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

93 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

        • Avatar
          April 10, 2020

          So from where did AIDS, H7N9 and the 1918 pandemic originate? The US? The West? And how about blame the US, the West?

          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

    • Avatar
      April 09, 2020

      thank you for bringing up “denial”, totally agree. It’s human nature according to psychology. The book “Grey Rhino” describes well this kind of development in dealing with catastrophe. Thus also wonder if the West could do better if the virus were from “Other” under-developed country than China.

      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

      • Avatar
        April 11, 2020

        But still, I wouldn’t it name colonial racism or arrogance. Instead as mentioned here, it has a lot to do with psychology and perception or risk. Start to read about risk management and risk failures and risk cultures in different countries and systems. You will find a lot of examples why risk is denied by mass of humans even when it seems obvious a fact. This get you a deeper understanding of human behavior instead of blaming cultures for failure. Every country is lead by humans. Deep dive in human and not in countries. Countries are not responsible for anything, but human are responsible for their decisions.

        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

        • Avatar
          April 13, 2020

          No, seriously, blaming the WHO is the narrative that was constructed mainly after UK and USA were hit hard. If these countries had exactly followed WHO advice, they would have been far better off then they are now. This is even true for germany. I understand people were angry at WHO for not mentioning the cover-up in their early february reports – this was certainly due to political/diplomatic considerations. But the failure to prepare for Covid was not due to, but despite very strong warnings by WHO. The “WHO took sides” narrative is an excuse, and a very dangerous one – see Trumps recent tweets arguing the USA should stop its funding of WHO.

          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.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      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.

      Reply

  15. Avatar
    April 06, 2020

    Thank you so much for this revealing and inspiring piece of writing. I wonder if I could have your permission to translate this article into Chinese? I think reflecting upon othering and colonial thinking is direly needed for readers both in and outside of China. Due to issues of political sensitivity (and to avoid censorship), I would create two versions of the translation, one where the section on China is omitted and one where full translation would be provided. For the omitted version, I would clearly mark where something is missing, and I would always provide link to this site and recommend people to read the original version in English if they could. Cheers! Please let me know if this is ok with you, I could be reached at bl598@cornell.edu

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 06, 2020

      Thanks a lot, I feel very honored. If possible, please send me the translation so that I can read it.

      Colonial temporality we have in the past traslated as 殖民主义时间观
      https://www.inter-disciplines.org/index.php/indi/article/view/1041/1149

      If professional translators may have better suggestions that convey the concepts meaning, I am interested to learn about it.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        April 10, 2020

        thanks for both of your work! I followed the link of the Chinese version to leave my comments here.
        Again, I read the whole paper and found it very interesting and helpful. Because that is what I have been thinking for a while as well. Why there is a delay to respond to the virus when China already demonstrated how terrible and contagious this virus could be? and It’s so rare to see rational analyzations like this. I would like to also share some of my opinions. They are not scientifically proved but only my personal impressions as well.

        Another reason for the delay that I can see is more about the people. More specifically, it’s about individualism and collectivism. I believe people from the mentioned Asian places, especially from China, are more inclined to collectivism. For people from collectivistic societies, family and community benefits are prior to the individual, which means they are more willing to sacrifice their own benefits for the best for society. When faced with the virus, they follow the policies from the government more strictly. It is not simply because the government is authoritarian, but more about the people’s willingness to contribute and fight as a whole. Whereas in individualistic cultures, individual benefits are considered more valuable. When an unknown virus coming, if there are too many individual benefits or concerns to take into account, it will be very difficult to be efficient and take instant actions. I am not saying there is a more superior one between collectivism and individualism, or let’s say the liberal or the authoritarian. However, unity is definitely the most important thing needed when we humans as a whole facing an unknown attack from nature.

        Reply

      • Avatar
        April 14, 2020

        He has done his job well and I am redirected to this English version now. All these comments and your replies, along with your article, are valueable and enrich my understanding of the whole world. Thanks to both of you.

        Reply

  16. Avatar
    April 07, 2020

    “liberal democratic South Korea” is a kinda gross equalization with what’s perceived as “Western liberal democracy.” Then, what failed in Europe might be a liberal democracy with European characteristics…

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 10, 2020

      My argument is, that what failed is the attempt to perceive everything through a system-question in the sense of “libeal democracy with European characteristics” or “Chinese authoritarianism” etc. It is concerning, that many people in China did not learn from this failure, but simply reversed the narrative (now “Chinese system” is deemed superior).
      This is the most imminent danger to Chinese handling of the second wave, in my opinion. Hua Sheng has written a very good text where he warns everyone to care for preventing mistakes in China rather than focussing on what the West does right or wrong. I really hope (for the sake of all Chinese people), that may people listen to him.

      Reply

  17. Avatar
    April 08, 2020

    This is a very good writing,Thank you very much.
    I can see different narratives under this tragic coronavirus pandemic,but not able to conclude them in a way like your article,so this is really helpful,thank you again.

