masks and enough food and supplies for at least a week of unexpected lockdown. It took until late March for these worlds to collide as COVID-19 ripped through America, Duke was shut down and Dr. Gray’s lab was taking COVID-19 patient samples for research. Mid-February, one of my suitemates had a lingering flu or cold. Another girl who didn’t live in our suite but frequently visited said that she had pneumonia. I was petrified and aggressively washed my hands after touching every surface in our suite. February 22, I went out with my two friends to a party where I had a terrible feeling that it might be my last, at least until COVID-19 was under control. On February 24, I was chatting with the editor during my Chronicle editing shift and he said that he was going to Italy for spring break. I nervously laughed and said that was not going to happen and was a terrible idea. He said that it was already all planned out and he and his friend were going to the south, not the north where an outbreak had already begun. Still, people couldn’t comprehend the severity and unpredictability of this disease. Chinese people weren’t some sort of alien, diseased and dirty vector that caused infection rates to explode. China wasn’t locking down and temporarily crippling their entire economy simply for the draconian, authoritarian fun of it.
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As soon as the first case of community spread was reported in California on February 26, a cinematic jolt with a booming voice-over ran across my mind: it’s here, it’s really here. At that point, I avoided crowds and started awkwardly elbowing the handicapped door button instead of touching the door handle. February 29 marked the first death in Washington state. On March 2, Dr. Gray mentioned in our weekly meeting that the WHO was likely to announce a pandemic later that week. March 3, the date of the panel that led to the creation of this book, was the first recorded COVID-19 case in North Carolina in Wake County. The same day, I joked about wanting to go to the Duke–UNC basketball game with my American friends, but lamented about how dangerous the game was to my Chinese friends. I wanted to write an opinion piece for the Chronicle about the need to get rid of spectators for the Duke-UNC game, but I also didn’t want to be hated by 99% of the Duke student body and anger the dedicated Cameron Crazies who lived in tents for months to see the game. There was no way it would have been allowed to run in the paper anyway. On the morning of March 7, my roommate from Beijing and I went to the ice rink together in an Uber. An African-American man with a mask picked us up and asked if we thought coronavirus was serious. We said yes, talking about how we wanted to wear masks, but didn’t want to risk getting assaulted. The driver listened intently as we spoke about how the Duke–UNC game should be canceled with already two COVID-19 cases nearby. He pulled his mask over his nose. My parents drove down to fetch me from school for spring break because airports and planes were too risky. Instead of booking a hotel, I asked them to stay in my suite because two of my suitemates were gone and I didn’t want my parents risking contracting COVID-19 from the Durham community. My suitemate from Beijing was more than understanding. That night, I went to an empty pregame to visit one of my friends. One other person there shook my hand. I internally threw-up a little, memorizing which hand I need to keep away from everything I touch until I get the chance to wash it. I wanted to go to Duke–UNC Shooters, the huge party that happens after winning the rivalry game of the season, but I decided not to, telling my friend that I was tired when in fact, I was scared of this virus. I canceled a date that weekend too because the guy worked in a hospital. “Hahahaha, says the Chinese girl… I’ll try to survive,” he texted back.
I went to another friend’s suite to say goodbye before break, sitting a distance away on the couch. “I don’t have corona,” she said. I was hesitant, but we cuddled and watched some unmemorable movie as I thought about how it was likely the last cuddle I was going to experience before the end of the pandemic. My mom told me to pack up my things and take everything home because school was going to move online anyway. I didn’t want to believe it would happen that quickly and without warning from Duke, so I left all my stuff in my dorm where it was still sitting at the time of writing this piece. I was in denial even though I knew my mom was right. On March 8, travel restrictions began in northern Italy and my parents and I began our eight-hour drive home, stopping only for gas—careful to use gloves, hand sanitizer and Lysol along the way. On March 9, all of Italy locked down and six additional cases were reported in North Carolina. That same day, I went to the dentist in Ohio to get my tooth that needed urgent attention fixed. My mom and I waited outside instead of the crowded waiting room. She pleaded with the dentist to be extremely cautious and hygenic. “There are no cases here yet, right?” he said. He drilled into my tooth with his face mask exposing his nose. My mom pointed that out, and he said that it was uncomfortable to speak with the mask over his nose. Duke announced spring break was being extended on March 10 and the WHO declared a pandemic on March 11. Soon after, the rest of the semester was moved online. Later, a close friend shared that she lost her sense of taste and smell right after the Duke–UNC game and found out that her boyfriend’s dad tested positive for COVID-19 in the weeks following. By the end of that week, my family and I had canceled everything, made some last runs to Costco, began to get all groceries and necessities delivered and started avoiding travel anywhere beyond our front yard. That same week, a classmate from Texas called, FaceTiming me from a rock climbing gym. You shouldn’t be touching the same holds as hundreds of people and panting in each others’ faces, I said. He brushed it off. One month later, we chatted again and he expressed regret—an understanding for why he shouldn’t have been climbing that day and how squeezing in those last-minute bits of normalcy may have only worked to prolong the pandemic and the recovery process.
SEPARATE REALITIES: BEING WUHANESE AND AMERICAN …
Breaking the News, Over and Over The pace of everything felt simultaneously fast and slow. As the exact same news reports traveled like deja vu across the world, I couldn’t help but ponder why nobody listened to what people from Wuhan to South Korea to Italy had suffered through. I tried to rationalize why it, for example, took fellow white nations to convince the U.S. that masks are indeed useful to protect others in an outbreak of a respiratory infection. The New York Times broke a story from the front lines in New York on a doctor being flabbergasted by the complexities of younger patients who walked into the hospital with lethal levels of blood oxygen saturation in the morning, only to die in the afternoon; the same exact story was investigated and published in detail from the front lines of Wuhan over a month earlier. Perhaps, the news media should consider some sort of service that could translate all the different news reports around the world. Foreign correspondents could take part in verifying work that was already done instead of starting from scratch in their own reporting. There were so many questions, assumptions and rumors spread around how the situation in Wuhan unfolded instead of making the effort to just get to know exactly what happened from front-line perspectives. And no, that doesn’t mean a couple quotes and an oversimplification of a single martyr, such as Li Wenliang, the opthamologist who is now globally renowned as the first whistleblower—in which he wasn’t actually the first. I followed one front-line doctor at the epicenter in Wuhan for two months on her journey from opening her coronavirus ward to finally being able to go home and see her kids. Two pieces on her were published in Medscape Medical News. One commenter said that it was “such a nice account of truth—our politicians should see this reality.” Another said, “This is absolutely fantastic, thank you. It really helps answer a lot of the questions we’ve had about what happened in Wuhan.” In some ways, I feel like the work I have done in journalism covering Wuhan has been stupid. Why is it that I’m the one writing these stories and reporting them? I’m just a college student who was trying to enjoy my junior year and study for my exams, but instead I spent my last month of normalcy at Duke reeling and reporting about the emergency of a lifetime. Yet, my lived experiences as a Chinese-born, Wuhan-rooted, Ohio-raised, cross-culturally educated, world traveler who is studying
public policy, biology and journalism with a mother who went to medical school in Wuhan put me in a strangely fateful position to write about this pandemic. However, every time I wrote something and got a stream of replies about how my reporting brought a story that was a fresh news angle, I felt like a fraud because, personally, it wasn’t news. It felt like stale, common knowledge, considering the outbreak had been going on for so long already.
Bigger Than COVID-19 Late March, I was in a Zoom conference call put together by the Dewitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy with a New York Times journalist presenting about how she put together a video on front-line doctors in NYC. She said that she felt inspired and moved by seeing videos of doctors in Italy speaking to each other about coronavirus. I asked how she handled reporting what was basically the same story over and over again. She said that it was a good question and that there were new angles to write about. I asked if she also looked at the videos of Wuhan doctors speaking to each other. She said no. I asked why. She said that she simply didn’t think of it. There’s this idea that we’re all so different and unique that we can’t learn from each other, take each other seriously and critique without the lens of bias and propaganda that we all have to work toward a self-awareness of. Last summer, I wrote the following in my blog while investigating the possible impact of fracking on freshwater resources in South Africa: “There are layers to every country’s story and at a certain point, you hit the bedrock of everything systemically wrong with that nation. Sexism, racism, poverty, inequality, corruption and discrimination–to varying degrees and in different ways–make up the past and present of our world.” We are all subject to life on the same planet with probably less agency than we convince ourselves we have. With all of the discussion and confusion in the news and on social media about COVID-19, I’m left with this question: How do we feel for and truly give consideration to others’ realities? When I’m in Ohio, how do I feel connected to the front-line struggles in New York City? When I’m consuming yet another product I onlineshopped for, how do I care about the rivers and people polluted on the
SEPARATE REALITIES: BEING WUHANESE AND AMERICAN …
other side of the world? When a nation in which I’m a registered voter invades a country with supposedly people who just aren’t the same, how do I relate to lives that, at first glance, are too disparate to grasp? In order to solve modern global problems, we’re going to have to learn how to love people we feel like we can’t relate to and who don’t look or talk like us. We are a product of our realities that are no longer as independent from each other as they used to be in a pre-industrial world. The closer the world grows from the internet and global trade, the more we are exposed to the different realities around us and our increased responsibility in empathizing for and learning from circumstances that aren’t our own. We are all too interconnected to allow innovation and solutions to be limited within barriers set up by cultures, politics and borders. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the big question for my generation. No longer what side are you on and for whom, but what are you fighting for?
