🔌🇨🇳🇮🇳CIN#13-The blame game and Chinese thinking on the epidemic👉🏽
A commentary by a well-known blogger and third generation Party elite
ChinaIndia Networked is a newsletter by me, Dev Lewis, highlighting the networked relationship between the two regions at the intersection of technology, society, and politics. I’m a Fellow at Digital Asia Hub and Yenching Scholar at Peking University.
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Welcome to issue #13 of ChinaIndia Networked
‘Blame’ and ‘responsibility’. Two words that are thrown around a lot these days.
We saw Zhao Lijian’s Twitter finger pointing in March.
In India, 67% believe that the PRC is to blame for the outbreak becoming a global pandemic (including 18.2% who believe its biological warfare by China), according to a quick opinion poll of 1156 Indians by Takshashila’s Manoj Kewalramani.
Just yesterday US Senator Lindsay Graham said he wants the US Senate to officially blame China for the death of 16,000 Americans, and 17 million Americans being unemployed, seemingly in line with the 73% of American adults who blame China for the spread of Coronavirus.
Just like a game of musical chairs, when the music stops nobody wants to be left without a chair to sit on.
This week’s translation is a commentary by Chairman Rabbit 兔主席, the pseudonym of Ren Yi, a well-known blogger in the Chinese media space, Harvard Kennedy School graduate, and 红三代Hóng sāndài 3rd generation party elite. According to some folks in the Chinese Twitter sphere familiar with his writing, he has a reputation for being balanced when writing on current affairs but off late has become increasingly critical of the West.
On how most Chinese think about responsibility he writes:
Aside from the disgust at the wild-animal market, and general anti-U.S. antipathy, Chinese people place most of the real responsibility on the Chinese government. One can assume that if China conducts such a poll, 80% to 90% of the people may choose to put most of the blame on various levels of government and functional departments.
Yet at the same time, when assessing the Chinese government’s efforts at epidemic control he writes:
The two months of epidemic prevention was a big test for the Chinese government, society, and people. United in will and working in unity, this battle was tough, and we won beautifully. On a 10-point scale, I grade the Chinese government a 9 to 9.5. This is not an assessment made in hindsight — I already thought so in late January, and the response of various countries just confirmed my view at the time.
His commentary, which got a 100k+ views on Wechat, is fascinating read. I hate to generalise but his version of how events unfolded in China is a pretty accurate version of what a lot of people have internalised. It often gets overlooked but the aggressive international posturing is also driven by the need to manage domestic public opinion.
I should caveat this is in stark contrast to the views of another member of the party elite, Ren Zhiqiang, a property tycoon, who circulated a sharp critique directed squarely at one person:
“The emperor can lie to himself about wearing clothes, but even the children know when the emperor’s bottom is bare, and those people who don’t dare to say the emperor is naked, they still all know what it is to wear new clothes, and what it is to go naked”.
No points for guessing who. The letter (translated in full by anonymous Twitter account Youshu) led to Ren getting officially picked up this week under disciplinary investigation by the Party.
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American thinking on China’s and Trump’s epidemic containment
If you asked Chinese people, “Who is most responsible for the outbreak in China?”
The poll results would definitely be consistent with national values and character.
1. The people responsible for the virus
a) Blame those who eat and handle wild animals. In the early days of the epidemic, people were very angry at those in Hubei who ate exotic game foods, including bats, and believed that this bad habit was to blame for the spread of the virus to humans.
b) For a period during the middle of the epidemic, even more people paid attention to strange conspiracy theories, including a theory that the virus was accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. For a bit of time, there was extreme interest.
c) From about the end of February / early March, attention shifted to the “American origin theory.” Whether this argument is rational and logical, or simply an anti-American sentiment (just as Americans push the problem onto China), it’s reflective of Chinese people’s antipathy against the U.S. But can this antipathy be placed within the category of reason? Are ordinary Chinese really placing blame for the COVID-19 outbreak on the U.S.? I believe that Trump knows, deep down, how it happened. However, to this day, most people will also support strong supervision of the exotic animal market to forever prevent a virus from forming again through such a channel.
2.Individuals who do not observe discipline and rules
Chinese people do not like the kind of individual who is undisciplined and doesn’t follow rules. But these type of people are relatively rare in China, because in our system people adapt and behave uniformly, and are more compliant. Since large-scale quarantine began in late January, most people have strictly abided by the rules, with just a few exceptions. In fact, the more defiant of those seem to be those recently returned from abroad. But at this time, the domestic spread of the epidemic has been completely controlled, and people have no reason to place any blame on ordinary people who are by and large considered the victims.
