Othering the Virus

Othering the Virus

Marius Meinhof

Europe seems to be shaken by the Covid-19 pandemic. Germany does not contain centres of the outbreak, but has closed national borders. Italy is left alone as no one can spare any medical resources. Countries block each other’s delivery of medical supplies. Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, has stated that the EU may have underestimated the Virus.

But, after seeing what the virus did in China, how could Europeans have underestimated it? Why did Chinese experiences not matter to them? Why did they not respond fiercely the moment when the first cases without known infection routes emerged? I believe that one part of the answer may lie in the way public discourse framed the virus along the lines of liberal/authoritarian or modern/backward. Despite the fears of someChina-Experts’, ‘we’ did not see a great threat, because ‘we’ perceived the virus as something related to the Chinese authoritarian or backward other, disconnected from the West. This othering hampered responsible preparations in Europe and at the same time prepared the stage for Chinese propaganda using Covid19 to claim superiority of their system.

This article is based on intense, but non-systematic reading of newspapers, Twitter, Weibo and WeChat posts from Australia, UK, USA, Germany and China. Because it is not based on systematic sampling and analysis, these are preliminary impressions rather than in-depth research findings.

Covid19 in Chinese Discourse
Chinese News and Internet coverage on the Covid19 outbreak roughly went through 4 stages. Before the 19th of January, the outbreak was largely covered up. Reports on a new SARS-like pneumonia in Wuhan appeared, but were censored and dismissed as rumors. End of December the Chinese Ministry of Health reported a new disease to WHO but at the same time, Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang and others, who spread news about an outbreak on the Chinese internet were censored and reprimanded.

At the end of January, after the outbreak became publicly known in China, the tight censorship apparatus began to show some cracks. People were enraged about the cover-up. Because Li Wenliang, when reprimanded for spreading news on the outbreak, had to answer the questions “can you stop your wrongdoing” and “do you understand you could be punished if you continue”, the internet was flooded with the slogan “I can’t. I don’t understand” (不能。不明白). The propaganda apparatus, too, seemed distorted: State newspapers continued to print stories about Xi Jinping visiting rural family homes into February, seemingly out of touch with reality. Xi himself was not seen on television for several days. Within these ruptures of power, some more fundamental critique appeared, too, when dissident voices attributed the outbreak to Xi Jinping’s attitude to political top-down control.

By the beginning of February, the Chinese government started responding on several levels: (1) they created new regulations for disease control and applied fierce anti-epidemic strategies (2) they censored and manipulated online discourse, (3) they came up with their own narrative on a people’s war against the virus: News was flooded by stories of everyday heroes like doctors, nurses and deliverymen. Li Wenliang was declared a national hero. At the end of February, before it was even clear whether the disease control would work, Xinhua announced a book praising China’s success in disease control to be published in six languages.

But the control of discourse was not perfect: When a critical article written by Wuhan doctor Ai Fen was censored, netizens mass-uploaded her article in all kinds of writing styles, such as Classic Chinese, in Mao Zedong’s handwriting, even in pre-historic Jiaguwen scripture, in order to trick censorship algorithms. One version written in the extinct Jinwen scripture was headlined as: “Language can be erased and destroyed, but thoughts and memories will last”. Another one was subscribed with the words: “I hope our next generation will use Chinese language freely and without anxiety”. Only when facing the apparent failure of ‘the West’ to manage the outbreak, people started to accept the official narrative. Now, governments of UK and USA were perceived by many Chinese as malign, caring more about economic stability than the health of their people.

Responses in the West
In the West, perception of the virus as a threat came only very late. Terrifying news from China was available since late January: High death rates, permanent damage from the disease, people dying in their homes or in the street in front of overloaded hospitals, entire families dying.  But far into February, western observers did not see an urgent need to act.

This was supported by three types of attitudes:

The first type was sinophobic racism. The Chinese, racists argued, were at fault for the outbreak due to cultural traits, such as eating bat soup, and now were going to spread it to the West.