Observations on Wuhan Residents’ Diaries Yanping Ni
Abstract The COVID-19 pandemic has witnessed explosive production of diaries characterized by first-person, spontaneous expressions and contents filled with daily experiences in the context marking the virus as the new norm. The city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus infection first emerged and robust medical practices were first implemented, is no exception in this regard. During the 76-day Wuhan quarantine, numerous diaries of various presentation forms were created on Chinese social media platforms by Wuhan ordinary residents, forming a unique set of data for scholarly consultation from a micro perspective. This essay argues for the necessity of examining this particular body of literature, and on this premise, offers reflections and observations through both existing scholarship and evidence found in those diaries. An overlapping relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary, created by the quotidian everyday life and the exceptionality of the situation in Wuhan respectively, is particularly noted and carried along to showcase the “slow violence” caused by the pandemic and quarantine policy to Wuhan residents’ daily life. Critically, this essay also argues that the activity of creating diaries
Y. Ni (B) Duke University, Durham, NC, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 J. Miller (ed.), The Coronavirus, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8_4
per se functions as an outlet of “dis-ease” emotions via communication between diary producers and audience in a shared temporality. Keywords Coronavirus · Diary · Social media · Wuhan
Any online search with the keywords “coronavirus diary,” “COVID-19 diary,” or similar terms will guide us to a great amount of data. These diaries, produced by individuals or communities differently affected by the coronavirus pandemic around the globe, have shown great diversity in terms of their forms (written, photo, video, etc.) and tones (formal or casual, negative or positive, academic or non-academic, etc.). Yet, this diversity can hardly conceal the essential element that characterizes a diary, that is, the recording and representation of daily life, which has seemed extraordinary in the COVID-19 context as the abnormal pandemic status is turning into the new norm and affecting the tininess in our life. Wuhan is no exception in this regard. Particularly during its 76-day quarantine, from January 23 to April 8, a cascade of diaries created by residents “sealed” with the virus in the city sprung up on social media. They tell stories about an unprecedented crisis from an easily overlooked yet important perspective—one down to the ground and into the everyday—whether concise or lengthy, visual or literary, widely-consumed or unnoticed. The production of diaries during the Wuhan quarantine has been significant in at least two aspects. First, Wuhan is the first city where the COVID-19 infection was discovered and exploded and where robust medical practices were implemented. Diaries on related incidents and repercussions emerging there have also been the earliest, marking them as recordings of people’s real, unaltered reactions to a sudden public health crisis. Second and relatedly, according to Anthony Stavrianakis and Laurence Anne Tessier (2020), China has been the only country that has forcefully and successfully laid radical restrictions on its citizens’ physical movement, with Hubei set as “a grid on its territory.” The Wuhan quarantine was certainly the core of China’s serial arrangements in the name of public health. Unsurprisingly, controversies over the quarantine came to the fore back then. Liu Shaohua (2020) views these controls as impotent and superficial actions that could not authentically lead to positive caregiving. Giorgio Agamben (2020) points out that medical
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strategies in the pandemic reveal “the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm” with quarantine and surveillance as tools. Alongside these political, cultural, and bioethical concerns, this essay reflects upon the Wuhan quarantine from a micro perspective, asking how ordinary people have been reacting to such radical measures on a daily basis and how they could or could not find mediations through spontaneous expressions in virtual spaces. Thus, diaries created during the Wuhan quarantine arguably become the ideal collection of data that can illuminate answers to these questions. In what follows, this essay will note observations based on existing scholarship and diary texts created by Wuhan residents during the quarantine period on the social media platforms of WeChat, Sina Weibo, Douyin, and Bilibili. Fundamentally, there is a sense of everydayness lucking under the everyday details in these diaries. According to Ben Highmore (2002), everydayness refers to “the unnoticed, the inconspicuous [and] the unobtrusive” parts of life, which we are too familiar with to notice (1). Indeed, one may say not much is going on in these diaries. Diary creators simply took down daily routines in a quarantined city (e.g. Fang Fang 2020; Zhizhu Hou Mianbao 2020a). People are seen talking, eating, driving, laboring, conversing, sleeping, and cooking, but there is barely storytelling serving as threads coherently linking them. Similarly, in those online chat groups on WeChat organized by Wuhan residents, the most talked was also so ordinary as these day-to-day activities. Perhaps with little awareness, Wuhan residents were doing something they would resist in normal status, that is, “reporting” accurate and minute details in their daily life to strangers. They reported what time they got up and went to bed, what they ate for lunch and dinner, and what they read and watched for killing time. Whether words or visuals, the Wuhan quarantine diaries are occupied by mostly ordinary moments that are familiar to both their creators and audience. Nevertheless, it is precisely through the everyday life, Highmore continued that, there exists “a social life, that … undergoes an adventure, as it is reformulated, re-employed, re-used, in different contexts, under different conditions” (18). Highmore’s acknowledgment of this significance echoes Rita Felski’s (2000) connections of everyday life to “the entire social world” (78). Certainly, both ideas trace back to theorists including Georg Simmel, Michel de Certeau, and Henri Lefebvre, as reviewed by Alasdair Jones (2018). Across these theoretical threads, what is interesting to the concern of this essay is the contextualization of the everyday life in the Wuhan quarantine, emphasizing that the social life
originally embedded in the sense of everydayness was then haunted by the exceptional situation and policy. The coexistence of the ordinary and the exceptional in ethnographic methods has been widely noted by the current scholarship. For instance, Paul Atkinson and Martyn Hammersley ( 2007) call for attention to both “routine actions and rituals” and “unusual, deviant and problematic events and situations” (169). Jones further adds that exceptionality can be impactful on “how individuals experience, interpret and attribute meaning” to social life and thus be supplemental to the unobtrusive everyday life (1011). While observations in this essay generally follow these insights, it is important to point out that the ordinary and the exceptional in the case of Wuhan quarantine form a complicated overlapping relationship rather than mere coexistence. Certainly, those diaries record mostly ordinary daily life and occasionally exceptional moments, such as the sudden release of a policy and emotional outburst (Xiao Hang 2020; Zhizhu Hou Mianbao 2020c). But they both are situated and immersed in a deeper exceptionality that comes from the pandemic context. Both ordinary and extraordinary elements of the quarantine life demand references to its broader background. Again, in Highmore’s words, the everyday life in the Wuhan quarantine diaries has to be “reformulated, re-employed, [and] re-used” (18). One effect caused by this overlapping relationship that the ordinary life is immersed in the exceptional context is that even the most ordinary becomes extraordinary. The basic sustaining activities, as listed above, can appear affective to those who experience and witness them. Kathleen Stewart (2007), in defining “ordinary affects,” reminds that a chain of ordinary moments can establish a “contact zone where the overdeterminations of circulations, events, conditions, technologies, and flows of power literally take place” (3). Phillip Vannini (2020), based on his personal quarantine experience, echoes Stewart’s definition by putting that “the ordinary effects of this … atmospheric dis-ease are a ‘contact zone’” (273). Similar to Vannini’s self-reflexive diary writing, “ordinary affects” can be constantly perceived through those Wuhan quarantine diaries; dis-ease, which I would understand as physical and psychological discomfort resulting from the horror and anxiety in the air of an abnormally enclosed space in this context, is the major consequence that haunts Wuhan residents’ ordinary life as well as one that they have to accept and accommodate themselves to. For example, in a video diary recorded by Zhizhu Hou Mianbao (2020b), the narrator describes, “once I see
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(information), I feel very sad, which makes me always want to cry … I am feeling … a sense of guilty and self-blaming. This mixed feeling eventually becomes pressure.” This monologue has illustrated a mixture of anxiety, pressure, guilty, and sorrow that has generated from the sudden lockdown and its ensuing changes and has filled Wuhan residents’ daily life since then. It might also be helpful to recall the term “slow violence” conceptualized by Rob Nixon (2011). While Nixon focuses on global environmental issues, this idea generally depicts how human beings’ ways of experiencing and dealing with dramatic crises tend to be undramatic. Nixon elaborates that slow violence is “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attributional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2). The paradox between the dramatic and the undramatic, as implied in Nixon’s argument, has long been lurking under our chronic experience in the Anthropocene. Climate change is a term we are frequently hearing but rarely personally witnessing. Digital toxicity is a fact that we know but are seldom aware of in our daily reliance on digital devices. Scientific evidence has shown us the dramatic consequences those big terms would possibly cause to us and the planet, yet such dramatic-ness seems only matters when the undramatic-ness in our life gets challenged. We can scarcely see in person the glacier in the Antarctic melting, but we reinforce our perception of a changing climate by experiencing a summer warmer than usual. Similarly, living in the quarantine with COVID-19 is not a volcanic eruption that takes place and destroys matters at once; rather, it is more like radiation, a type of slow violence that encroaches one’s life little by little. The pandemic itself is a violent global crisis associated with suffering and death, yet in most cases, it is also one that gradually permeates into people’s activities and bodies rather than one that abruptly causes drastic consequences. The Wuhan lockdown meant that a city of over 10 million population had to become “empty.” Stores were closed. Public transportation and most services were halted. Only hospitals that cured patients and markets that supplied basic needs were still in operation. Within this situation, as shown in Wuhan residents’ Weibo postings, a sense of crisis stood out particularly when food sources were cut off, medical supplies were in severe shortage, transportation was reduced to a minimum, and outsiders were not allowed to return home at Chinese
New Year. Ultimately, for ordinary people, the COVID-19 crisis has been marked as a disturbance of their normal routines. And the slow violence continues and expands. With physical activities decreased to a minimum, people’s perception of the space got distorted. The familiar places became unfamiliar. The familiar activities had to be either shifted to virtual space or called off. Certainly, the perception of time was also largely disturbed, surrounded by all-pervasive uncertainty and instability felt by people in changing situations. The order of lockdown was announced at around midnight, and its implementation shortly followed after only 10 hours. In contrast to the sudden quarantine, the reopening seemed at a far distant date. If time is a relative dimension based on how it is perceived, one day restricted in domestic space might be sensed as much different from its previous 24 hours. Alongside the disturbance of people’s perception of time and space, it was the suspension of various types of exchange in prior-quarantine life. Imagine a person, who used to go outside the home every day for grocery shopping (exchange of commodities), academic seminars (exchange of ideas), and family reunions (exchange of care and love), can then only do activities in a limited space for most of the time. Interruption of daily routine implied disturbance of exchange—basic needs of human beings as well as conventions of life in a modern world. Nevertheless, while contents in these diaries are revelations of the disease affects and the overlapping of the ordinary and the exceptional, the practice of diary creation per se points to a possible solution to mediate the slow violence in the pandemic. In particular, the sense of ordinariness and everydayness has generated intimacy among people in quarantine and between the diary creators and audience. By sharing everyday life, strangers were no longer strangers but who could empathize with the difficulty in each other’s daily life. Further, reporting one’s daily routine had to do with encouraging and reassuring those in the same dilemma. Notably, the most frequent remark on the Wuhan quarantine video diaries posted on Douyin and Bilibili is “Wuhan, Stay Strong!” Additionally, on the part of the audience, the everydayness revealed in one’s diaries has turned into a source of familiarity. Quarantine might seem distant, but the quotidian rituals are immediately relatable. The most familiar moments could instantly remind one’s own life and then establish an analogy between the quarantine and the non-quarantine. In this sense, diary readers are participant observers rather than information receivers. They are invited to participate in life elsewhere, identifying with
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distant scenarios by reimagining their surroundings and sensing unfamiliar emotions by recalling their familiar feelings. In addition, this empathy in the communication between diary producers and consumers is reinforced by a sharing of time enabled by mass media technology. Helga Lénárt-Cheng (2014) terms it as simultaneity that presents “the temporal coincidence of two or more spatially separated events” (23). In the Wuhan case, the separation of spaces stands out in particular due to the considerable reduction of physical movements, while the sense of being temporally together is strengthened. Lénárt-Cheng, moreover, argues that this “shared sense of temporality” engenders a “community-building effect” that highlights the similarity across different spaces and leads to a shared social identity (22). Certainly, this recalls what Benedict Anderson ( 1991) terms as “imagined communities.” For Anderson, the newspaper is the window through which citizens in different places experience “a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time” and thus see their sameness and affinity with others (26). The Wuhan quarantine diaries have precisely created a temporary yet powerful social identity and organism by basic diary elements like marks of date and time. One typical beginning of those diaries is a reminder of the quarantine, such as “today is the seventh day of the Wuhan quarantine.” This line, immediately and straightforwardly, points to the significance of the ordinary moments within the diaries and resonates with the audience who are witnessing the same period. It is also worth differentiating between paper media and nationalism in Anderson and their counterparts in the case of Wuhan quarantine. With a set of tools automatically coming with the feature of simultaneity, the shared temporality through Wuhan residents’ diaries is constantly intensified. The audience of the Wuhan diaries are intrigued to observe and experience the lockdown life remotely, while “Wuhan resident” emerged as a noticeable identity that provisionally characterizes a community living within the quarantine. Last but not least, diaries are ordinary but powerful, ephemeral but everlasting. Diaries created during the Wuhan quarantine are chapters of ordinary everyday life written on an extraordinary piece of history. This essay acknowledges diaries as keys to one hidden side of the truth of people, compiled by fundamental, affective details in one’s life. While diaries reveal Wuhan residents’ dis-ease status and the slow violence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they also present strivings and hopes for life out of the quarantine.