3. Government / public power
Here lies the core of Chinese complaints. The public believes that essentially the people who must shoulder responsibility include: Hubei / Wuhan Health Commission, local police in Wuhan (who reprimanded the whistleblowers), leaders of the Hubei / Wuhan government and heads of relevant departments, as well as the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The ones with public power are responsible. Aside from the disgust at the wild-animal market, and general anti-U.S. antipathy, Chinese people place most of the real responsibility on the Chinese government. In China’s long history, the government ultimately has the most power, and is also the one to bear ultimate responsibility.
Aside from the disgust at the wild-animal market, and general anti-U.S. antipathy, Chinese people place most of the real responsibility on the Chinese government
One can assume that if China conducts such a poll, 80% to 90% of the people may choose to put most of the blame on various levels of government and functional departments.
Herein lies the difference between China and the U.S.
COVID-19 epidemic prevention and control: The situation from China to the world
1. The story of the epidemic in China
The following is my opinion, which has not changed since late January.
a) China experienced SARS. Due to the initial late reporting and subsequent concealment, it paid a huge price. From top to bottom, from the government to society, from leaders to ordinary citizens, nobody wants a repeat of the SARS saga.
b) SARS had a case fatality rate (CFR) of 9.6%. Due to the lack of understanding of influenza, SARS is the main reference for Chinese people to understand respiratory infections.
c) Because the CFR is as high as 9.6%, the highest level of “zero tolerance” prevention and control (same as aviation safety) is accorded for SARS.
d) Due to the huge fear of SARS, officials in December were very vigilant about whether unexpected unknown viruses should be understood as a type of SARS. If it is really a SARS-like virus, early awareness and action can avoid a disaster. But if it is not a SARS-like virus, then any exaggeration and links to SARS may cause unnecessary social panic and other costs. This was a difficult choice in the face of an unknown virus.
e) China struggled with indecisiveness for some time in the first half and middle of January, but due to its special experience with SARS, it eventually chose the most conservative path: plan for the worst, and assume its severity is comparable to SARS. When the epidemiological characteristics of the virus were not yet fully understood yet, and when the outbreak was relatively early, with only a few isolated cases (January 20-22), a series of strong actions were taken, including strong instructions from the top leaders, initiating a top-level response for public health. The city of Wuhan and Hubei Province were placed on lockdown, and the largest and most stringent non-medical intervention (NPI) method in human history was implemented. Everything was supplemented by the national system and various new technologies.
f) It was only after this that China gradually gained an understanding of COVID-19, including its ability to spread symptomatically, its route of transmission, its long incubation period, its impact on different populations, and its mortality rate.
g) Through comprehensive epidemic prevention and control measures, it took China more than a month (from mid- to late-January to the end of February) to basically control COVID-19, although it paid a considerable socioeconomic price. But in the eyes of the government, all this was necessary.
It took China more than a month to basically control COVID-19, although it paid a considerable socioeconomic price. But in the eyes of the government, all this was necessary.
h) Throughout the epidemic, the government made the utmost effort to protect and keep open the public information sphere. This allowed the media to report to its full potential. Incidents and disputes during this period elicited a quick response, with responsible government personnel dealt with accordingly in order to alleviate public dissatisfaction. Historically speaking, I think this was unique.
i) The two months of epidemic prevention was a big test for the Chinese government, society, and people. United in will and working in unity, this battle was tough, and we won beautifully. On a 10-point scale, I grade the Chinese government a 9 to 9.5. This is not an assessment made in hindsight — I already thought so in late January, and the response of various countries just confirmed my view at the time.
j) After that, starting from South Korea, other countries have followed the Chinese model in varying degrees, according to their national conditions. The deeper, more systematic, more dedicated a country in replicating the China model, the better the results. Those who did not consult the Chinese model experienced a major outbreak.
k) The reality is that most countries have completely wasted weeks of valuable time that China bought for them through powerful prevention and control, as well as the valuable experience brought by the accumulation of scientific and technological data from China’s epidemiological research. And that’s how so many countries, without exception, are mired in difficulty.
How Americans see the story of China’s epidemic prevention
Because of the flaws in the Chinese system of governance, a critical multi-week delay allowed the outbreak to get out of control. The Chinese government allowed five million people to leave Wuhan, in turn leading to the global spread. In fact, in pretty much any country around the world, sealing off a city is an incredibly severe step. But in the U.S. narrative, China closed down Wuhan too late.