A second type produced a New Orientalism portraying Chinas as the authoritarian ‘other’ which ultimately must become democratic or break down. Once more, scholars debated whether the end of the rule of the communist party of China (CPC) was near, or debated conspiracy-style thesis of China’s breakdown. The outbreak was taken as proof that the authoritarian system had failed. In doing so, orientalist discourses (1) perceived events through the framework of liberal/authoritarian, (2) read the outbreak as a proof of the inevitable failure of the non-liberal, (3) delegated the virus into the sphere of the authoritarian other, (4) muted Chinese voices by making all statements from within China suspicious: Official Chinese case numbers, death rates, reports on successful containment strategies – always there would be someone to suspect manipulation by the authoritarian regime, which made it difficult to act upon these information.

In many instances, the new orientalism blurred the line between political critique and racism. For example, German newspaper Spiegel called the virus “Made in China”. Foreign Policy equated containing the Virus and containing China. The Wall Street Journal called China “the real sick man of Asia”, reactivating a colonial term which was used to justify invasion into Chinese territories after 1895, including the genocidal invasion by the Japanese.

A third type of reaction followed a pattern I have called ‘colonial temporality‘. Here, the perception of China as the ‘other’ was not so much informed by the distinction liberal/authoritarian, but rather by modern/backward.

For example, German state media did not portray the CPC as an evil or failing regime. They treated the virus strictly as a natural phenomenon, letting virologists, not social scientists, make sense of it. But this did not make Germans become sufficiently wary of the virus. Even in March, German experts still insisted that the German healthcare system, lauded as  “one of the best in the world”, could handle the outbreak without major problems. At the same time, despite Chinese successes at containment, German experts insisted that the outbreak was not containable, and all one could do was “flatten the curve” of infection rates. Mass media and online users seemed mainly concerned to keep the population calm. Even in March, many concerned online posts started with phrases like “I know there’s no need to worry about Coronavirus, but…”. Until the 12th of March, I found people on online discussion boards arguing that the disease was not dangerous to the healthy (I do not provide sources to protect them from online outrage).

Reports from China telling a story of a deadly virus were not marked as relevant for Germany. They were not framed as lies, as in New Orientalist discourse, but they were not perceived to matter for Germany. Behind this was not so much a logic of animosity, but rather an idea that an epidemic that is deadly in developing countries would not be to harmful in a modern country like Germany. This, too, contained an element of othering and thus made it implausible to perceive COVID 19 as something immediately threatening Europe.

Colonialism strikes back
This othering of the virus had at least four problematic effects: Firstly, this framework tied together the Chinese, China and CPC, and thus allowed the disguise of some crude racism as political critique. At the same time, it ironically reinforced the CPC propaganda narrative that tries to equate CPC and China. Secondly, it distracted from the question how well equipped Europe and the USA were to fight the virus. Thirdly, it informed the argument that Chinese successful strategies against the outbreak would not be be applicable in democratic countries. Fourthly, being obsessed with liberal vs. authoritarian disease control, many people overlooked the possibility to learn from liberal democratic South Korea, which excelled at getting Covid19 under control.

Thus, what failed in Europe is not liberal democracy but postcolonial arrogance. There was no lack of information, language ability, or time to learn what had happened in China. There was a lack of relating Chinese disasters to ‘us’, due to prevailing notions of orientalism and colonial temporality. Regrettably, Chinese state media have now started, too, to tell the story of the outbreak as a contest between ‘our’ and ‘their’ political systems rather than a natural disaster, and started to spread similar conspiracy theories as new orientalists did before. This may in turn make them underestimate the danger of a return of the virus in the coming year.

Postscript [posted April 2nd]:

Since this article was posted on March 21st, there has been a re-consideration of policy in some countries after they were themselves struck by the virus. However, in many cases, the New Orientalist narrative remained pronounced, most simply by reducing the Chinese approaches to Covid-19 to authoritarian elements, that is: lockdown and home quarantine for all. A number of intellectuals have spoken against this Chinese solution. Yet others have applauded this representation of the ‘solution’ and pushed their own governments to do so, too. A Chinese saying, follows the same logic. It roughly translates as: ‘with isolation there are no human rights, without there are no humans left’.

But reducing the ‘Chinese solution’ to lockdown is dangerous on two levels: Firstly, it again eliminates the possibility of learning from China, that in addition to lockdown, mass testing and strong protection of healthcare workers is necessary to get the outbreak under control. Secondly, a kind of inverted New Orientalism now seems to make people desire their government to impose authoritarian lockdowns, because they believe China has ‘proven’ that it works. This, too, is dangerous because it leads people to believe that a lockdown without additional measures is the solution.