Works Cited Agamben, Giorgio. 2020. The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency. Positions Politics. http://positionswebsite.org/giorgio-agambenthe-state-of-exception-provoked-by-an-unmotivated-emergency/. Accessed 1 August 2020. Anderson, Benedict. (1983) 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso. Atkinson, Paul, and Martyn Hammersley. (1983) 2007. Ethnography: Principles in Practice. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. Fang Fang. 2020. Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City. Trans. Michael Berry. New York: HarperCollins. Felski, Rita. 2000. Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture. New York: New York University Press. Highmore, Ben. 2002. Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London and New York: Routledge. Jones, Alasdair. 2018. Everyday Without Exception? Making Space for the Exceptional in Contemporary Sociological Studies of Streetlife. The Sociological Review 66 (5): 1000–1016. Lénárt-Cheng, Helga. 2014. Concepts of Simultaneity and Community in the Crowd-Sourced Video Diary “Life in a Day.” Cultural Politics 10 (1): 21–39. Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Stavrianakis, Anthony, and Laurence Anne Tessier. 2020. Go Suppress Yourself: A Chronicle. Somatosphere. http://somatosphere.net/2020/go-suppressyourself.html/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_cam paign=Feed%3A+Somatosphere+%28Somatosphere%29http://somatosphere. net/2020/go-suppress-yourself.html/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_med ium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Somatosphere+%28Somatosphere%29. Accessed 1 August 2020. Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press. Vannini, Phillip. 2020. COVID-19 as Atmospheric Dis-ease: Attuning into Ordinary Effects of Collective Quarantine and Isolation. Space and Culture 23 (3): 269–273. Xiao Hang 小杭. 2020. “Yige Wuhan nvsheng de zhenshi riji 一个武汉女生的真 实日记” [Real Diaries of a Girl Living in Wuhan]. Medium, 9 February 2020. https://medium.com/coronavirus19/%E8%B1%86%E7%93%A3-%E4%B8% 80%E4%B8%AA%E6%AD%A6%E6%B1%89%E5%A5%B3%E7%94%9F%E7% 9A%84%E7%9C%9F%E5%AE%9E%E6%97%A5%E8%AE%B0-e8ff02a7bb8b. Accessed 1 August 2020. Zeng, Jinyan, and Shaohua Liu. 2020. Epidemic Control in China: A Conversation with Liu Shao-hua. Made in China Journal 5 (1):
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65–77. https://madeinchinajournal.com/2020/02/22/epidemic-control-inchina-a-conversation-with-liu-shao-hua/. Zhizhu Hou Mianbao 蜘蛛猴面包. 2020a. “Wuhan fengcheng riji 武汉封城日 记” [Wuhan Quarantine Diary]. Youtube Video, series of 22 videos, last modified 2 June 2020. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhddqgmq zoy-dlLOfuQYFHhziVgAeohbP. Zhizhu Hou Mianbao 蜘蛛猴面包. 2020b. “Wuhan fengcheng riji 6: Tanfang shequ xuanchuan fuwu, yiwu songcan, baifang duju laoyou 武 汉封城日记6: 探访社区宣传服务,义务送餐,拜访独居老友” [Wuhan Quarantine Diary 6: Visiting Community Services, Volunteering Food Delivery, and Visiting Solitary Friends]. Youtube Video, 8:58, 4 February 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RRNWDJDMeM&list=PLhddq gmqzoy-dlLOfuQYFHhziVgAeohbP&index=6. Zhizhu Hou Mianbao 蜘蛛猴面包. 2020c. “Wuhan fengcheng riji 11: Songyao 2 武汉封城日记11: 送药2” [Wuhan Quarantine Diary 11: Delivering Medicines 2]. Youtube Video, 10:47, 17 February 2020. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=sMw7X1KPJLw&t=328s.
On the Epistemic Condition of Pandemic in a Globalized Present Zairong Xiang
Abstract The current pandemic provoked by the Coronavirus that emerged first in the city of Wuhan in China has elicited a wide range of philosophical speculations, especially when the virus started to hit the hinterland of the Western world (first Europe and then the USA). Among those reflections are some of the best known thinkers of our times. French philosopher Alain Badiou wrote a reflection “On the Epidemic Situation” on Verso Book Blog in late March, for example, where he constructed a reductive dualism between the Cartesian pure/clean reason and the Chinese irrational (“irrepressible” in his own word)/dirty archaic habit of animal consumption, which resonated strongly with racist bigotry that we have seen since the beginning of the epidemic outbreak, against people of (east) Asian heritage. This essay departs from a critique of Badiou’s text in order to show the underlying epistemic racism/eurocentrism interweaving the author’s personal experience with the “wet market” and an analysis of the economic condition of the globalized present. Facing an ever more complex world entangled in deep trouble caused by the pandemic, the essay argues against any epistemic reductionism and simplistic solutions.
Z. Xiang (B) Duke Kunshan University, Kunshan, China e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 J. Miller (ed.), The Coronavirus, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8_5
Keywords Coronavirus · Epistemology · Epidemic · Racism · Rationality
In mid-March here in Berlin, before the government imposed strict rules on any outside activity but already recommended social distancing, a lot of people were still gathering in big crowds lining up for flat whites or frozen yogurt “as if nothing had happened.” Just across the street panic buying had already turned some human beings into hamsters. By March 9th, 80,778 people were infected in China, merely 1224 cases were registered in Germany, 994 in the US. One month after, cases in the “West” started to increase exponentially, Germany alone had 103,335 cases on April 6th when an earlier version of this text was published on OpenDemocracy, the US number was the cosmic 375,348 and the total coronavirus death in Italy was 16,523.1 With rapidly rising case numbers, most people started to comply with the closing-down measures. The solidarity shown by the majority with those most vulnerable to the virus and with medical workers is heart-warming although it was only after 100 days had passed and when the shit really hit the fan in Europe and the US, that we read words of universal solidarity from politicians, pundits and philosophers, when a “we” emerged that warrants the hashtag of a world community: #oneworld.2 I had already been shouted at “Corona! Corona!” on Berlin’s streets in February. My people’s misfortune crowned me. The crown was unbearable not really because of the racist slur which is not unheard of novelty for most racialized minorities in the liberal West, but because of the sense of loneliness it induced—you would expect a bit of sympathy if your fellow people are dying at home; instead what you get is ridicule and even physical attack on the street but also in the media. For example, two Hong Kong virologists, Dr. Kwok-Yung Yuen and Dr. David Lung from Hong Kong University (Dr. Yuen is a leading virologist, often referred to as the Hong Kong Zhong Nanshan, or the Hong Kong Christian Drosten, depending on whom you are familiar with), wrote a text in Chinese for the popular newspaper Ming Pao, in which they claimed: “The real source of this viral poison [the coronavirus] are the degenerate customs and inferior root stock of the Chinese people.”3 The emphatically racist and unscientific text is unfortunately not an isolated case. It, with others, forecasted a significant, still ongoing diplomatic dispute on the horizon: the Sino-US shouting match on the
ON THE EPISTEMIC CONDITION OF PANDEMIC …
origin of the new coronavirus. Although I doubt if any Chinese or US politicians would ever read French Theory, they would be surprised to find in an eminent self-identified Maoist French philosopher both support and dispute. Alain Badiou wrote a text titled “On the Epidemic Condition” for the leftist publisher Verso’s popular blog that has since been shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook and the Chinese translation of which was ready overnight and in circulation one day after. He unapologetically describes the following: For example, the initial fulcrum of the current epidemic is very probably to be found in the markets of Wuhan province. Chinese markets are known for their dangerous dirtiness, and for their irrepressible taste for the openair sale of all kinds of living animals, stacked on top of one another. Whence the fact that at a certain moment the virus found itself present, in an animal form itself inherited from bats, in a very dense popular milieu, and in conditions of rudimentary hygiene.4
The publication of this widely shared text coincide with the change of rhetoric regarding the then epidemic in the Trump administration when the US president Donald Trump started to refer to the Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” or even “Kung Flu”—a rare moment when the US president showed a bit of talent in using his own language. It was March 23rd when the text “On the Epidemic Condition” by Alain Badiou was published on the Verso blog, exactly two months after the total lock-down of the city of Wuhan and pretty much the whole country, as a hats off to the Wuhan people and the thousands of medical workers, construction workers, logistics workers, and others who found themselves in the city. In the Chinese version, the translator kindly corrected Badiou’s mistake of calling Wuhan a province—something normally a translator should not do.5 This “unheard of” city, perhaps unknown to Badiou, is not unknown to a lot of people, including those who died and those who have loved ones, family members, friends, colleagues, and simply co-inhabitants or fellow human beings who died due to the new coronavirus (Covid-19) that first broke out there. This mistake is as minor as it is telling, not only because Joe Biden also could not be bothered to learn the city’s name.6 As a Maoist, Badiou should be expected to know Chinese geography slightly better. Wuhan is after all not a small city but one that played a significant role in modern Chinese history, where the anti-Qing dynastic Wuchang Uprising (1911) that initiated the fundamental change
of Chinese political system took place. Mao was exactly 18 years old that year and was profoundly influenced by the Xinhai Revolution that the Wucang Uprising started. In fact Badiou has written about it, the “Wuhan Incident” of 1967 during the heightday of the Cultural Revolution.7 And even if Monsieur Badiou was only concerned with “bare theory,” couldn’t he be bothered to read some news in which, for at least two months, the city of Wuhan in Hubei province was repeatedly mentioned? How come one of the best minds of our time could not have shown the slightest sympathy towards the sufferings of Wuhan people, especially the socially and economically underprivileged—the migrant worker who found a job in the wet market because there were no other more “hygienic” jobs available for her? Shouldn’t he suspect that the Chinese, besides their irrepressible taste for open-air sale of living animals, are also capable of thinking and producing, perhaps, epistemologically different ways of knowledge to deal with the virus that perhaps “even European countries”8 could learn to promptly manage it? Hasn’t he noticed that it was the migrant workers— delivery men and women—who sustained the life of millions of people in a completely locked-down city? And what about South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, their different and innovative ways of dealing with the virus? But no, looking at nowhere, our pundit returns to Reason, to the Cartesian Reason. The paragraph quoted above, infused with inaccuracy and exoticism to say the least—in fact exactly the kind of “racist fables online” he rightly criticizes in the paragraph that immediately follows—, is part of the “Cartesian” analysis that Badiou found most useful at the moment to bring to the front in order to address the challenges the pandemic poses. Our philosopher observes that “the intrinsic activity of Reason” has been dissipated on/by social media, which accordingly has obliged “subjects to return to those sad effects - mysticism, fabulation, prayer, prophecy and malediction.” The world is again divided into Reason and the irrational, and in Badiou’s evaluation: the “ancient” and the “modern.” The Cartesian man sits with the capitalized Reason to cogitare why “Even European countries are not managing promptly to adjust their policies in the face of the virus.” The Cartesian? That which cuts a strict separation between “nature” and “society”, and the other eurocentric dualisms that have sponsored colonialism and capitalist exploitation of “nature”—including
ON THE EPISTEMIC CONDITION OF PANDEMIC …
the non-Western natives as raw materials or raw labors befitting the project of capitalist progress, and supremacy of eurocentric Reason? No, the Cartesian “simple ideas” won’t solve the problem. If we are to understand the Covid-19 as arising from a complex, planetarily entangled, deep ecological crisis caused and exacerbated by colonial capitalism, the Cartesian Reason lies at its very epistemic center: not only the philosophical ground for colonialism and capitalism, but also the very understanding of the Cartesian man and by metonymy the West as impenetrable, impenetrable not only to virus of “the Other” but also to ideas. The world has never worked in a separate manner. Almost no culture in the deep history of humanity’s past has not in one way or the other been open to the other’s influences, by coercion or coincidence. In the globalized present with capitalist acceleration that brings everything and everyone not only together but also with high speed and frequency, somehow countries which later were shown as being heavily hit by the virus, notably Euro-American ones managed to trick themselves into believing in some magical impenetrability. “Why did so many countries watch the epidemic unfold for weeks as though it was none of their concern?” might lie in this false idea of impenetrability; and Eurocentric arrogance has squandered the time the Euro-American “Other” has brought.9 One central point of contestation seems to be the “wet market” which our philosopher tellingly relegates to the realm of “the archaic.” In a passage where he discusses the so called “point of articulation between natural and social determinations,” China becomes subjected to the most bare form of colonial observation: a “missing-link” of sort, between archaic/savage/natural-determinations and modern/civilized/social-determinations: China is thus a site in which one can observe the link – first for an archaic reason, then a modern one – between a nature-society intersection in illkept markets that followed older customs, on the one hand, and a planetary diffusion of this point of origin borne by the capitalist world market and its reliance on rapid and incessant mobility, on the other.10