    Those three types attitudes may have proved that there may not be a way for different system and civilization,sadly,no matter how much “communication” we do in a daliy basis,or how good the economic relationship we have,it seems that there is a wall that are not able to be crossed over,people say “give a mask to a man,you will see his true face”,I may say “give a crisis to a nation,you will see its true color” ,and my biggest worry is that in the end,it will develop into a cold war situation.China is perfect target to blame for everything,and inside China,it is also the same,in the end each side may build a higher wall to defend their belief.

    Recently kissinger released an article on WSJ,and it feels my worry may come true in the end,which is a bad bad sign to the whole word.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 10, 2020

      Thank you very much. I share your concerns. Sadly, especially between China and USA, things seem to get worse and worse. My impression is, that both USA and China try to focus on an external enemy to distract from growing internal problems, and that indeed is very dangerous. But I hope that Europe will not be caught up in this conflict. At the moment, German diplomatic relation to China is very good.

      Also, I want to tell you, that I left out something in the text: There were many people in Europe and USA which had lived in China or were related to people in China, speak Chinese etc., and many of these people argued very early on that we should listen to Chinese experiences. For example, the german sinologist Maximilian Mayer argued in early march to invite Zhong Nanshan and let him have a public debate with the german expert Christian Droste about how dangerous Covid is and what could be done about it. So obviously, it is possible to understand and/or respect eacht other, and daily communication can sometimes help with this, I guess.

      Reply

  18. Avatar
    April 08, 2020

    With special thanks to Marius, the Chinese version of this article has been translated in full, here is the link:
    https://matters.news/@gandalfthewhite38/西方为什么低估了新冠病毒-一个后殖民视角的观察-bafyreiddiyfuumv2reislwwhqzzssxaoft3qddxqmn2vi6hwb63xqaauzy
    For readers who struggle with accessing the article (due to the GFW), omitted versions of the translation are available here:
    https://www.douban.com/note/757723765/?type=rec#sep
    and here:
    https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/126735918

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 09, 2020

      You translated and released this article in Double site, with a note signing the original
      site. Thanks for sharing the article

      Reply

    • Avatar
      April 10, 2020

      thanks a lot

      Reply

  19. Avatar
    April 08, 2020

    Thank you the author for the illuminating article. I have learned a lot. I would like to point out two little things. The first is the impression of a “tight censorship apparatus” in China is not precise. For this I refer you to a study by Margaret E. Roberts (Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall). Her description of the Chinese censorship is “porous,” in a way that the censored contents and individuals are always selected and targeted rather than comprehensive (reason can be consideration of cost-benefit, a way of keeping taps on the local officials), and leave non-essential material its public space. From my observation, the top-down approach is always complemented by a certain measure of upward influence and intervention, even though the power relation asymmetrical. But the existence of this chanel is very important to understand modern Chinese governmentality. And also, it would add a lot to the strength of the arguments if the analysis could include some insights from the studies of risk communication and risk management. How information flow on emerging epidemics should be viewed differently from a mere instance of political censorship because of the nature of epidemics.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 09, 2020

      I basically agree your article and would like to add one point. Before Beijing admitted the severity of the disease in the middle of January. There had been a lot of repotting from Hong Kong media about the new virus and the HK government had started taking precautionary measures even earlier before Wuhan was locked down (maybe earlier than Taiwan). I remember in January there was a street interview in HK television that showed a group of elderly at a flower market in Guangzhou cheering “we believed in the government and we don’t need to worry about the disease “. The video raised controversy in mainland and Hong Kong. It seems that HK society (the city was severely stroke by SARS in 2003) showed more vigilance to the disease at the very early stage and this attitude was irrationally mocked by many people in mainland due to the notion of “otherness” and distrust that has evolved since the social unrest in HK. At that time many mainland people believed the HK society was overreacting to the virus in order to create more trouble for Beijing. I believe this is another example on how “otherness“ can make a difference on the way people perceive the pandemic although this is a very different story from what you describes in your article.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        April 09, 2020

        HK reaction was not singular. This has a lot to do with its past experience with SARS, as you mentioned. Chinese provinces Henan, whose governor worked in the government of Guangdong where SARS outbreak was most severe, made swift decisions to cut train, bus and air connection to Hubei before the official lockdown was mandated, and also before the discourse of the nature of Covid-19 transmission was turned around in the Chinese media. Sichuan province, whose governenor had experiences coping with SARS epidemic, also demonstrated similar decisiveness and resolution. That’s some aspect about risk communication/management that I see distinctive of an epidemic as a public crisis. That’s why I’m wary to give media (whether they like to label themselves as state-controlled or free) and whistle blowers credit for playing an instrumental role in the early stage of the epidemic in China. In Europe, the media even played a counterproductive role, as this article by Meinhof adaquatly shows. Coordinated action in medical resource management based on sufficient risk perception is the real key.