A difference this time is, that many leading newspapers push against reducing Chinese solutions to the lockdown. But the older narrative that did so constitutes a dangerous heritage that needs to be challenged, urgently.

 

Marius Meinhof is a sociologist at the University of Bielefeld in Germany

Image: Ai Fen’s article in Jinwen

36 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 21, 2020

    Racism towards non Chinese people is alive and healthy in China, and that towards Chinese people by Westerners too. But then is either factor at all surprising or for that matter particularly enlightening the failure to address infectious (or non communicable) disease.

    Isn’t there a broader point that there is a huge conceptual distance between China and the rest of the world – on many matters – along with the fact that China is a laboratory for new zoonotic, environmental and ecological diseases, including most importantly AMR. The failure to address these in other countries is to me largely explained by domestic myopia, supported by the self interestednesscof national elites and the marginalisation of public health. In the US, for example, Trump closed their global health security initiative but even the Democrats reduced funding for public health.

    The explanation? As ever, attention is given to acute services with longer term health threats marginalised (AMR again, although receiving attention in the UK). Again, not something to engender surprise.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 24, 2020

      I agree that public health was marginalized almost anywhere due to neoliberalism, austerity. I wonder (aka: hope) if that will change after covid.
      For the rest of the text I have some quarrels. I am not entirely sure what you mean with ‘conceptual distance’. My argument was rather, that people (mis)perceive China as distanced from ‘us’, whoever ‘we’ are exactly, and therefore did not see events in China as directly related to what will happen to them.
      China is far to diverse to pinpoint an exact similarity or distance between ‘China’ and any other place. Also, who is ‘the Rest of the World’? We urgently need to learn not to perceive of USA+EU as ‘the world’.
      There is racism in China, but I don’t think it exactly equals or mirrors European style colonial racism. It needs much broader theorizing. My favourite author on that issue is Lan Shanshan from Amsterdam University.
      China as the origin of many diseases is itself an orientalist stereotype.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        April 01, 2020

        I would love to hear more about the stereotypes re China being the origin of many diseases. This attitude is reflected in many ‘scientific’ pronouncements and then is amplified by the responses of people like my Indian friend who blames the eating of wild life in China for the present crisis.

        Reply

  2. Avatar
    March 23, 2020

    Hi, thank you for the post. I think your reflection is interesting.
    I am an Italian anthropologist, living in Spain for many years. When I realized how bad was the situation in my country and in the region where my parents and friends live, I started to have conversations with my colleagues and friends, explaining them what was happening there and adding that the same will happen here, even though they saw Italy as a very far country. People were not able to see that the situation was dangerous for them as well (and Italians did exactly the same at the beginning), and this happened 3 days before we were locked-in. Other countrys are still doing the same, letting bar opens and children playing in the street, even though they have many cases of Covid19 . I think you are right, our postcolonial arrogance is the main responsable of what is happening now in all Europe and it is important think about it.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 24, 2020

      Thanks a lot for the comment. I had a conversation on this with an Italian scholar on twitter. It would be very interesting to do research on (1) how exactly Italians did construct the idea that what happens in China cannot happen in Italy, and in turn, (2) why Northern Europeans argued for weeks that what happens in Italy could not happen in our country (great example: Germany). Maybe you can recommend such a topic to a PhD student?

      Reply

      • Avatar
        March 25, 2020

        Yes, I think it could be a very interesting topic for a PhD student, the main focus could be the cultural perception of the risk. Regarding point 2 not only Northern Europeans countries argued what was happening in Italy but Southern countries as well (at least Spain) which are culturally closest to Italy. I see the point of the denial situation explained in the comment below, but I think this could be true at personal level, not at the government level. I believe at this level there is something more than this…

        Reply

  3. Avatar
    March 24, 2020

    Or falling prey to a simple psychological mechanism, coined by Freud, called „denial“.
    Bruno Bettelheim wrote an article long time ago ( 70ies?) wondering wby Jews under Hitler did so rarely try and escape or hide. The answer was „denial“… I also remember an article about people in the twin towers responding to the threat of the attack by the two planes: again, many people did NOT decide to head down the stairs at top speed, out of their offices, but instead stayed on, did „ normal“ things like drink another coffee , to reassure themselves that all was well… and lost valuable time that way.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 24, 2020