I grew up with those wet markets and it never occured to me that I was living in some temporal residue of archaic savagery, until I observed closely the passage above. When I was a teenager, my mom owned a
small eatery. She would go everyday to the local market to buy vegetables and meat. I would go with her from time to time, and I hated the smell of the market, that mixture of chicken shit and rotten fish. Those were hard times, especially in winter. Those red hands of the vendors for many years lingered in my memory that reminded me of the struggle and hardship of the working people as I got used to the glossy, sanitized, sexily lit supermarkets in Europe, and also in today’s major cities in China. The existence of those “conditions of rudimentary hygiene” of these markets is not because of some “irrepressible taste” or “older custom,” it is first and foremost an economic condition, a dire economic condition at the center—not periphery—of global capitalism. Wuhan is one of the “newly discovered” innerlands of the global production chain as the Chinese coasts have become more expensive. My own city, which is even smaller and historically less significant than Wuhan, has become in recent years one of these new territories of global capitalism. Major digital companies no less than Apple, Huawei and the like have recently moved to glossy, sanitized, and sexily lit office buildings in this unknown mountain capital of one of the poorest provinces of China. Big Data they call it, the most cutting-edge development of Reason. Global capitalism has morbidly connected the Huanan wetmarket to the Wall Street stockmarket. So don’t be surprised if a virus that emerges from those “unknown” cities and regions becomes a global pandemic in the near future. Bad news. This is not a challenge posed on “science” and “reason” alone. Yes, modern medicine and in fact big data (as it is seen in East Asia) are at the front of confronting the current pandemic. But if we were to understand what went wrong and therefore be prepared to do what could be right, this is then not only an epidemic condition but also more importantly an epistemic challenge. To see the epidemic—now pandemic—as “rendered complex by the fact that it is always a point of articulation between natural and social determinations” is a cartesian curse rather than cure. These two so called “determinations” are always articulated, inseparable, and mutually infectious—lest we forget that climate change, a natural phenomenon, is first and foremost a human-made one, to the extent that some thinkers enthroned the anthropos in the new geological era known as the anthropocene. And to be prepared for the long term, besides a Marxist critique of global capitalism and ecological devastation of the planet, may we retrieve a little from the arrogant Reason; may we be wary of simple ideas, of
ON THE EPISTEMIC CONDITION OF PANDEMIC …
seemingly hygienic plastic packages of slaughtered mass-produced animals ordered nicely in temporary quarantine in aseptic refrigerators; may we be reminded, several stanzas before “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9) that monsieur Badiou invoked, in Ecclesiastes 1:4 “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever.” One could add here, another passage with similar humility of humanity’s vulnerability and indeed penetrability which by extension also nature’s: “heaven and earth cannot last, not to mention humanity” (天地 尚不能久,何况人乎?) in Daodejing chapter 23. Neither prayer nor reason alone would prepare us for the worst to come. Luckily, besides the “Cartesian simple ideas,” humanity has a huge reservoir of rich imaginations and philosophies, especially those epistemologies that have long been deemed un-scientific by Reason: indigenous cosmologies have always argued to understand and treat the world as an interconnected, living organism with supreme complexity, fragile resilience and indeed mystique. Luckily, there is social media, through which people organize themselves beyond the extremely impoverished imagination of the state—that is still relying on the myth of the Nation State with its murderous border; through which those who have been brought voluntarily or coercively far away from home could get connected with their loved ones. Neither the world nor the world-wide-web is a neutral space. In hyper-connected, highly globalized present, everything is infinitely complex, both cure and poison: consider say, the miraculous solution—albeit temporal—the pandemic has brought to climate degradation that has killed far more people and other creatures than the Covid-19 virus; consider the rapidly unified data surveillance with the exponentially increased internet usage under lockdown; consider the immensity of the plastic waste cause by protective equipment and disposable masks. None of these could be solved by a Cartesian “simple idea.” More than ever, as scholars committed to a livable future, epistemic decolonization and plurification are urgently needed. So let us not lose our commitment to diversity and multiplicity when facing a planetary emergency like Covid-19. Let us not consent to a single narrative and simple solution. While we need to keep our hands clean for the time being, may we, in infectious times, be epistemically unhygienic.
Notes 1. Worldometer: Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic. https://www.worldomet ers.info/coronavirus/. Access on 10 May 2020. 2. On 18th April 2020, Lady Gaga curated a virtual concert produced by Global Citizen called “One World Together at Home.” https://www.you tube.com/watch?v=nTd5Trp1pbg. Access on 10 May 2020. 3. Translated from Chinese to English by Jon Solomon. Solomon, Jon. 2020. Call for HKU to Investigate and Condemn Colonial Racism. https://www.change.org/p/president-s-office-university-of-hong-kongcall-on-hku-to-investigate-and-condemn-colonial-racism?fbclid=IwAR0c s8eHQwkBLnXyUQnlad_XHlhG8EtgyvdDqQ_dP3fpWUeXSWARV8 1IXCI. Access on 20 April 2020. 4. Badiou, Alain. 2020. On the Epidemic Situation. https://www.versob ooks.com/blogs/4608-on-the-epidemic-situation. Access on 24 March 2020. 5. The French version of text, presumably original, was published three days later than the English one translated by Alberto Toscano on 26 March 2020 on Quartier Général, where the sensational descriptions such as “dangerous dirtiness and irrepressible taste” are not found, instead a temporal marker “encore aujourd’hui [still today]” suggests similar prejudice: “Les marchés chinois sont encore aujourd’hui connus pour ce qui s’y trouve exposé, notamment leur goût de la vente en plein air de toutes sortes d’animaux vivants entassés.” Badiou, Alain. 2020. Sur la situation épidémique. https://qg.media/2020/03/26/sur-la-situationepidemique-par-alain-badiou/?fbclid=IwAR1wpASlVz-rb6vzl6SeIrSd6G UbSfY4_0lufi7ahE7uSMFQhrgTwjyjnro. Access on 30 March 2020. 6. Joe Biden called the Covid-19: https://twitter.com/bennyjohnson/sta tus/1243687563191336966. Access on 28 March 2020. 7. Badiou, Alain, and Bruno Bosteels. “The Cultural Revolution: The Last Revolution?” positions: east asia cultures critique 13, no. 3 (2005): 481– 514. 8. Badiou, Alain. 2020. On the Epidemic Situation. https://www.versob ooks.com/blogs/4608-on-the-epidemic-situation. Access on 24 March 2020. 9. Johnson, Ian. 2020. China Bought the West Time. The West Squandered It. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/opinion/china-responsechina.html?fbclid=IwAR3b4j_dIrcoZUbkF4SurJ0VtR_JoIPmXVvBn2Pj uoE3kjbWwDbTOLulRbk. Access on 30 March 2020. 10. Badiou, Alain. 2020. On the Epidemic Situation. https://www.versob ooks.com/blogs/4608-on-the-epidemic-situation. Access on 24 March 2020.
Context and Analysis
Historical Echoes Nicole Elizabeth Barnes
Abstract From the perspective of medical history, the novel coronavirus is not entirely novel. The work of women has long been essential for treating the sick and shoring up medical systems, though the degree to which women are acknowledged does change, sometimes in surprising ways. Chinese people have been the targets of medicalized racism for over a century, though social media has changed the way these messages circulate and the frequency and ferocity with which people can challenge them. We would all do well to take the lessons of pandemic history to heart as we try to adapt to a virus that we do not yet understand. At the same time, every pandemic does have a unique story because it is profoundly shaped by the state of the world when it occurs. Current telecommunication technologies have allowed many of us to build new daily routines with minimal contact with other human beings, but the mental and emotional costs of that distancing are high and will likely reverberate for more than a generation. We face many challenges that are not strictly scientific but have everything to do with politics and culture. Keywords Coronavirus · History · China · Racism · Pandemic
N. E. Barnes (B) Duke University, Durham, NC, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 J. Miller (ed.), The Coronavirus, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8_6
N. E. BARNES
As a historian of public health and medicine in China, I am primed to see COVID-19 from the perspective of medical history. This essay addresses three important historical echoes in the current coronavirus outbreak, all of which are disturbing to me. The first concerns the role of women as medical workers, the second is the resurgence of medicalized racism, and the third is the connections between the current outbreak and the disastrous influenza pandemic of one hundred years ago. The essay ends with a reflection on the ways in which COVID-19 has no historical precedent and has utterly transformed our world. My first book examines the role of women as healthcare workers during China’s War of Resistance against Japan—the heart of World War II in Asia—from 1937 to 1945.1 Gender roles in China were rather traditional at that time. Men were expected to take up arms to defend China against the Japanese soldiers, and women were expected to fulfill a lot of supporting roles, most of which put them behind the scenes: taking care of children and elderly parents-in-law while their husbands were away; sewing clothing and bandages to donate to the troops; writing letters home for wounded soldiers (many of whom were illiterate farmers) as they convalesced in hospital; running orphanages for children orphaned in the war; raising funds to support troops and refugees, etc. Some women also bravely served as military nurses. Women performed almost all of that work without pay, and of course work within the home and for the family was seldom recognized as actual work. It was just what women did to fulfill societal and familial expectations. Fast forward to the present. Soon after the novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China’s Ministry of Health mobilized thousands of medical workers to the epidemic’s front lines in Hubei province. Female nurses comprised the majority of this group, so they performed the majority of the healthcare work and absorbed the biggest risk in treating patients with an uncurable and as yet misunderstood disease. This was very similar to the situation of the military and civilian nurses of the 1930s and 1940s that I had researched before. But there was an important difference. This time women’s work was largely unrecognized, while male doctors received most of the media attention and accolades for their star performances as self-sacrificial care workers. Even when Xinhua news agency posted a photojournalism essay in honor of female health workers on International Women’s Day (March 8), the focus was less on the work of the women than on the “sacrifices” their husbands made in their absence. This constituted a double erasure of women’s work. The essay
mentioned few details of the work they did as doctors and nurses fighting the epidemic, while it also granted fawning attention to the emotional labor of their husbands, as if all the care the work the women normally did for their families only deserved notice when it was performed by men.2 By contrast, during the War of Resistance against Japan nearly a hundred years ago, women were highly visible in the media. Granted, media sources then were much more limited than they are now, but newspapers regularly depicted women and girls performing the various types of relief and health work that I described above. In the 1930s and 1940s women did a lot of very hard work, but they also received attention and recognition for it. They were highly visible in the media as the saviors of soldiers and refugees, and this visibility helped to change social expectations of women and gender relations. One reason for this difference might lie in the head of state. Xi Jinping is not known for challenging patriarchy or leading the charge against sexism. During the War of Resistance, the woman who appeared in national and international media most often to represent women’s role in the crisis was the beautiful and elegant First Lady of China, Song Meiling. She was then known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, in the early twentieth-century parlance of robbing married women not only of their surnames but also their personal names. The youngest daughter in the famous Song family, Song Meiling urged her female compatriots to work hard for their country in a way that was not just traditionally female but also publicly visible. She herself modeled how to do this. She raised money for children who lost their parents in the war (often in passionate speeches about “warphans,” an English-language term that she coined to help the cause) and visited them in their orphanages. She visited wounded soldiers in hospitals and accepted donations of medical equipment sent in from overseas. In February 1943 she was the second woman and first Asian to deliver a personal address to the United States Congress and House of Representatives. Her address was an impassioned plea for China’s war effort, and it was but one of dozens of speeches she delivered across the U.S. to raise money for warphans and refugees. If China today has a model of an all-male cast of extremely powerful politicians, China then had in Song Meiling a model of a woman who simultaneously accepted and challenged gender norms. Many women followed her example, and many more challenged the oppression of women in even more radical ways.