        Reply

        • Avatar
          April 10, 2020

          I will reply to both of you at once.
          I am sorry, there was not enough space to discuss the question of Chinese governmentality. I agree that (1) the censorship is never complete, in fact it is circumvented constantly; (2) there is bottom-up influence. But I see in my own research, that the online-discourse in China became much more homogeneous around mid-2017 and especially early 2018. Since then, there is much more control than ever before. Roberts work is mainly based on pre-2018 cases (it was published 2018), and I think the situation became more top-down and more tightly censored since then. Nevertheless, there are still multiple voices on Chinese internet, of course.
          Thanks a lot about your comment on risk communication. Yes, it is likely that the main problem in China in January was a failure of risk management and information flow between government units. Media censorship was probably a consequence rather than a cause of that. However, people were extermely angry at the censorship and it harmed the government reputation in January. I don’t think it is right to belittle the anger and frustration this caused for many people in China.

          What you say about HK is very interesting, I was not aware of this. I am always shocked at the degree to distrust and othering between HK and mainland (in both directions), and I think this would be a very important and interesting topic. Sadly, I don’t know much about HK, I even need to speak English with people there. Although I use online sources, I feel that without some knowledge about the daily life in HK, I would misunderstand what is written there.

          Reply

          • Avatar
            April 11, 2020

            I totally agree that there are competing narratives on the Chinese Internet throughout the outbreak. One thing unique about the net environment of China is that the netizens are keenly aware of the existence of censorship (In contrast, I have a hard time convincing some Germans friends that Youtube, FB and Twitter conduct their own censorship as well). In consequence, censorship and the resistance to it are constantly shaping each other in China. The efforts of the state to homogenize the discourse on Covid-19 was rather sloppy, and the state was forced to respond to Li Wenliang’s case at some point. There are narratives on the Internet that serve as outlets for the anger of the Chinese netizens over silencing the whistle blowers, frustration and sorrows over their lost ones, and later shifted to new attitudes as more knowledge about the virus was revealed, and the situations in the Western countries contribute to another interesting flip. However, these diverse narratives are mainly characteristic of the netizen discourse, and they show overlaps during different stages, while the official discourse only went through two stages: the silencing and the militarization of measures against the pandemic after the government opted for an all-out strike. And I think a distinction should be made between these two types of discourse in the analysis.
            Regarding Roberts’s study, I would not say there is a categorical difference in the manner of Chinese state censorship before and after 2018. The intensity of the censorship is always subject to fluctuations, depending on e.g. how intense the trade war is, and how strong the CCP perceives the threat of the Western ideological infiltration. Similarly, Spiegel’s article that calls Covid-19 “made in China” ties the epidemic to Chinese products, and the WSJ article “the real sick man of Asia” speculates on the repercussions of the epidemic on Chinese economy – they both seem to, more than anything else, intend to place the Chinese economy in a gloomy prospect, rather normal reaction given the current trade war.

          • Avatar
            April 15, 2020

            I agree with you.
            But in my impression, there was a short time between the two blocks of official discourse; in this time, a lot of very diverse voices emerged, also a lot of narratives – not necessarily against the government, also within the government different versions of what went wrong. And then, a short time later, one coherent official version of a collective fight against the Virus was pushed.

            PS: yes, it is astonishing to me that so many young people in China critically reflect on the role, purpose, ideology etc. of mass media; that is a perspective that we in Germany always try to teach to new students in sociology, but they often don’t accept it.

  20. Avatar
    April 08, 2020

    Very well-explained article professor. I saw the up-to-date quote that you mentioned in the text from Chinese to English and they are very accurate. Also, the timeline of the Weibo movement was also well-caught. I’m currently studying my master here in Deutschland and I am really convinced of this article. I will share this link with people around me and hopefully, we could discuss more interesting topics in the future.
    Vielen Dank:)

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 10, 2020

      thanks a lot. If you study sociology, maybe we will meet at a conference in the future. Feel free to write me an E-Mail.

      Reply

  21. Avatar
    April 09, 2020

    thx for this comprehensive writing! Just one mistake to point out: the turning point of both Chinese government and citizens is because of ZHONG Nanshan instead of LI Wenliang whose story is widely spread especially in the West discourse (maybe because of new orientalism) while the former one is more important to us Chinese people. you may check it up in our local context and you will find much much far way from information you can get in the West even though you are already “objective” enough compared to others. Anyway thx for this sharing and really look forward to seeing your next writing.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 10, 2020

      Zhong Nanshan was a chief advisor in the fight against covid and is probably the leading expert on Covid in ther world at the moment. He was a head figure in the official response strategy to the pandemic. But he was not particularily important for counter-discourses.
      Li Wenliang was a normal doctor at a hospital, he was not especially influential. But he became a symbol of the online outrage, especially after he died, many people were extremely angry.
      I think both cannot be easily compared, Zhong was officially installed to fight the pandemic, Li was mainly a symbol for mistakes made during the early spread. Both are very well known names in China.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        April 13, 2020

        Thanks for the great article! As a Chinese who experienced the whole outbreak, I would like to clarify on what Alicia said about Li vs. Zhong:

        The first wave of outrage against the cover-up in January was less related to Li, but more related to Zhong’s confirmation of “definite human-to-human transmission”. People believed Wuhan authorities knew it days/weeks earlier but had lied to the public with “no definite evidence of human-to-human transmission”, “limited human-to-human transmission”, “(the epidemic is) preventable and controllable”.