      I don’t know these works. By intuition, denial sounds to me like denying the existence of a threat and continue business as usual. However, everyone was talking about Covid starting late january. Orientalist China-Watchers were pretty much obsessed with it. Many argued it will have profound changes (such as shaking up CCP rule).
      But the way it was talked about framed it as something happening to the other, distanced from ‘us’, even impossible to really happen with ‘us’. That’s my point in the text. Is that is covered by the term denial?

      Reply

  4. Avatar
    March 24, 2020

    Very good thinking there, I like the outlined phases also, distinctly for China and the West. The new WP report that US agencies warned of an epidemic in January is a case in point, while also theoretically embarrassing for Trump (though nothing embarrasses him anymore). I would love to see further thoughts on the othering in this acute context.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 26, 2020

      Thanks a lot. It will take time to get reliable results from discourse analysis. I am sure there will be several works on this (including some PhD thesis) and they will add more insights. I am torn between hoping that, when these works are published, we all are still interested in the topic, and hoping that by then we are not interested in this topic anymore.

      Reply

  5. Avatar
    March 24, 2020

    Racism and outright brutal repression is the calling card of CCP. They surveil every move of every citizen and forcefully “reprogram” internal others like the ethnic uyghurs. All monotheistic religions are ruthlessly persecuted, yet they persist in clandestine underground churches throughout the vast secular country.

    Secrecy therefore is fully engrained, woven throughout their society. From the bottom to the top but for differing reasons, information must be properly vetted and managed, it’s audience carefully considered with the ultimate goal of high context communications. Appearances are more important than the message, as is saving face! Chinese citizens live under a system of lies that makes Trump’s administration look like a kindergarten!

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 26, 2020

      If only you had added “…and therefore, it is irrelevant for democratic countries how this evil government dealt with Covid-19”
      Then it would have been a perfect example for type 2.
      But seriously, things we should avoid: portray CCP as a monolithic will and all-knowing observer (they might wish to be like that, but come on!), portray China as homogeneous, phrases like: secrecy woven into their society, attributing Chinese traits like ‘save face’, exaggerations like “all monotheistic religions ruthlessly persecuted”.
      I think, critique on the oppression of Uyghurs will be far more convincing and effectful when it is not embedded into new orientalism.

      Reply

  6. Avatar
    March 25, 2020

    Thank you for sharing this!
    At the beginning of the outbreak, city lockdown was widely critisised for how authoritarian the Chinese are! And now many said how great China’s messure is! I mean stop using the word CHINA in every news title when trying to pursuade/analyse/critise how governments in the west should up their game to contain the spread of the disease.
    As chinese living in China I’m totally aware of the tragic moments we have lived through and maybe we are still living under the shadow, though many people seem to try to forget the unbearable misfortunes. And the failure to realise how diverse CHINA is and what it really means/refers to/implies when we come to use the word CHINA, it is just patronising in the way that it seems to turn blind eyes to both of Chinese gov’s coverup and Trump’s blaming the virus to China.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 26, 2020

      Yes, I entirely agree with you. Thanks a lot for your comment. Another problem right now: in Germany, many people talk about the ‘Chinese strategy’ as if all that was done in China was a lockdown. Dangerous conclusion for Europeans can be (1) this approach is authoritarian so we cannot learn anything from China, (2) if we do a lockdown and nothing else, it will help.

      Reply

  7. Avatar
    March 25, 2020

    Yes, retrospectively it’s safe to say that black swans exist.

    Could have we forseen what is happening? Ebola didn’t break its “borders”. Sars didn’t do what Covid is doing. Could have we really forseen all of this? Was the denial Orientalist arrogance or simply… tragically human?

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 26, 2020

      Well, I quote one of many examples of people who take China seriously and therefore warned everyone early in the text. Also, the WHO in February (and in parts from early January on) intensely warned EU and USA to prepare tests, consider home isolation, study the epidemic response of China and learn from it. Sadly, this led some people to claim WHO is controlled by China.
      I would accept this argument if governments would have missed January and started intense counter-measures in February.

