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 some ‘China-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