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Another way in which COVID-19 echoes the past is in the resurgence of medicalized racism against Asians and, if racist people can tell the difference, Chinese in particular. Anti-Asian racism that uses health practices and disease transmission as a pretext for oppression has a long history. It is one version of a trend with an even longer history: identifying the “diseased Other” as the source of danger in an epidemic. This does, in fact, have its roots in reality. Diseases do move with people and their goods. This is one reason why sheltering in place and shutting down large gatherings in schools, places of worship and sports arenas are key measures to slow the spread of COVID. But spewing racist epithets and circulating lies about China’s government and people not only will do nothing to prevent disease. Such ignorant bigotry also causes emotional damage. Anti-Chinese racism rooted in denigration of Chinese people’s physical fitness was well encapsulated in a phrase that circulated for the first time in foreign newspapers, then in Chinese ones, in 1895. A foreign journalist dubbed China the “Sick Man of Asia” after Japan had bested it in a war over geopolitical control of the Korean peninsula. The phrase stuck in large part because male Chinese intellectuals were exasperated at their own country’s failings and decided that labeling their political system and culture “sick” might help them focus people’s attention on what they thought needed to change. Many Chinese therefore did a very good job of circulating the “Sick Man” epithet and leveling it against each other, but the fact that it had originated in a foreign newspaper and bluntly epitomized the racist assumptions that many foreigners felt at the time about Chinese hygiene practices made the wound smart. And this phrase refuses to die. No matter how rich and powerful China becomes, it remains subject to medicalized denigration. On February 3, 2020, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed from a Bard College professor, Walter Mead, titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”3 In this instance 125 years later, there was a key difference that is quite hopeful. Chinese people and their allies around the world fought back on social media, circulating petitions with thousands of signatures. On February 13 the Chinese government expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters who had no connection with the op-ed or professor Mead, but they paid the price for their paper’s mistake. The racism continues to circulate, of course, and no one has the power to stop it, but the ability to use social media to fight back is a rather hopeful feature that marks a difference between then and now. One of the many reasons it is important
is that online activism gives people many competing narratives that can counteract the emotional harm of medicalized racism. The third historical echo is the most disturbing. That is the ways that COVID-19 might actually follow some of the patterns of the 1918– 1919 influenza pandemic. Our world has changed a lot in the intervening century plus a decade, and so have viruses, so it is important not to overdraw the similarities. Yet a historian of medicine can only think about the current global pandemic sparked by a coronavirus that emerged in an animal and adapted to infectivity in humans, in reference to the last time this very same thing happened. In that instance, fifty to one hundred million people died worldwide.4 The influenza pandemic came on fairly strong in the spring of 1918, but waned during summer when, we presume, the higher temperatures were less favorable to the virus. This lulled people into complacency, so they were even less prepared when the virus returned with a vengeance in the fall. October 1918 was the deadliest month during the entire pandemic, at least in the United States, and that was already seven months in. People don’t maintain a siege state for seven or more months unless it is forced upon them by dire circumstances, so in the current pandemic we are quite likely to see a few more waves of resurgence as this new coronavirus continually outsmarts us. The world will not likely see a death toll anywhere near that of the 1918–1919 pandemic since we do have (at least some) ventilators, (at least some) PPE for healthcare workers, and the distant hope of a vaccine, but at the time of my writing the death toll has already surpassed two hundred thousand, and the rising toll will continue for many months. This may erode our social fabric just as the post-WWI pandemic did, exacerbating our sense that anyone in our midst could be carrying a deadly disease and causing us to halt traditional greetings like shaking hands or kissing cheeks even long after the danger has passed. Meanwhile, general public health advice over a century later is remarkably similar: wear a face mask; avoid crowds; isolate yourself if you feel sick. With the exception of ventilators and the vaccine we are all hoping for, a century of advancements in scientific medicine have made little difference in how the world’s entire population deals with a tragedy of this sort. Advances in telecommunications have made drastic social distancing possible, but the most routine advice to wash your hands and avoid touching your face relies on tactics that have been available for millennia. There are some ways that the novel coronavirus pandemic is indeed novel. Shelter In Place (SIP) is a wholly new experience. It is a very clever
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way to slow the spread of a virus built to hop from host to host with relative ease, but it brings its own dangers. We are already witnessing an uptick in divorce rates, domestic abuse, depression, and suicides as a result of extreme social isolation. We have already slid into a deep economic depression that will take years to climb out of. Some children, even young ones, are being left at home alone because schools are closed, and their parents must leave for work. Some of these children are going hungry without the breakfast and lunch they used to eat at school. SIP is hard on all of us, but it is harder on some than on others. It is not feasible for working-class people whose physical labor does not transfer to an online platform. Though nearly every disease throughout history has plagued the poor more than the rich, in this pandemic delivery workers, grocery store clerks, sanitation workers and others have been put on the front lines in a whole new way. A second difference lies in how quickly information spreads. Conspiracy theories about influenza did circulate in the early twentieth century, but in a world without the internet they had a limited reach. In this pandemic we’ve already had word wars between the two largest superpowers, China and the United States, that not only mirror but also exacerbate our political troubles. At the same time wild conspiracy theories, often mixed with anti-Chinese medicalized racism, attract the attention of millions on a variety of social media platforms. In the US, some are circulating on major news outlets. The combination of the panic that a pandemic incites with political polemics about “fake news” is a dangerous mix. The virus is sickening individual bodies, but it is also attacking the social body, exacerbating divisions and deepening echo chambers in a way that hampers the cooperation and collaboration that is necessary to fight this pandemic. The third novelty of this novel coronavirus relates to its timing. Compared with past pandemics, this one has an outsized effect. Though COVID-19 is not likely to kill nearly as many people as have past disease outbreaks, it is shattering medical confidence with a formidable force. People in countries that have not yet climbed out of high disease morbidity are more likely to be able to take this latest challenge in stride. Those of us who have grown complacent about disease after enjoying both antibiotics and vaccines in our medical arsenal for the past seventy years are now re-learning essential survival skills. I speak now not of preventing disease, but of overcoming it. It is essential to know how to
bury and mourn the departed, how to rebuild a fractured society, and how to resume hopeful living after trauma.
Notes 1. Barnes, Nicole Elizabeth. 2018. Intimate Communities: Wartime Healthcare and the Birth of Modern China, 1937 –1945. Oakland: University of California Press. 2. Huaxia. 2020. Female Health Workers on the Front Line and Their Husbands at Home. Xinhuanet, March 8. http://www.xinhuanet.com/ english/2020-03/08/c_138855527.htm. 3. Mead, Walter Russell. 2020. China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia: Its Financial Markets May Be Even More Dangerous Than Its Wildlife Markets. The Wall Street Journal, February 3. 4. Johnson, Nial P. A. S., and Juergen Mueller. 2002. Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918–1920 “Spanish” Influenza Pandemic. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76.1 (Spring): 105–115.
Black and White Swans: Pandemics, Prognostications, and Preparedness Carlos Rojas
Abstract This essay examines why communities around the world have tended to respond relatively poorly and belatedly to the Covid pandemic—despite the fact that the likelihood of this sort of infectious outbreak had been widely recognized by public health experts, and furthermore in early 2020 communities outside of China were, in effect, given an advance warning of the imminent threat of this particular outbreak before the virus began to spread globally. Drawing on Nassim Taleb’s recent discussion of the sociopolitical significance of “black swan events,” this essay argues that the global Covid response is symptomatic of a more general difficulty in thinking probabilistically. Keywords Covid-19 · Black swan · Probabilistic thinking
The original events on which the present volume is based were held at Duke University on the morning of Tuesday, March 3, and I opened my remarks at the second of the two roundtables that morning by noting
C. Rojas (B) Duke University, Durham, NC, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 J. Miller (ed.), The Coronavirus, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8_7
that day happened to be Super Tuesday—the day in the US presidential primaries when the largest number of states hold their primary elections. Given the enormous consequences of these elections, considerable effort goes into trying to predict their outcomes. However, although the resulting prognostications are arguably becoming increasingly sophisticated (drawing on complex algorithms and vast amounts of survey data), their significance remains widely misunderstood. That is to say, after an election people often want to know which predictions were “right,” but this is not the best question to be asking. Forecasts are inherently probabilistic, in that they don’t predict a specific outcome but rather estimate the likelihood that an outcome may come to pass. Therefore, if an election forecaster determines that there is, say, a sixty percent chance that one candidate will win and the other candidate ultimately wins, this does not mean that the forecast was wrong. In fact, if the forecast was done correctly, then four times out of ten you would expect the less favored candidate to win; and if the favored candidate did indeed win every time in this sort of scenario, that would suggest that the model was set up incorrectly. That is to say, the value of a prognosticatory model lies not in its ability to predict any specific outcome, but rather in its ability to predict the probabilistic spread of an aggregate of outcomes. This tendency to approach future eventualities in binary terms (i.e., which candidate will win or lose an election) as opposed to probabilistic terms (i.e., the relative likelihood that a certain candidate will win an election) also informs the world’s collective response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Although different nations have adopted a variety of different responses to the outbreak, virtually every nation waited until the crisis was already well-advanced within its own territory before taking aggressive measures to limit the further spread of the virus. In other words, it has proven difficult for most governments to adopt strong preventative measures based on the probability that the virus might impact their nations in the future, as opposed to taking action once the local epidemic has already been confirmed. This characteristic is common not only among national governments, but also organizations and individuals.1 For instance, our March 3 Covid19 roundtable began with a virtual session conducted entirely over Zoom (which was attended by around two hundred participants around the world), and was followed by an in-person session in which the twelve panelists and a couple dozen students and faculty assembled in a room on Duke’s campus. Although the majority of the panelists were from Duke
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Kunshan University (DKU), and were in Durham precisely because DKU had shut down its campus in China several weeks earlier, and furthermore included epidemiologists, policy experts, medical historians, and others who had been following the Covid-19 crisis closely—it nevertheless didn’t occur to anyone at the event to note the fact that we were discussing a very infectious and lethal viral disease in a tightly-packed room. On March 3, the day of the panel, there were more than 90,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 around the world, including more than 10,000 cases outside of China, and although the virus was not yet known to have spread widely in North Carolina (coincidentally, the first confirmed case in the state was reported that same day),2 it was nevertheless recognized that low testing rates in the US meant that official statistics significantly underrepresented the actual number of infections (an epidemiological model developed by Northeastern University suggests that by March 1, at a time when five major US cities only had 23 confirmed cases between them, the actual number of cases in those same five cities could easily have been over thirty thousand).3 As it turns out, precisely one week after our March 3 Covid-19 panel, North Carolina declared a state of emergency, and a few hours later Duke announced that the university’s spring break would be extended by another week and that in-person classes were being suspended until further notice. Six days after that, on March 16, all Duke faculty and staff were instructed to “cease small-group and individual meetings effective immediately, transition to remote access for these activities, and follow the guidance for social distancing whenever on campus.”4 Of course, one might argue that the Covid-19 pandemic is simply a “black swan” event that “nobody could have predicted,”5 but this is not accurate. In fact, over the past two decades, two other new zoonotic coronaviruses (which were responsible for SARS and MERS, respectively) were identified, each of which has a significantly higher case fatality rate than the Covid-19 coronavirus. Fortunately, neither SARS-CoV and MERSCoV turned out to be as infectious as they could have been, but there are other coronaviruses that are much more infectious (such as the viruses responsible for the common cold). Given the speed with which viruses are able to mutate, it was arguably simply a matter of time before there would be an outbreak of a virus that was both relatively infectious and relatively lethal. In fact, in 2019 the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ran a simulation game titled “Crimson Contagion,” in which a respiratory virus outbreak originates in China and spreads around