        When Li’s Wechat message screenshot and “reprimand letter” were leaked online, there is a wave of outrage, but in my impression not as strong as that first wave caused by Zhong’s scientific conclusion contradicting previous claims. However, there were so many things related to the outbreak to get angry about on the social media in late January, it’s hard to single out the influence of a single event.

        Then one week into February, the largest outrage on social media came when Li was sent to ICU and later died. Another one of similar strength came with 人物’s interview of Fen Ai.

        Reply

        • Avatar
          April 15, 2020

          Ah, I see. Sorry I missunderstood you.
          You are entirely correct. I should have made this more clear in the text. Looking back, I even regrett a little bit to have highlighted Li Wenliangs role so much. But it was limited to 1500 words so I had to pick out one part of the story.

          Reply

  22. Avatar
    April 09, 2020

    Thank you for the wonderful article! I first read the translated version from Weibo and followed the link to here. Just to elaborate some ideas in the comment section: as a Chinese person with close friend in Wuhan and family members as medical professionals, I would say that the data from China IS quite accurate, at least for the recent weeks. During the beginning and peek of the pandemics, there were manipulation of data and misguiding messages. But during later phase the data is actually reliable. Also, if “China lies” caused people to die in other countries, who lied to China and caused ours death? It’s hard for me to believe that countries like the US would just believe in whatever China provides. Can’t they do their own modeling and calculations? When they have their first ten patients they were in the same position as China was during late December, only that they have far more time and information than China had in the beginning. Sadly, in my opinion, they wasted their opportunities on attacking Chinese systems

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 10, 2020

      Of course, I agree that whatever happens in USA now cannot be blamed on China. Most people in the West did not trust Chinese data, but they assumed there are MORE cases and MORE dead. That means, people in US should have been even more afraid, not less afraid of Covid. Trump + co. are just trying to blame some foreign power (or the WHO) to not admit their own mistakes. Same with UK.

      Reply

  23. Avatar
    April 09, 2020

    Thank you very much for your insights and the phrase of “Othering”, totally agree.
    Also thank Beatrice Hoffman for bringing up “denial”. It’s human nature according to psychology. The book “Grey Rhino” describes well this kind of development in dealing with catastrophe. Thus also wonder if the West could do better if the virus were from “Other” under-developed country than China.
    I’m a Canadian, Chinese origin, lived in Germany, Canada, and China for almost equal time in the past 30 years.
    On the critics to each other between Chinese and Westerner. My experience tell Westerner do have a kind of Superiority which Chinese cannot always agree or very likely feel unfair or offended. For example, Westerner downplayed the greatness of bringing 1 Billion people out of poverty in just 30 years and Chinese work double the time than the Westerner and are also good enough to do many good things. Not to forget, China now has a very big population of wealthy people who want more “Face”, and they can be complacent and arrogant as well. The human rights situation in China is undoubtably very frustrating. Censorship and manipulation make the Chinese even harder to feel the good of the free West and very sensitive to any critics from the West. If Chinese and the Westerner want more cooperation than confrontation, they may need more wisdom, patience and tolerance.
    On “with isolation there are no human rights, without isolation there are no humans left”. There is point there saying that human life is the utmost basic human right, a dead human cannot enjoy the rights of freedom and pursue of happiness. Westerner may put too much weight on freedom and pleasure. There is a better balance between to be stroke.
    Also my personal point of view, the West may put too more weight on “individual” freedom/interest than “collective” benefit as well. They’d rather be Free-Riders than sacrifice and can be very powerful and picky that their government may be handicapped in public affairs, especially by providing public goods. All elected in democracy, governments may sometimes “be afraid of” implementing measures affecting individual freedom/interest, even when these are necessary. So governments may be better off to be “re-active” than “pro-active”, no rush but “kick the can down the road” until unavoidable. This may partly explains what we saw in the pandemic, in “yellow vest”, in “Greek debt crisis” and so on.
    The Oriental-way of dealing with this pandemic, not only China, but also Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hongkong, may shows with success that “Collectivism” needs more balanced weight comparing “Individualism” in the West concerning “Effectiveness”. Too much freedom is no freedom – people died. On the other hand, China needs more “Individualism”, to gain global trust, to be a respectable Superpower, and to achieve a sustainable growth.
    How can we get this kind of balance needs in-depth study and profound social practice. A society (Utopia?) with these kind of balance I will call “Scientific Capitalism Society” — based on Capitalism and Free-market, but practicing a limited kind of “Plan-Economy”, by embedding In-System modern scientific technologies like Statistics, Big-Data, Modelling, Algorithm, Block-Chain, etc. I’m trying to write an article about these now. Kind inputs or critics are all very appreciated. Thanks alot!