      Reply

  8. Avatar
    March 26, 2020

    The emergency state in Italy was adopted the 31st of January, with the intent of presumably not allowing the virus in. Of course, retrospectively, we know that it should have focused on internal containment measures. But that’s the beauty of the retrospective, everything is clear after.
    I am an Italian student living in Freiburg im Breisgau. Here people didn’t even take the Italian situation seriously, not even after they heard from me and others about the situation that our families at home were/are living. Here in Freiburg it was not only students, but also the administration: the Uni Library closed only after (allegedly) a worker came back positive from a trip to Alsace (she allegedly did not quarantine). And the Uni Mensa kept running up to 2 days after it. Was the Italian experience “othered”? If yes, I attribute the mistake to human error. In the days when the UB was shutting down, the stores were still open. Meanwhile, in Italy they were reaching around 1800 deaths. Again, is Germany othering the Italian experience? If yes, why? I presume it’s not Orientalism. My understanding is that no matter how much information we had, we could have not believed our city, our families, our friends had to face the same. The denial, for me, is emotional and not Orientalist.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 26, 2020

      Off-topic: I think that this all “West, Westerns, and China” frame is a dangerous simplification. The only reason why it is possible to put the Italian, German, French, English, and USA response to the crisis in the same group is that they all belong to this imaginary group of “the West”. My two countries (Italy and Germany) have very different situations and responses, as well as very different approaches to the Chinese strategy. Isn’t it time to stop seeing “the West” as an empirical category?
      I am not part of a bloc that reacts homogeneously to Chinese inputs. In Italy, the populists 5starts movement seems to have adopted a very specific vision of China to express a deep dissatisfaction with the European system. It is somehow similar to what Chen Xiaomei describes in her “Occidentalism”. I am not completely familiar with the German approach, but I don’t think it would be possible to find the same vision of China here.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        March 30, 2020

        Hi, I have the impression you misunderstood the text. I would not argue that anyone is homogeneous, but that certain narratives allowed to render Chinese experiences irrelevant to others. I even argued that narratives differed in Germany and USA.
        I tried to outline these narratives. I think we should explore and criticize them. That does not mean that everyone necessarily reproduces them.
        I did not write about Italy because I don’t speak italian and don’t know anything about what happened in Italy.

        Reply

  9. Avatar
    March 27, 2020

    Really good article! Thank you for your work and effort!
    I’m not a good writer and definitely not a sociologist so I’ll just put down some random thoughts of mine.

    I was born and brought up in China and I have been in Canada for 6+ years. When reading the article, I was able to totally relate my experience and feelings to the Marius’s points haha. The “conceptual distance” is the word I have been searching for years in my head. It is true.

    One of my favourite things about the article is how Marius recognizes and is aware of how diverse China is (unlike many many tweets online), making the article way less emotional or biased. I’ve seen Chinese people with so many different opinions on the situations myself – it is something that is hard for everyday day people from other countries to see because of language barriers and etc. Overgeneralizing is a really bad thing from my point of view. Marius was rational and analyzed why EU/US had a slow response well – I can feel his concrete knowledge about China backed the article up.

    Li Wenliang really bombed the opinions Chinese internet a month ago. I haven’t seen such a big storm in Chinese people. The control of discourse on him was indeed not successful. I haven’t seen anyone around me that is not aware of what actually happened. People were angry.

    Something interesting, 20 years living in China I have never seen or heard of “bat soup” and I feel suddenly it became a thing, and the entire world now knows it. Really sad and helpless when I saw people criticizing us online about all the”eating habits”. It had made me less confident talking to people around me. It’s a bit better now.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 30, 2020

      Thanks a lot for the comment. The bay soup is a topic someone should write one day about. Because 1) it relates to older racist stereotypes of Chinese eating strange things (eat dogs etc.). So it did fit into the existing stereotypes, 2) it was for a certain while supported by a picture of a Chinese blogger eating a fried bat in a pacific island for her travel blog – she posted it because she thought it’s exotic, but people used it as proof that Chinese eat bats, 3) as far as I know, Virologists argue that the virus was not directly transmitted from bat to human.
      It’s really a terrible stereotype, and belongs to the type 1 (racism). If you click on the word racism in the text, you get a link to a very good article about anti-Chinese racism by a famous Australian scholar Gerald Roche.