the world. From this simulation, the HHS concluded that the resulting pandemic could result in hundreds of thousands of deaths in the US alone, and that “existing statutory authorities tasking HHS to lead the federal government’s response to an influenza pandemic are insufficient and often in conflict with one another.”6 Similarly, a 2019 UN-sponsored report concluded that “there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy.” The report adds, “A global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not prepared.”7 The notion of a black swan event builds on a metaphor used to illustrate a critique of inductive reasoning (more specifically, the example refers to how the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh’s sighting of black swans in Australia in 1697 disproved what up to that point had been the nearly universal assumption—at least among Europeans—that all swans must be white). The metaphor was further developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, in which he contends that virtually all major historical developments have been shaped by black swan events that (1) lie “outside the realm of regular expectations;” (2) carry “an extreme ‘impact’”; and (3) subsequently become normalized, rendering them “explainable and predictable” ex post facto. Taleb argues that we should do what we can to prepare for these black swan events that are, by definition, unpredictable. Some observers have suggested that the current outbreak could be viewed as a black swan event in Taleb’s sense of the term, despite the fact that, in the 2010 postscript to the second edition of Black Swan, Taleb explicitly specified that the risk of “a very strange acute virus spreading throughout the planet” is actually one of the necessary “side-effects” or “trade-offs” of global travel.8 That is to say, Taleb cited a viral pandemic not as an extraordinary event that could not possibly be anticipated (a “black swan”), but rather its precise opposite—something that, given current globalized conditions, was virtually guaranteed to occur during a reasonable span of time (a “white swan”). More recently, on January 26 of this year, Taleb co-authored a paper in which he argued that aggressive precautionary measures must be taken during what, at the time, was still the early stages of the global pandemic, so as to avoid the possibility of having to confront much more acute consequences later:
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It will cost something to reduce mobility in the short term, but to fail do so will eventually cost everything—if not from this event, then one in the future. Outbreaks are inevitable, but an appropriately precautionary response can mitigate systemic risk to the globe at large. But policy- and decision-makers must act swiftly and avoid the fallacy that to have an appropriate respect for uncertainty in the face of possible irreversible catastrophe amounts to “paranoia,” or the converse a belief that nothing can be done.9
Or, as Taub put it more succinctly in a subsequent interview, “We issued our warning that, effectively, you should kill it [the pandemic] in the egg. [Governments] did not want to spend pennies in January; now they are going to spend trillions.”10 While Taleb is undoubtedly correct in claiming that the coronavirus pandemic was, in his terminology, not a black swan but rather a white swan event, this distinction nevertheless underscores an underlying irony inherent in the terminology itself (both in general, and also more specifically as it relates to the current crisis). On one hand, although it is true that before the eighteenth century, black swans were considered an extraordinary rarity by Europeans, they were actually commonplace in Australia and New Zealand. Moreover, they were subsequently exported to many countries as ornamental animals, and wild populations can currently be found in Britain, Spain, Japan, and China. With an estimated world population of between 100,000 and 1 million individuals, black swans can hardly be regarded as “rare birds,” and instead they are a symptom of a ubiquitous process of globalization. On the other hand, a series of Covid-related internet postings that recently went viral treated a sighting not of black swans but rather of white swans as a highly unusual occurrence. In particular, in the context of numerous reports about how the environment has benefited from the dramatic reduction in vehicular traffic during the Covid-19 shutdowns around the world, a Twitter user in New Delhi posted a series of tweets remarking on how Venice’s canals had become so clean that an abundance of wildlife could now be found there, including fish, dolphins, and (white) swans. It was quickly pointed out, however, that the dolphin pictures were actually not from Venice but rather from Sardinia, hundreds of miles away, and while the swan pictures were, in fact, from Venice (and specifically from the colorful island of Burano in the Venetian Lagoon, just north of
the city of Venice), they were actually a well-known and long-standing fixture of the area.11 Accordingly, just as black swans are not rare but rather commonplace, the preceding anecdote illustrates how a phenomenon that was originally mundane (i.e., Burano’s local swan population) can come to be viewed as extraordinary when removed from its original context. Moreover, although the tweet about Venice’s white swans was attempting to draw attention to an unexpected benefit of the coronavirus pandemic (namely, that the resulting shutdown was having a positive impact on the environment), it was simultaneously reinforcing some of the unproductive ways in which the pandemic has been discussed (namely, the suggestion that this sort of pandemic is a highly unusual and unexpected occurrence). By treating the pandemic as though it were a black swan event, in other words, commentators implicitly rationalize and justify failures to prepare for—and respond to—the resulting eventuality.
Notes 1. Considerable research has been conducted on the difficulties that humans encounter in thinking probabilistically. For instance, see Manuele Reani, et al., “Evidencing How Experience and Problem Format Affect Probabilistic Reasoning Through Interaction Analysis,” Frontiers in Psychology 10, July 4, 2019: article 1548; Michelle McDowell and P. Perke Jacobs, “Meta-analysis of the Effect of Natural Frequencies on Bayesian Reasoning,” Psychological Bulletin 143: 1273–1312. 2. Jessica Banov, Kate Murphy, and Martha Quillin, “North Carolina Has Its First Reported Coronavirus,” News and Observer, March 3, 2020. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article240750876.html. 3. Benedict Carey and James Glanz, “Hidden Outbreaks Spread Through US Cities Far Earlier Than Americans Knew Estimates Say,” The New York Times, April 23, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/us/cor onavirus-early-outbreaks-cities.html. 4. Nathan Luzum, “Duke Curtails In-Person Meetings, Promises Pay for University Employees,” The Chronicle, March 16, 2020. https://www. dukechronicle.com/article/2020/03/duke-university-covid19-corona virus-campus-meetings-staff-faculty-professors. 5. Ian Schwartz, “Trump on Coronavirus: ‘Nobody Could Have Predicted Something Like This,” Real Clear Politics, March 30, 2020. https:// www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/03/30/trump_on_coronavirus_ nobody_could_have_predicted_something_like_this.html.
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6. US Health and Human Services, “Crimson Contagion 2019 Functional Exercise Key Findings,” US Department of Health and Human Services, internal report, 2019. https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/68242019-10-key-findings-and-after/05bd797500ea55be0724/optimized/ full.pdf#page=1. 7. Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, “A World at Risk: Annual Report on Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies,” September 2019, p. 6. https://apps.who.int/gpmb/assets/annual_report/GPMB_annualr eport_2019.pdf. 8. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, second edition (New York: Random House, 2010). Taleb wrote this postscript in 2010, shortly after the 2009 H1N1 outbreak that originated in North America and quickly spread around the world. 9. Joseph Norman, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “Systemic Risk of Pandemic Via Novel Pathogens—Coronavirus: A Note,” New England Complex Systems Institute (January 26, 2020). 10. Quoted in Bernard Avishai, “The Pandemic Isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System,” The New Yorker, April 2020. 11. Natasha Daly, “Fake Animal News Abounds on Social Media as Coronavirus Upends Life,” National Geographic, March 20, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/03/corona virus-pandemic-fake-animal-viral-social-media-posts/.
Sources Avishai, Bernard. “The Pandemic Isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System.” The New Yorker, April 2020. Banov, Jessica, Kate Murphy, and Martha Quillin. “North Carolina Has Its First Reported Coronavirus.” News and Observer, March 3, 2020. https://www. newsobserver.com/news/local/article240750876.html. Carey, Benedict Carey, and James Glanz. “Hidden Outbreaks Spread Through US Cities Far Earlier Than Americans Knew Estimates Say.” The New York Times, April 23, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/us/corona virus-early-outbreaks-cities.html. Daly, Natasha. “Fake Animal News Abounds on Social Media as Coronavirus Upends Life.” National Geographic, March 20, 2020. https://www.nationalg eographic.com/animals/2020/03/coronavirus-pandemic-fake-animal-viralsocial-media-posts/. Global Preparedness Monitoring Board. “A World at Risk: Annual Report on Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies,” September 2019. https:// apps.who.int/gpmb/assets/annual_report/GPMB_annualreport_2019.pdf.
Luzum, Nathan Luzum. “Duke Curtails In-Person Meetings, Promises Pay For University Employees.” The Chronicle, March 16, 2020. https://www.duk echronicle.com/article/2020/03/duke-university-covid19-coronavirus-cam pus-meetings-staff-faculty-professors. Norman, Joseph, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “Systemic Risk of Pandemic Via Novel Pathogens—Coronavirus: A Note,” New England Complex Systems Institute (January 26, 2020). Schwartz, Ian. “Trump on Coronavirus: ‘Nobody Could Have Predicted Something Like This.” Real Clear Politics, March 30, 2020. https://www. realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/03/30/trump_on_coronavirus_nobody_ could_have_predicted_something_like_this.html. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, second edition (New York: Random House, 2010). US Health and Human Services. “Crimson Contagion 2019 Functional Exercise Key Findings,” US Department of Health and Human Services, internal report (2019). https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/6824-2019-10key-findings-and-after/05bd797500ea55be0724/.
The Information Politics of COVID-19 in China Melanie Manion
Abstract This chapter documents two information failures in China in early stages of the coronavirus that became the COVID-19 pandemic. First is the failure of timely and truthful upward reporting from Wuhan in December 2019 and early January 2020, which kept Beijing ignorant of the outbreak and spread of the virus. Second is the official misinformation to ordinary citizens in mid-January, even after Beijing understood the risk of transmission; this was accompanied by an aggressive campaign of censorship and intimidation of netizens who posted news about the virus on social media. Both failures were also evident in China’s SARS crisis of 2002–2003 and stem from systemic problems of information politics. China followed these failures with responses that are unusually sensitive to the tradeoffs between centralization and decentralization. With the draconian lockdown of Wuhan, Beijing exercised effective leadership by directly taking charge. Then, by invoking the Emergency Response Law, which mandates highly localized response, it permitted localities down to the county level to exercise discretion in choosing a policy response suited to local conditions and report upward ex post. With its capable
M. Manion (B) Duke University, Durham, NC, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 J. Miller (ed.), The Coronavirus, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8_8
response, Beijing has deflected attention from early failures, especially by comparison with bungling by governments elsewhere in the world. Keywords Information · Politics · Coronavirus · Transparency · China
Reflecting on China’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2002–2003, Huang (2003, 11) argues that public health problems seem to need “an attention-focusing event (e.g., a large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease) to be finally recognized, defined, and formally addressed.” Beijing responded to SARS by building a state-of-the-art contagious disease reporting system that linked hospitals throughout China directly to the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CCDC) and Ministry of Health in Beijing. Through this system, experts in Beijing could examine reports from local hospitals or disease control centers and set in motion rapid response to evidence of infectious disease, even if undiagnosed by local doctors. CCDC Director Gao Fu concluded in 2019: “A virus similar to SARS can break out at any time, but there will never be another SARS crisis. This is how well the contagious disease reporting system works.” What is clear in retrospect, from what we now know about early stages of the outbreak and its spread, is this: the governance failures that occurred in December 2019 and January 2020 are systemic, familiar to anyone who can recall the SARS crisis.1 They are costly failures of timely and truthful upward and downward reporting—which trumped the impressive technology and well-practiced protocols of the national contagious disease reporting system. Moreover, they are integrally connected to the fundamentals of information politics in China. Illuminating these connections is the purpose of this essay.