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 10, 2020

      Thanks a lot for your comment. I am sorry I cannot answer to all your points. My field of expertise is discourse, especially ideas about what is “modern” or “backward”. But I cannot really know what is really better or worse, I only research the images or steretypes on modern/backward.

      If I understand your argument correctly, you say that an sole emphasis on on individual rights at cost of collective interest is to extreme and can be harmful. I would agree to that. But please bear in mind that in the last 3 decades, a political model emerged especially in USA + UK, which puts the strongest focus not on individual rights but on individual responsibilities. Health care is a very good example.
      Also, I think we must always be careful not to over-generalize, e.g. in european philosophy, individual rights and collective interest are always weighted against each other, and there are “fashion trends” when one becomes stronger or weaker. At the moment, we have a peak of “individual rights” in the growing domination of neoliberalism. Maybe this trend will come to an end now?
      Please keep in mind: Collectivism is a very bad concept. I know it sounds convincing to call China collectivist, at first sight. But it is really a fuzzy concept that tries to tie together countless totally different cultures. For example, “Asia”, “Africa”, “Medevial Europe” were all described as collectivist. It is better not to use this fuzzy term at all, in my opinion. Most sociologists have given up this term many decades ago, but unfortunately, it still circulates in society.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        April 11, 2020

        I’d like to add some words to “Collectivism”. Sorry I’m not a sociologist so not aware of that it’s a “bad concept”, just use it to compare to “Individualism”. Nonetheless this term is still commonly used in Mainland China, kind of Post-Mao legacy. For me, this term has some aspects of Confucianism, like family value, sacrifice for collective benefit (牺牲小我成全大我). Undoubtably that it’s often abused in state-nations, but its influences on people’s behavior sometimes do have positive results, as maybe showed in this pandemic – people are more complaint towards government’s social distancing measures than in some western countries.
        More about family value, the distance between people, especially family members in the West, is very difficult for many Ost-Asians to adopt. Though it’s a price all “modern” people must pay, “too-liberal” or “too-individual” do play their part there.
        Besides, the overwhelming “Richness” of those “post-developed” countries also makes me think that “Individualism”, along with “Consumerism”, which deeply rooted in a “Capitalism” that constantly strives for more wealth, might need to be weakened as well, or as you mentioned, might be peaked already?
        BTW, just a feel, when talking about US health care, the political model you mentioned might run a risk by “putting the strongest focus not on individual rights but on individual responsibilities”, as such a discourse could be a kind of dodgery or trap, which the pharmacy industry and other interest groups are using to protect them against any changes many people wanted. Heath care is not a good field for “individual responsibilities” because it’s more of a “public good” which the government should provide.
        US health care in my view is the worst among the developed countries. I’d see it rather as a good example for “public failure”, as US government was/is handicapped by some “big individuals” in this matter.

        Reply

        • Avatar
          April 13, 2020

          I agree with you.
          I did not imply the attitudes called “collectivism” in China are bad, just that the term “collectivism” is not a good term because it is used to describe many very different cultures. More specific concepts would be needed.
          I think, the emphasis on individual responsibility is in large parts a problem, it is part of a neoliberal discourse where state agencies dodge their responsibility by claiming, that I. A free society, people should be self-responsible. Health care is a good example where a lot of individual responsibility does in a certain sense decrease individual rights.

          Reply

  24. Avatar
    April 10, 2020

    Thanks a lot for your comment. I am sorry I cannot answer to all your points. My field of expertise is discourse, especially ideas about what is “modern” or “backward”. But I cannot really know what is really better or worse, I only research the images or steretypes on modern/backward.

    If I understand your argument correctly, you say that an sole emphasis on on individual rights at cost of collective interest is to extreme and can be harmful. I would agree to that. But please bear in mind that in the last 3 decades, a political model emerged especially in USA + UK, which puts the strongest focus not on individual rights but on individual responsibilities. Health care is a very good example.
    Also, I think we must always be careful not to over-generalize, e.g. in european philosophy, individual rights and collective interest are always weighted against each other, and there are “fashion trends” when one becomes stronger or weaker. At the moment, we have a peak of “individual rights” in the growing domination of neoliberalism. Maybe this trend will come to an end now?
    Please keep in mind: Collectivism is a very bad concept. I know it sounds convincing to call China collectivist, at first sight. But it is really a fuzzy concept that tries to tie together countless totally different cultures. For example, “Asia”, “Africa”, “Medevial Europe” were all described as collectivist. It is better not to use this fuzzy term at all, in my opinion. Most sociologists have given up this term many decades ago, but unfortunately, it still circulates in society.