      Reply

  10. Avatar
    March 27, 2020

    Hello Marius. Thank you for your thoughts, but I respectfully disagree. You run through a range of disparate comments and approaches, from the US bigoted right to German virologists, and come up, in essence, with Xi’s lament: “Nobody acknowledges China, the world will pay the price. Oh you colonialists!”

    China’s strategies were not particularly successful, they wreaked havoc in livelihoods and the economy across China. The casualty statistics are dependent on the information that everybody releases (not China’s point of maximum credibility, I am sorry). Most of your “West” has been looking in awe at China, hoping against hope that they would solve it for us and not disrupt the production chains. And turning a blind eye at the excess, just as we don’t really care about forced labor and such. Now, the solution de rigeur is a China-style lock-down, a little lighter for democracy’s sake, but with the same catastrophic consequences. You are right, we should have listened to Taiwan, who knew that the Chinese government was hiding this from early on, and learned alongside the Asian democracies about how to keep the virus at bay by enrolling the people, instead of imprisoning them. Well, the German government actually seems to tell us that they are holding the numbers down by testing and tracing like South Korea. We will see.

    Now, if you are talking about figures like Trump and Bolsonaro, you clearly have a point. And of course, there is a lot of racism on the street, which is directed at the Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and everybody else from the region, in addition to the Chinese.

    I think your “New Orientalists” directly set out to challenge the notion that the CPC is China, at least as a normative postulate. Unless you mean that the CPC is really not controlling China, in which case I fail to see how the outcome of this social drama speaks a different language.

    Reply

  11. Avatar
    March 28, 2020

    Simply: Thank you for straightening out my thoughts on the Swedish official discourse. Have been sick with suspected covid-19 since March 8 or 9, and head not spinning as well as usual.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      March 29, 2020

      Thanks for this. I work with ‘otherizing’ in my work on Afghanistan, and my teaching as a journalist at Sciences Po on the socalled War on Terror and the role of media.
      One of my Chinese students sent me this article.
      I have one small question: so China reported it to the World Health Organisation. What did WHO do with this information?

      Reply

      • Avatar
        March 30, 2020

        Short version of the answer: constantly urge all countries to prepare for the “novel Coronavirus”, prepare mass testing, prepare healcare system etc. Example from 11.01.:
        https://twitter.com/WHO/status/1215916433827356672?s=19

        Interestingly, this was not taken very seriously. Some countries instead blocked travel from China, against the WHO advice. Some right-winged groups even argued WHO was controlled by China.

        Reply

    • Avatar
      March 30, 2020

      Thanks a lot, I hope you will be better, soon

      Reply

  12. Avatar
    March 31, 2020

    As a Chinese I know the mortality rate in Wuhan is way higher than it was reported but WHO insisted on the “transparency and accuracy” of figures and I formation published by the Chinese government. How then would other governments deal with the data and predict their own realities? Also, we enact information differently based on how we are habitually grounded in everyday practices. Europe has been lucky for years to avoid any large scale plague in the past and even if it realizes the gravity of this matter it needs time to act and coordinate. This is less about arrogance but about coming to terms with a difficult situation and shifting behaviors.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 02, 2020

      The question is: since most people suspected the numbers to be higher than China admitted, we should have been even more alert once the first Covid cases came to us. Your argument would only work if people had assumed the numbers were in fact lower than China reported.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        April 03, 2020

        That’s hardly the case. Many governments although suspicious had used China’s numbers, endorsed by the WHO, to predict their realities in the first instance which underestimated the scale of infection/mortality until Italian numbers came out. The WHO could have played a more constructive and a-political part in this Western/Chinese divide but sadly it took sides and exacerbated the idealogical confronts. I also think postcolonial arrogance in itself is not enough to explain the different responses. Most East Asian countries got it right not because they think any differently to the EU or the US, but precisely the same: they all framed COVID-19 as a regional problem (its ok for South Korea to think so because they assumed, like SARs, sonner or later they will be affected) as opposed to a pandemic. That’s to say the fundamental error is the failure to understand the systematic risk of globalization and the incompetency to change the unsustainable consumption patterns promoted by globalization.