Failures of Upward Reporting Consider first the failures in upward reporting. As scholars have documented well (e.g., Gao 2016; Wallace 2016; Pan and Chen 2018), Beijing has a big information asymmetry problem: local officials hide information and hide actions. They have strong incentives to do so as they weigh the career consequences of bad news. All Chinese officials, including formally elected politicians and functionally specialized bureaucrats, are
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essentially bureaucratic appointees. They are upwardly accountable in a hierarchy monopolized by a single communist party (e.g., Landry et al. 2018). At the apex of the hierarchy is the Politburo in Beijing, headed by Xi Jinping. Officials like Wuhan’s mayor and party secretary normally face years of lateral transfers to other cities until eventual mandatory retirement. Competition for rare promotions is very fierce; a mistake can preclude career advancement. The early timeline of COVID-19 is still being constructed—but it seems clear from available documents, even the recently released official State Council White Paper on the subject, that this bureaucratic incentive structure failed in late 2019 and early 2020.2 In Wuhan, the officials who manage the hospitals chose not to report the “pneumonia of unknown cause” that its doctors began to encounter in mid-December. Even as the number of cases grew, the municipal government hid the problem. Wuhan physicians, include Li Wenliang, who later died of the virus, exchanged information about cases on social media, for which they were later castigated on national television. On 30 December, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued two “urgent directives” that ordered hospitals to report all cases of the pneumonia directly to it and to take measures to avoid infection in hospitals. The documents were leaked on social media within 12 minutes of their issuance. Hua Sheng (16 February 2020) reports that CCDC Director Gao Fu learned of the outbreak through social media. Wuhan continued to block hospital upward reporting about cases even as teams of contagious disease experts sent from Beijing conducted on-site investigations in January. In short, the first lack of transparency about COVID-19 was local. Indeed, we have as yet no record to indicate that Wuhan ever reported the coronavirus to Beijing.3 The system put in place after SARS could not unblock the incentive structure on which China’s system of career performance evaluations is built. At the very least, social media leaks were crucial to unblocking the information channel from the localities to Beijing.
Failures of Downward Reporting Turning next to the failures in downward reporting, Beijing’s discovery that local authorities had hidden bad news was immediately followed by a typically aggressive official secrecy that rejects a right to know for its citizens. The state maintains tight control over China’s official and mainstream news (Stockmann and Gallagher 2011; Stockmann 2013).
Until 20 January—weeks after social media had disclosed it—these news sources kept Chinese uninformed about the public health crisis. Even as the National Health Commission alerted provincial health officials in a mid-January confidential teleconference about a risk of transmission and possible human-to-human transmission, officials offered reassurances on state television. Chinese traveled as usual and made travel plans for the Lunar New Year in late January, the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar. Similarly, in early 2003, before social media made its appearance, Chinese in Guangzhou exchanged news about SARS in text messages— but the official press observed a prohibition on news about the virus. Beijing was only forthcoming with SARS news after military physician Jiang Yanyong went public, providing data about infections and deaths at a Beijing military hospital and accusing the authorities of lying about public safety—and Time magazine posted his information. Whether and when to notify the public about a public health emergency is a difficult and sensitive political decision, even in a liberal democracy. Beijing did not simply withhold vital information from its citizens, however. It launched a campaign of intensified censorship and intimidation of hundreds of “netizens” who posted news about the coronavirus.4 This included ordinary citizens, who are normally left alone by the Chinese censors (Roberts 2018). More predictably, it silenced celebrity microbloggers. For example, Ren Zhiqiang, who once had 38 million followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, was detained by the communist party’s anticorruption agency for “serious violations of discipline and law,” which means corruption, after he posted a thinly disguised criticism of Xi Jinping’s management of the crisis. These actions to repress social media are not surprising but are ironic in light of the failure in upward reporting, which social media corrected.
Conclusion China has been criticized for a lack of transparency to the world about the virus that became the COVID-19 pandemic. This essay focuses on the endemic lack of transparency within China, which kept Beijing from learning the truth for weeks and then kept ordinary Chinese citizens from learning the truth for additional weeks. The failures in upward and downward reporting are governance failures, although Beijing surely does not recognize the latter as such.
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China has also won praise from the World Health Organization and foreign leaders for its epic response to the coronavirus, beginning with the draconian lockdown of Wuhan on 23 January. With this heroic response, Beijing exercised leadership by directly taking charge in Wuhan. Interestingly and less well known, however, Beijing also recognized that the spread of the virus was bound to exhibit great local variation; local response to local information was the better strategy, once the incentives were right. In a move of extreme decentralization, Beijing invoked the Emergency Response Law, which mandates highly localized response. It authorized localities down to the county level to exercise discretion in choosing a policy response suited to local conditions and report upward ex post. By locking down Wuhan, Beijing signaled to localities an acceptable extreme at one end of an unspecified continuum of policy responses. Variation in local policy response is wide and apparent. This decentralization response makes sense: crises require local knowledge and immediate response. Orville Schell, Director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, muses that Xi Jinping has lost the “mandate of heaven” and protests may ensue (Su 6 February 2020). This seems highly unlikely. As a large literature in political science has documented over the years, levels of Chinese trust in the central government are remarkably high (e.g., Li 2004, 2008, 2016), and the regime enjoys strong performance legitimacy (e.g., Lu 2014; Dickson 2016). Time is on Beijing’s side, not only because the state propaganda machine has touted Beijing’s capable response, deflecting attention from the early governance failures, but also because elsewhere in the world, as the virus has spread, many governments have bungled responses, not least of all the United States government. This too has become part of the state story.
Notes 1. Of the many good accounts of the SARS crisis, Huang’s (2003) analysis is especially insightful in pinpointing information failures. de Lisle (2004) is most useful in examining the relationship with the outside world, including the World Health Organization 2. Two online timelines of events are quite useful: (1) China Data Lab (2020) on Harvard Dataverse, and (2) “COVID-19-timeline,” the anonymous crowdsourced timeline by Chinese scholars. Myers (29 March 2020) in the New York Times is a good journalistic account of early key events, with links to some important leaked documents. We now also have the State
Council White Paper released in June 2020, as well as a number of good scholarly reconstructions of events: Huang (2020), Li et al. (2020), and Swaine (2020). 3. Interestingly, the State Council White Paper does not heap blame on local officials for not reporting the virus to Beijing—but its detailed chronology also pointedly neglects to indicate any date on which Wuhan reported it. See State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China (June 2020). 4. Chinese Human Rights Defenders (1 April 2020) documents 897 cases of police investigation of Internet users for online information sharing about the coronavirus between 1 January and 26 March 2020.
References China Data Lab. 2020. “China Covid-19 Events Timeline.tab.” Policies and Regulations. https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/OAM2JK/NAMW8X, Harvard Dataverse, V8, UNF:6:JqS0gAZjLDn7OqaXP/ZvNw== [fileUNF]. In Chinese. Accessed 29 April 2020. Chinese Human Rights Defenders. 1 April 2020. “A Healthy Society Should Not Have Just One Voice. China Must End Crackdown on Online Speech in Response to COVID-19.” At https://www.nchrd.org/2020/04/a-healthysociety-should-not-have-just-one-voice-china-must-end-crackdown-on-onlinespeech-in-response-to-covid-19/. Accessed 29 April 2020. “COVID-19-timeline.” At https://github.com/canisminor1990/ffxiv-timeline/ blob/master/README.md. In Chinese. Accessed 29 April 2020. de Lisle, Jacque. 2004. “Atypical Pneumonia and Ambivalent Law and Politics: SARS and the Response to SARS in China.” Temple Law Review, vol. 77, no. 2: 193–245. Dickson, Bruce J. 2016. The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Gao, Jie. 2016. “Bypass the Lying Mouths?: How Does the CCP Tackle Information Distortion at Local Levels?” China Quarterly, no. 228: 1–20. Hua Sheng. 16 February 2020. Weibo Account. “If the Attack on Gao Fu Has Missed the Target.” https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=165870080 9000730932&wfr=spider&for=pc&isFailFlag=1. In Chinese. Accessed on 29 April. 2020. Huang, Yanzhong. 2003. “The Politics of China’s SARS Crisis.” Harvard Asia Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 4: 9–16. Huang, Yanzhong. 2020. “China’s Public Health Response to the COVID-19 Outbreak.” China Leadership Monitor, no. 64. At https://www.prcleader. org/huang.
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Landry, Pierre F., Xiaobo Lu, and Haiyan Duan. 2018. “Does Performance Matter? Evaluating Political Selection Along the Chinese Administrative Ladder.” Comparative Political Studies, vol. 51, no. 8: 1074–1105. Li, Lianjiang. 2004. “Political Trust in Rural China.” Modern China, vol. 30, no. 2: 228–258. Li, Lianjiang. 2008. “Political Trust and Petitioning in the Chinese Countryside.” Comparative Politics, vol. 40, no. 2: 209–226. Li, Lianjiang. 2016. “Reassessing Trust in the Central Government: Evidence from Five National Surveys.” China Quarterly, no. 225: 100–121. Li, Qun, et al. 2020. “Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 382, no. 13: 1199–1207. Lu, Xiaobo. 2014. “Social Policy and Regime Legitimacy: The Effects of Education Reform in China.” American Political Science Review, vol. 108, no. 2: 423–437. Myers, Steven Lee. 29 March 2020. “China Created a Fail-Safe System to Track Contagions. It Failed.” New York Times. Pan, Jennifer, and Kaiping Chen. 2018. “Concealing Corruption: How Chinese Officials Distort Upward Reporting of Online Grievances.” American Political Science Review, vol. 112, no. 3: 602–620. Roberts, Margaret E. 2018. Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China. June 2020. “Fighting Covid-19: China in Action.” At http://english.scio.gov.cn/whitep apers/2020-06/07/content_76135269.htm. Stockmann, Daniela. 2013. Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Stockmann, Daniela, and Mary E. Gallagher. 2011. “Remote Control: How the Media Sustains Authoritarian Rule in China.” Comparative Political Studies, vol. 44, no. 4: 436–467. Su, Alice. 6 February 2020. “A Doctor Was Arrested for Warning China About the Coronavirus. Then He Died of It.” Los Angeles Times. Swaine, Michael D. 2020. “Chinese Crisis Decision Making—Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic. Part One: The Domestic Component.” Chinese Leadership Monitor, no. 64. At https://www.prcleader.org/swaine. Wallace, Jeremy L. 2016. “Juking the Stats? Authoritarian Information Problems in China.” British Journal of Political Science, vol. 46, no. 1: 11–29.
The Political and Economic Consequences of COVID-19 for China Andrew W. MacDonald
Abstract In popular discourse, the consequences of COVID-19 for China have been described by some authors as potentially existential for the Chinese Communist Party, either through internal political or via economic channels. However, the weight of the existing evidence about Chinese regime strength should have made it clear that this outcome (regime change) was unlikely. Xi Jinping has successfully removed any serious competitors for power, Chinese economic prosperity has a relatively strong macroeconomic foundation, and the long-run prospects for growth, even in the COVID-19 era, are reasonably good. However, in both the political and economic realms, there are a number of existing fissures and imbalances within the Chinese system that are likely to be made worse by the impact of COVID-19. Chief among these include a long run increase in cynicism toward the regime, increased and increasingly unresolvable local government debt problems, and possibly an increase in official corruption because of government stimulus measures. All of these consequences have the potential to be difficult and stubborn to resolve, even if they do not rise to the level of threatening CCP power.
A. W. MacDonald (B) Duke Kunshan University, Kunshan, China e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020 J. Miller (ed.), The Coronavirus, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-9362-8_9
A. W. MACDONALD
Keywords Coronavirus · China · Politics · Economics
Introduction COVID-19 was unlikely to lead to regime change in China, despite being one of the largest crises to face Chinese leaders since the Tiananmen protests in 1989 thanks to the existing strength of the Chinese political and economic systems. However, there are several other impacts that the virus will likely have that could and likely will make worse a series of ongoing problems for the regime. This chapter proceeds by first examining why one of the most discussed consequences of COVID-19 for the CCP and Xi Jinping, regime change, was unlikely to ever come to pass, either for political or economic reasons. While regime change was always an unlikely occurrence, the second section explores what are alternative likely long-term consequences of COVID-19 for China. These consequences include, first, an increase in cynicism about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) continued rule, second, a weakening of the financial position of local governments, and third, a likely increase in official corruption.