    Reply

  25. Avatar
    April 11, 2020

    Thanks for your article and replies! I’ve read every single comment you posted and I learned a lot from them.
    It’s kind of interesting that to my observation people who left long comments here mostly seem to the ones with experiences of living in China/other early-stage epicentres (cos things are far more severe globally right now than that when the discussion took place), while awareness of postcolonial arrogance still hadn’t been being fully raised among people elsewhere. Can we perceive this phenomenon as an embodiment of othering? The fact that the latter are not packed with details thus they are muted in discourse to some extent should also be taken into account, though.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 13, 2020

      Hi, thanks for your praise. I also like to read comments below articles a lot. Yes, I have experienced during the last weeks that people closer to the epicentres would tend to have stronger or more opinion in Covid – e.g. Chinese, people speaking Chinese, having relatives or close friends in China etc. talked about this much sooner than other people in Germany. I think this is normal, but othering can explain why there was a lack of empathy and why so many people did not think this could happen to themselves.
      The sadest thing for me is that now, after EU and USA are the new epicentres, there are more and more people here who have something to say about Covid – but many still see this through the lens of new orientalism, e.g. some (not all!!!) people in USA arguing “we must prevent China from becoming the victor of this pandemic”. As if there is a victor…

      Reply

  26. Avatar
    April 11, 2020

    I must emphasize “Denial” when studying human failure in this pandemic. As a matter of fact, “Othering” itself is a sort of general “Denial”. Without being too exaggerated by going deeper, I just point out that, when looking into Individual, institutional and social behavior, we need always take more or less Psychology into consideration. Too many times, sometimes “retrospectively”, individuals, people groups and institutions are deemed “by default” to be “rational”, but in fact they are not, even when they have enough information for a rational action. Reader Laura gave a good example to it — even people in Germany knew many are dying in Italy, they still did not act fast until they had their own cases. There was, is and will be always a “time-lag” or “learning-curve” in dealing with serious situations – pure human nature.
    By saying these, I’m not negating that we human will get better later in similar situations, mostly through the “hard way”, with painful past experiences/lessons – that’s the Hongkong case here, as they are definitely showing they’ve learned a lot from the bad SARS time.

    Reply

  27. Avatar
    April 11, 2020

    Hey,

    thank you for the article, I found it really interesting and well written. The only thing that bothers me a lot is that people tend to talk about europeans and take Germany and the UK as examples for whole Europe. The European union is much bigger than two countries and often small countries are overlooked. I would appreciate that countries are stated and not the European union and especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, there were no common decisions, countries took measures for themselves and I think this is a very important point that shouldn’t be forgotten. But anyway in general I think your article states interesting facts and nice insights.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 13, 2020

      Thanks a lot. Yes you are right I was over-generalizing from the situation in Germany and UK.

      Reply

  28. Avatar
    April 13, 2020

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. But, shouldn’t we take a deep look at the role the Western Mainstream Media (MSM) has played in this coronavirus crisis? It is BBC, CNN, New York Times, Spiegel & Co that dominates the narratives, which shapes our perception and understating of this whole event, and thus our action towards this crisis.

    If we want to know how MSM has shaped our worldview, look no further: the tank-climbing iconic “Tank Man”(https://twitter.com/DanielDumbrill/status/1189038385278672896) and the non-existing “Tianmen Massacre” (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8555142/Wikileaks-no-bloodshed-inside-Tiananmen-Square-cables-claim.html, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwKx02ClIA8&feature=youtu.be).

    Same goes with Dr. Li Wenliang, the so-called “whistle blower” and proof of CPC’s “cover-up” , who has been widely celebrated/used by CNN, BBC, NYT, Spiegel & Co. In fact, Dr. Li, an eye doctor, is NOT the first one who informed the public, if he ever had wanted.

    He was neither arrested nor prosecuted as the MSM portrayed. Dr. Li got a reprimand talk from the police.

    (FYI: According to Law of the PRC on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, only authorized local government and/or central government can publish such info. to the public. I think every country has similar laws.)

    – 27/12/19, Dr. Zhang Jixian, director of Respiratory and Critical Medicine at Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Traditional Chinese & Western Medicine, reported there was a new type of pneumonia to District CDC;

    (Btw, Dr. Zhang Jixian is publically praised by the government for her first reporting novel coronavirus pneumonia and alerting the CDC and Health Commissions. http://www.xinhuanet.com/2020-02/06/c_1125540130.htm.)