Americans began to advocate for the success of the “democratic model,” exemplified by South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. What goes unmentioned is that:
1. South Korea is in fact following China’s large-scale NPI model;
2. Hong Kong and Taiwan are both dominated by right-wing politics. They combine anti-pandemic work with anti-China sentiment and use the latter as a tool to drive public efforts to fight the coronavirus. This method works the same way it does when right-wing extremists in Europe leverage the outbreak to fuel the backlash against globalization and European integration;
3. Epidemic prevention in East Asian countries relies on East Asian cultural elements, like civil obedience, collectivism, the expectation of big government (Hong Kong being an exception, of course).
Overall, Americans need to maintain the narrative that democracies are highly resilient, totalitarian states create epidemics, and even if they are able to eventually control their spread, there are huge political, economic, and social costs for the rest of the world. Produced by these extreme countries, the extreme countries then use extreme means to fight the epidemics, ultimately “wreaking havoc” on other non-extreme countries.
Therefore, all other innocent democracies have been caught off guard by the Chinese government’s delay, lack of timely sharing of information, and so now are paying a heavy price.
What’s more, all of China’s overseas epidemic prevention assistance is not motivated by humanitarian concerns but rather a manifestation of China’s ambition to use the epidemic to build a bipolar world and achieve global political hegemony.
Overall, this narrative is shaped to help prove that the American model, values, and future are all OK. The U.S. story is that “China’s cover-up prevented America from responding to COVID-19,” so the buck stops with China.
In pretty much any country around the world, sealing off a city is an incredibly severe step. But in the U.S. narrative, China closed down Wuhan too late.
Beyond that, it’s worth noting that:
During the epidemic, both mainstream media and social media platforms [in China] had a large degree of freedom. American media does not discuss this diversity of opinion in China, but rather perpetuates the stereotype of comprehensive information control. At the same time, while Chinese are making strict demands on our government, these demands will be amplified 100 times by U.S. politicians and the media, in turn becoming tools to attack and mislead the world about China.
Demonizing China to maintain American confidence
At the beginning of March, when America was a bystander to the outbreak, it might have felt irrelevant and a little more objective. Now that the outbreak is in the U.S., as a witness, it’s not the same. You can’t be objective. It is hard for an American to admit that the Chinese government is more concerned with its people’s well-being and can protect their interests better than the American government (though Americans believe that everything is done on their own).
Regardless of party, about 7 in 10 Americans think China is responsible for the outbreak in the United States.
It is true that there are Democrats and Republicans, right-wing and left-wing, in America. If there is one big consensus among politicians of both parties, it is to crush, contain, and demonize China. This is one of the few politically correct opinions that both parties can agree on in Washington these days.
The same is true for Americans. (Note: when I talk about “Americans,” I don’t mean Americans holding U.S. passports in a broad sense, but “narrow-minded,” traditional, cultural, and “archetypal” Americans — white people who define mainstream American values.)
Demonizing and belittling the Chinese system and government is fundamental to maintaining confidence in the U.S. system. If a “problem” is imported from China and the U.S. government cannot solve it through public governance, the problem boils down to complaining about China. So, drug use (and death) in the U.S. is not a problem of drug culture or governance, but of Chinese exports of fentanyl. The decline of American manufacturing is not because the U.S. corporate/labor model is not up to date with global competition, but because of unfair competition from China.
In short, all problems can find a convenient scapegoat: China.
In this collective consciousness lies the confidence of the American system, that the country is on the right path, that its culture is just fine. Everyone will defend this belief and nothing can shake it.
America’s strength lies not in its warships, aircraft, artillery, or multinational corporations, but in its strong, confident values.
This is really the soft power that permeates the whole of society. It is such a system that, even after being conquered by COVID-19 and suffering tens of thousands of deaths, still feels that it has the world’s best government and system. America’s strength lies not in its warships, aircraft, artillery, or multinational corporations, but in its strong, confident values.
“The people have faith, the nation has hope, and the country has strength” — this is the social ideal we pursue.
But if there’s one country on Earth that’s achieved this ideal, it’s the United States.
I believe that America’s COVID-19 cases will surpass Europe’s and it will become the world’s most infected country. But that eventuality will not dent Americans’ confidence and love of their system in the least.
In the 21st century, a great power game between China and the United States is inevitable. In order to become a great power like the United States, China must construct the most powerful and most attractive political civilization. The “four self-confidences” is no longer a vision and pursuit, but a cultural core that can be deeply rooted in the hearts of people, for everyone to believe and implement. There is much work to be done to achieve this.