Why Did COVID-19 Not Threaten the Chinese Ruling Regime? It is now clear that COVID-19 does not and did not pose an existential threat to the continued rule of the CCP in China. While hindsight it always favorable to the analyst matching theory to already existing results, the current evidence of state strength in China and what scholars know about authoritarian resilience should have predicted this as a default outcome, absent a worst case scenario from the virus. These theoretical forecasts are somewhat at odds with the popular press coverage of the unfolding outbreak in China, many journalistic sources speculated on whether Xi Jinping and the CCP might be done in by the crisis (Campbell 2020; Crossley et al. 2020; Kuo 2020a). While the academic literature on authoritarian regime change suggest external crises are some of the most dangerous events for a regime (Svolik 2012; Geddes et al. 2018), there is a significant amount of evidence, historical and current, that suggests the
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Chinese state apparatus can manage events like COVID-19 successfully. The following paragraphs outline this evidence and theory. The first reason that change at the top was unlikely is that there is little evidence of alternate power centers to President Xi. One of the most common methods of authoritarian regime change is replacement of one authoritarian ruler with another, often from within the same ruling clique (Hadenius and Teorell 2007). However, the number of people who can credibly threaten the position of Xi is significantly smaller than was the case under the Hu Jintao era. The Hu era of Chinese politics can be characterized by collective leadership; Hu was first among equals but clearly needed the backing and support of other high-ranking party members and retired leaders before embarking on any major policy initiatives (Heilmann 2016). Xi viewed this arrangement as producing too much policy stasis and diffuse lines of accountability. In response, Xi has positioned himself as the paramount leader, taking up additional small leading group roles in the Politburo, making it clear that others atop the party occupy a subordinate role, and, crucially, abolishing term limits on his rule (Pei 2019). This changed configuration of power has some obvious downsides—principally in the flow of information to the top leadership as outlined in the Manion chapter of this volume. However, his moves to strengthen his power also eliminates any obvious contenders for power; there are no rivals waiting in the wings for a misstep like COVID-19. The second reason that change was unlikely is due to the relatively deep macroeconomic strength of the Chinese economy. Major economic crises are perhaps the largest proximate cause of autocratic regime collapse among all possible causes (Tanneberg et al. 2013), so a prolonged economic contraction could prove to be extremely dangerous for the regime for two reasons. The first reason why economic contraction could be dangerous is the obvious problem of political instability generated by falling wages and unemployment. In the past, the Chinese government has been extremely careful to manage it economic and financial policies to prevent such a crisis from developing, though exogenous shocks like COVID-19 are difficult anticipate and respond to (Goldstein and Lardy 2008). The second reason that an economic shock could be dangerous is more subtle as it relates to long-run regime legitimacy. Over the last 40 years, the CCP has based its claim to rule increasingly on its ability to generate economic growth. If citizens stop believing that the government can deliver on this key promise, its ability to generate citizen compliance could well collapse (Holbig and Gilley 2010). However, COVID-19 did
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not produce a large enough economic shock to seriously threaten mass unrest nor are the economic fundamentals weak enough that COVID-19 threatens the long term bargain between the CCP and the people. The current economic circumstances made it very unlikely that either economic pathway of regime change was ever likely. For the first economic threat, it is true that the initial economic toll on China was relatively severe. Official data states that first quarter GDP declined by 6.8%, though even this large decline may be an underestimate (Weinland 2020). Forecasts by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences suggest that perhaps 80 million people were put out of work due to COVID-19 (He and Gan 2020). However, the latest data from China suggests that the economy is recovering, lead primarily by industrial production, though other sectors also show a significant rebound (Bradsher 2020). The Chinese government’s stock of foreign reserves is stable and inflation remains under control (Hua et al. 2020). The longer-run threat to performance legitimacy also seems unlikely to develop. China’s current economy is much less reliant on exports than was the case even ten years ago, with exports contributing only about 17% to total GDP (Popov and Jomo 2020). So, while external demand is a relevant factor for the Chinese economy, a dramatic drop in global demand external to China will likely have less impact on the economy than the 2008/2009 financial crisis. While central government deficits and inflation remain a concern for economic policymakers, both the central bank and the Ministry of Finance have a number of tools at their disposal to launch major simulative interventions into the economy to boost output and demand (Tang 2020). As long as China can keep most of its citizens economically afloat (though perhaps not as rich as before) until the global economic system recovers, there is little about the current situation that suggests that it is economically worse than 2008/2009, a global recession that did not present a clear challenge to CCP rule. Autocracies, by their very nature, are purposefully opaque so regime change is difficult to detect and often catch outside observers by surprise. Thus, all of the preceding predictions deserve a large caveat that authoritarian regimes look strong until the day they collapse (Chwe 2003). Having said that, none of the existing evidence about the Chinese state would suggest that there was any serious threat of regime change due to COVID-19.
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Political and Economic Problems in China Likely to Be Exacerbated by COVID-19 All of the preceding arguments do not suggest that COVID-19 for China will have no long term political or economic consequences beyond regime change; indeed, there is already preliminary evidence that some of these effects might be quite significant. The range and significance of longterm effects are necessarily more speculative though are also more wide ranging, running from slow political delegitimization of the regime to unsustainable build up in government debt and a return of serious corruption problems. In the following section, I merely aim to highlight key potential problems that Chinese leaders may face because of the virus, I do not mean to suggest that all or any of these are likely to occur. Nevertheless, these issues are all currently unresolved problems for the regime and will likely only be further exacerbated by the current crisis. The first of these alternative consequences is an increase in general cynicism about the regime among the public, a cynicism that could have many negative effects on the level of acquiescence the public provides for continued CCP rule. Typically, the central government in China plays a game in which it sets up high and sometimes unrealistic public expectations for local governments in China (O’Brien and Li 2006; Cai 2008). When the local governments fail to meet those expectations, they take the blame, shielding the central government. This allows the central government to present itself as the champion of the people against feckless or corrupt local governments. In the case of COVID-19, citizens seem to be placing at least some of the blame on national policies and politicians, even if it was localities that were primarily responsible for responding to the virus. One well publicized example is the case of Dr. Li Wenliang of Wuhan. Dr Li was reprimanded by local officials for “rumor mongering” after sharing early details of the COVID-19 with a group of other doctors on social media, before the government had officially acknowledged the new disease (Li 2020). After signing a self-criticism statement presented to him by the local government, he worked tirelessly in a hospital overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, eventually contracting and dying of the disease. Dr. Li chronicled his illness on social media, captivating the attention of internet users and his eventual death was widely mourned on the Chinese internet, a Weibo post (a service similar to Twitter) received 1.8 million views and thousands of comments, the vast majority in support (Xiong et al. 2020). His experience came to symbolize the
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incompetent and wrongheaded censorship policies of the central government. Dr. Li’s censure, most posters understood, was not due to errant local officials but instead represents how the system in China would rather hide the truth even at the cost of human lives. Dr. Li’s case may have been the most publicized, but other events, such as citizens of Wuhan heckling Sun Chunlan, the vice premier, who had shown up in the city to take a victory lap over the virus (Kuo 2020b). These and other instances of public anger suggest that there remains widespread discontent among at least certain sectors of the population about the overall government handling of the crisis (Kuo 2020a). There is a difference between a fundamental breakdown in the performance legitimacy contract between the government and the people, as outlined in the previous section, and a general increase in regime cynicism. Autocratic regimes do not necessarily need the active consent of the governed to stay in power – there are legions of examples throughout history of autocratic leaders that are deeply unpopular yet manage to soldier on in power for long periods of time. However, it is extremely hard for an autocratic regime to prosper and grow if citizens fundamentally do not believe in the legitimacy of the regime (Scott 2008). While the case of Dr. Li and the general handling of the outbreak only chip away at that legitimacy, once the legitimacy is gone it is hard to win back—one can think of the increasingly sclerotic and out of touch Eastern European regimes in the 1980s, in which the security apparatus maintained a tight grip even as economic productivity and consent of the governed among the citizens collapsed. The CCP so far has managed to maintain a relatively high level of legitimacy among the Chinese people, but events like COVID-19 can have a corrosive effect on the willingness of citizens to actively support the regime without generating revolutionary ferver. The second problem that will likely be made worse by COVID-19 is the fiscal position of local governments in China. During the last financial crisis, the central government, as part of their stimulus efforts, instructed state-owned banks to loosen borrowing requirements, particularly for local government infrastructure projects (Chen et al. 2020). In response, many local governments borrowed heavily, to the tune of over 10 trillion RMB, to produce infrastructure and real estate (Shih 2020). Many these loans will probably never be paid back—the infrastructure built using these loans will never generate enough money to service the debt. The scale of these loans is enormous; Clarke and Lu estimated that local governments may be on the hook for nearly 20 trillion in
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debts, a staggering debt burden equivalent to over 150% of China’s GDP (2017). The central authorities have tried several schemes to retire the debt, including debt for equity swaps and bond auctions, none meeting with much success. The economic shock of COVID-19 will only worsen the problem in paying back these zombie loans, the burden of which still constrains China’s financial markets. Moreover, any stimulus packages contemplated by the government may paradoxically further weaken local governments’ financial position by encouraging them to engage in even more risky borrowing in an allout effort to keep up GDP growth figures. Cadres in China are promoted according to the extent to which they can grow local GDP (Edin 2003; Li and Zhou 2005; Smith 2013). Many of China’s environmental and health problems can be traced back to this system, in which, according to the law, officials must care about these issues but in practice, their careers depend almost exclusively on GDP growth. While there has been some attempt to change this system, an economic downturn is likely to increase pressure on local officials to boost GDP at all costs, including reckless borrowing to meet short term targets and other unhealthy financial behavior. The third problem that is likely to get worse because of COVID-19 in China is government corruption. Along with the wide-open spigot of money that the central government opened in 2008 to stave off a recession came opportunities for officials at all levels to enrich themselves at the public’s expense. Corruption incidence and the scale of corruption increased dramatically after 2008 as the central government prioritized speed of money dispersal over careful accounting of where the money went (Chen et al. 2020). In response, Xi’s most notable new policy initiative after his accession to power in 2012 was a new major anti-corruption campaign. While there have always been ongoing anticorruption efforts in China, this new campaign was on a different scale, increasing corruption investigations over 50% compared to pre-2012 and increasing prosecutions for corruption by 25% (Wedeman 2017). These statistics indicate that the campaign likely did have a meaningful impact on corruption and Xi and other top leaders have promised that this campaign will continue indefinitely. However, the stimulus package announced by the government as a response to the economic shock caused by the virus could test the gains the CCP has made in curbing corruption. While the final stimulus package has not been agreed upon by policymakers at the time of this writing, experts predict it could range as high as several trillion yuan, much of
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which will be spent on infrastructure (Tao 2020). This is not as large as the 2008 rescue package but still large enough that enterprising officials will find ways to divert some of those funds to their own private ends. Given the previous campaigns initiated by Xi, the corruption this time may be less obvious but there will still be opportunities to steer projects toward favored bidders or family-connected companies. Just like the situation with local government debt, as long as officials are able to build projects quickly, the central government may turn a blind eye toward much of this type of corruption in a bid to keep GDP growth figures positive. In sum, COVID-19 is not likely to be a costless experience to the political economy of China. Long term weakening of the political and economic positions of the central and local governments are a real possibility.
Conclusion It was relatively clear from the outset that, absent a worst case scenario outbreak of the disease, the Chinese regime’s survival was not seriously threatened by COVID-19. This conclusion is clear when comparing the existing literature on autocratic regime change with the actual conditions in China. However, the virus could have several serious but not existential consequences for the CCP and Xi Jinping. First is a possible increase in public cynicism of CCP rule. Second is that the economic dislocation caused by the virus will likely weaken the already tenuous position of local governments and the government’s response to this dislocation could open the door to widescale corruption. Like many countries suffering from the effects of the virus, China is not even at the end of the beginning of the political and economic consequences, let alone the beginning of the end.
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