    – 29/12/19, Dr. Zhang & her hospital reported directly to Wuhan Municipal Commission and Hubei Provincial Health Commission (HC) after Dr. Zhang received another three patients with same pneumonia CT symptoms and contact history to Huanan Seafood Market. https://www.weibo.com/ttarticle/p/show?id=2309404467421229482021

    Wuhan Health Commission and CDC immediately acted on her report by sending out experts from Jinyintan Hospital, designated for infectious diseases, to check on Dr. Zhang’s sevenpatients in the early evening on 29th.

    – 30/12/19, Wuhan HC sent out internal notification to all hospitals about tracing and reporting of new pneumonia of unknown sources.https://i.guancha.cn/bbs/2020/02/07/20200207090604208.jpg?imageView2/2/w/500/format/jpg.

    Way ahead of Dr. Li Wenliang’s “whistle blowing”.

    >> WHO was informed on the same day. < <<

    Stated owned CCTV and all other media outlets report cases of PUE. Here is CGTN reported in English https://news.cgtn.com/news/2019-12-31/Authorities-begin-testing-after-pneumonia-cases-in-central-China-MRPvtFbCve/index.html.

    (There were tons of reportings about Pneumonia of Unknown Etiology (PUE) outbreak in Wuhan, both in Chinese & English. Western MSM also pick up this story, for example, CBS about this "mystery PUE outbreak": https://www.cbsnews.com/news/china-sars-virus-fears-as-mystery-pneumonia-outbreak-sickens-dozens-in-wuhan-2020-01-02/.)

    At the same day, 9 experts from National CDC take the earliest fly to Wuhan and go to Huanan Seafood Market to collect samples and evidence.

    – 01/01/20, Wuhan government closes down Huanan Seafood Market.

    (FYI: When Guan Yi, a virologist from HK, who flew to Wuhan on 21st of January and left on 22nd, complained that he didn’t get the chance to collect samples from Huanan Seafood Market b/c it had been washed. MSM jumped on this as “cover-up” by CPC. In reality, China's CDC had already collected all sorts of samples inside and around this market and testings of these samples already undergoing for 3 weeks before his arrival in Wuhan. )

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 13, 2020

      Now The Timeline of Dr. Li Wenliang’s “whistle blowing”

      -30/12/19, at 17:43 and 18:42, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, posted two messages in his WeChat groups saying there were 7 confirmed SARS cases in his hospital, urging his friends to be careful, and at the same time asking them to NOT leak it.

      Here are the screen shots of his two posts:

      – First message at 17:43 – https://i.guancha.cn/bbs/2020/02/07/20200207204833607?imageView2/2/w/500/format/jpg;

      – Second message: at18:42 – https://i.guancha.cn/bbs/2020/02/07/20200207204833346?imageView2/2/w/500/format/jpg.

      Though he asked not to leak his messages out of his chatting group, someone took photos of them and spread them online.

      – 31/12/19, the head of Li’s hospital and its Supervision Department interview him about the leak.

      It is witten clearly in Wuhan Municipal Health Commission internal notification that no hospital nor anybody is allowed to publish the related treatment information of the Pneumonia of Unknown Etiology (PUE) without authorization.

      <<<— FYI: Law of PRC on Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases has set clear legal procedures that only Central government and Local Government after authorization can publish info regarding infectious diseases, epidemic, etc.

      – 03/01/20, he got a reprimand talk from police. After signing the letter of reprimand, he's back to work.

      (Reminder: Dr. Li said in his messages that the new pneumonia was SARS, which is NOT, but found out to be novel Coronavirus.)

      Worrying his career may be compromised by his unauthorized leaks, he contacts a journalist, befriended with one of his classmates, to tell his story. (<<< Hence how the whole story of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower, began to roll out and got momentum.)

      10/01/20, he began coughing, and having fever after receiving an infected patient.

      12/01/20, he was hospitalized.

      30/01/20, Li gave interview to Cai Xin, a pro-America media: http://china.caixin.com/2020-02-07/101509761.html

      31/01/30,he post a message on his Weibo to detail what he did, update his current conditions, and then thanks everyone for supporting him.

      At the same day, he gave interview to Zhong Qing Bao. When asked whether he reported his suspicion to his supervisors/head of the hospital, he replies he didn’t because "they are not my patients." (因为不是我的病人,我也不好向领导报告。https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1657854798770337967&wfr=spider&for=pc)

      31/01/30 & 01/02/20: He gave interview to New York Times: https://www.bilibili.com/read/cv4631773

      In this interview, he was asked by NYT why the police gave him a reprimand talk, he replied : "(Police) thought it was not confirmed as SARS, and thought I was spreading rumors, and (therefore) asked me to recognize my mistakes." (“警方认为不能确定是SARS, 认为我造谣,让我认识错误。“ Link see above. )

      01/02/20, Li posted on his Weibo, announcing the confirmation of his infection of nCoV.

      07/02/20, rumours said Li is dead. The hospital has to issue a statement saying they were trying to resurrect him.

      2:58am, Li passes away.