        Reply

  13. Avatar
    April 01, 2020

    There is a huge problem of using”the West”. Is Italy part of it? Is Japan part of it? If the lines are blurred, it’s because using “the West” and the “responses in the West” leaves a lot of room for assumptions. The examples you take unwillingly allow a synecdoche. To make a collection of responses and labelling them as “responses in the West” is already presenting them in a more uniform way, it labels them as a part of a whole.

    It is true, the discussion got racist tones in certain media outlets from the very beginning, but as it does for everything regarding China, following what is already *allowed* to say and what general readers *understand and expect* in reading news regarding China. General Italian readers don’t even recognize describing Chinese children as emotionally ignorant, or only good in math, as deeply racist and offensive stereotypes. They don’t connect Italian weird culinary traditions and variety of acquired tastes to similar situations worldwide (even sticky tofu sounds weird and inedible to some). And yes, there is a level of Orientalism: the Italian news ran on public television a report on Wuhan, and they put the soundtrack of “Memories of a Geisha” to accompany the videos, just to give you a silly example of how traditional Orientalism is embedded in Italian news.
    But I do not believe, not for one second, that the Chinese experience with the virus was othered on the grounds of new Orientalism.

    My point is that they/we are not othering only the Chinese experience, but also the Italian one. If this othering was only a matter (or mostly a matter) of new Orientalism, countries that are not deemed as part of “the Orient” or seen as the authoritarian other would not have their experience othered. But since they have, I will need to assume it’s not new Orientalism. I propose that this othering is the same thing that pushes smokers to buy the next package and think their chance of developing cancer is a remote possibility. It’s biased, it’s universally human, and it’s something we can all come together with.

    I think that looking at the matter in such way 1) reduces the effectiveness of “theyness/weness” narrative which has been proposed everywhere 2) allows “Italy as a cautionary tale”, which maybe it’s not a narrative we need for the future, but also maybe yes and I think we should not risk it 3) moves us away from The End of History cold war scenario, and frankly it is time

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 02, 2020

      Hi, I get your comment. I agree, China/West must be deconstructed as a binary pair. But it is important to realize that many believe in this distinction and because people believe it to be real, it has real consequences (as you know, it’s the thomas theorem).
      However, I (1) don’t think italy is as much targeted by othering as China (at least in germany). It is always still europe, cradle of ‘our’ civilization etc.; (2) I think we should not separate orientalism from the history of colonialism, which would happen if we make it into a universally human trait. (Maybe because I am a sociologist and thus prone to be interested in connecting smaller events somehow to a theory of society, modernity etc.?).
      If you follow my terminology, then the arrogance towards italian experiences in Germany (“our health system is more developed”) might be rather colonial temporality, since there is no trace of the distinction liberal/autoritarianism at work, rather a conviction to be more modern (but I have not studied this in detail!). I have argued elsewhere that colonial temporality could be invented and practiced in colonial encounters but then applied in different contexts, for example by western germans towards eastern germany, or within China towards migrant workers and the countryside. It is only genealogically tied to colonialism but has long since become effectful in all kinds of non-colonial encounters, too. Would that be an acceptable idea for your?

      Reply

  14. Avatar
    April 01, 2020

    Thank you so much for these very interesting insights. Being lucky enough to live in China for some time and EU, I always have felt that this ‘othering’ is so common and omnipresent that kind of look like ‘the truth’. This certain ‘truth’ seems to become even more and more visible in the discourse as China poses threat in economics and so on.
    I want to add a small point to your argument that ‘othering’ is not just about China but about certain EU countries as well. Surprisingly ‘othering’ of EU countries does originate within EU, referring to ‘who exactly are “we”‘. For instance, I have been seen many posts who “other” Italy and Spain because these people have a similar culture to Asia of greeting and ‘less careful’ behavior etc. At some point, someone criticized Italian that when they meet they kiss on cheeks.

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      April 02, 2020

      Totally agree. Even within Germany, we have in some cases (not Covid) ideas of Othering between West and East Germany! Within China forms of internal otherness. It’s an issue too complex for a mere blog. I just picked out one aspect.

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