      Lots of anger online, some are real, some are faked politically motivated ones (吃人血馒头, to make political gains from the death of Dr. Li Wenliang by using a supposed "whistle blower" as proof of CPC's cover-up and whipping up China-bashing, which is now on rampage on internet and MSM. )

      Reply

      • Avatar
        April 15, 2020

        The article IS on the role of western media.
        Maybe, what you mean is, we should look at the way Li Wenliang was constructed as the whistle blower in western media? Then I would say: yes, his story was in parts appropriated in the Type 2 (New Orientalism) narrative as a symbol of struggles against the authoritarian system. As usual, the situation in China was simplified and transformed into a smooth narrative against the “authoritarian regime”. However, Dr. Li was not as important in western discourse as he was in China. In Germany, there was much less reporting on him, since Type 3 (Colonial Temporality) was predominant and people in Germany were not that interested in criticizing the Chinese government.
        Finally, it is dangerous to equate western “MSM” with major US news. For three reasons: (1) Many people in Europe speak bad english and/or never read stuff in english; (2) many of the major US newspapers are behind paywalls, since people in US seem to be willing to pay for TV, news etc. In Germany, pay wall is more or less equal with “no one will ever look at it” – New York Times is, for example, not as important in Germany as it is (ironically) in China; (3) there are major conflicts especially about how to perceive “China” within ‘the West’, e.g. US more hostile Germany more friendly towards China. That is why I tried to present 3 ideal types, and then we can look how important the role of these 3 ideal types were in different countries.
        It would be a very interesting topic to look at what happens in China after western media started to report on this topic. A lot of young educated people in China react quite strong to reports in major US media. That would be however, a different article to write.

        Reply

  29. Avatar
    April 14, 2020

    Typing on my phone so I will make it short.

    Great observation and arguments! Thanks for sharing.

    As a Chinese who lived in the west for over a decade before returing, I witnessed the onset of lock down 6 min after it was made public. It was abot 2am that day, if my memory is correct, and after a brief dicussion with my wife, who also lived in the west, we decided to stay in Wuhan, the then epicenter of this virus, depite that “escape” window was 8 hours and we were 20 min away from the city gate.

    The reasoning was simple. The overall social organization in China was and is in good shape. In an early combat against fast spreading virus, what you need is orgnizational power. This is basic sience, period. We will need science and engineering in this war on virus later on, though.

    Colonial legacy is overwhelming, yet it is simply inevitable human nature. Failure to embrace hard cold science, together with embrace of emotion, politics, religion, culture, will ensure reappearance of what has just happened in the past two months. Fortunate or not, we all love to define ourselves using these ideas. This is happening in the west, and will see rising examples in China.

    At last, touting the concept of “China” is misleading as you pointed out. The concept of modern country has hidden the vast geographical, demographical and social span within it. Sadly, we all love it this way. Interestingly, “the west” seems to be emerging as a “new country” in the narratives.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 15, 2020

      Thanks a lot. I agree with your points.
      To be honest, in early February I still believed Europe will deal with the pandemic very well (and so did WHO). Europe and USA had the ressources and structures to deal with the pandemic extremely well. As we can see right now in Germany, once EU countries took the Virius serious, they could deal with it quite well. However, countries did take the Virus seriously far to late to stop a catastrophe.

      Reply

  30. Avatar
    April 17, 2020

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    Your article provides some insight into my confusion.

    As a Chinese who have seen many tragic stories in China, I was confused about why western societies respond so late. Most Chinese know that slight symptoms also can spread the virus and the cases without symptoms are more dangerous than another. However, in the early of March, the Dutch healthcare ministry believes that slight symptoms can not spread the virus and never thought about the case without symptoms. Ironically, I am studying global health in the Netherlands now. I feel like the professors in our department also do not take Chinese experiences seriously since it seems the infectious disease exists in developing counties instead of developed countries.

    Besides, I think Chinese international students also are the “other” right now, maybe double othering. We are the others in western society as well as China. “国家建设你不在,万里投毒你最快! “( You do not contribute to building the country, however, you are the fastest one to spread the virus) is popular on social media since lots of Chinese international students try to go back to China after the outbreak outside of China.

    Thanks again for your sharing.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      April 30, 2020

      Thanks a lot for your comment. In my research I have encountered a lot of this: Chinese who live abroad have been target of hatred in Chinese online debates even before Covid. Sometimes even more than foreigners. They are frequently accused not to contribute to building up China, also I have seen Chinese abroad being called parasites, e.g. 要么加入改变我们生活的创造者大军,要么去移民坐享别人成果,做个寄生虫. I don’t know myself how to explain this, but I am working on a theoretical explanation somehow based on orientalism/occidentalism and perceptions of the West and of Chineseness.
      However, I was not aware of the fact that this is also happening in relation to Covid-19. I hope to do a research project on the experiences of Chinese in Europe under Covid-19, and if it gets funded, I will make sure to include this aspect.

      Reply

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