What follows is a letter written by Gustav, a comrade from China, about the authoritarian and discriminating measures by the Chinese state in times of the coronavirus.
The local [Chinese, that is] political party propaganda is increasingly spreading the line that China has bought time for the west to react to Corona. I think Mike Davis’ text  is important and largely correct, but I had to swallow hard when reading this: “A year from now we may look back in admiration at China’s success in containing the pandemic but in horror at the USA’s failure.”
Why does it not seem possible to criticise the miserable conditions in the US without falling over yourself in praise for the megalomaniac police operation in China? The praise for ‘China’s success’ conflates too many things: the country itself, the Communist Party, the police, the population and the working class. Why is Mike Davis, of all people, able to write something like this? No-one has to choose between ‘the West’ and ‘China’, especially when it’s about Corona!
An article appeared in the New York Times on the 13th March from a foreign correspondent in Peking which stated that: “China bought the West time. The West squandered it.” Obviously the author of this piece, like Mike Davis, wants to criticise the wholly insufficient and incorrect measures taken by the USA and Europe. But then, what should ‘the West’ have done? After China took the first steps with their lockdown and draconian measures, was everything that came before just lax and indecisive? Is the criteria for the success or failure of measures how many victims there are? Doesn’t the criteria have to be how much suffering is mitigated or additionally caused? Who is the subject we’re talking about here?
The examples given by the New York Times article are real and readily seen in big numbers in China: megaphones in parks that send out warning announcements; taking your temperature twice before you leave the country; bombarding you with propaganda…In the street near my house alone there are five plastic loudspeakers blaring out messages from morning to night: you should wash your hands, not go out much, avoid social contact. But that’s ridiculous and nobody pays much attention. The author writes that it’s, “not authoritarian to take temperatures at airports, implement social distancing and to offer free medical care to everyone infected with Covid-19.” Detecting fevers in airports only identified around half of those who were actually infected with SARS and in the case of Corona it would clearly be even less because you can be infectious before showing any symptoms. But it’s totally not about taking temperatures! (see below). Implementing social distancing is nevertheless authoritarian if, for example, cops are going around banging their batons on may-jong tables or front doors are being sealed shut from the outside. And free medical care didn’t look so great in reality as it did on paper.
The state measures are meant to instil fear. Temperature-taking in front of my flat complex and at the vegetable market was part of this theatre of horrors. In many people, a supposed but non-existent fever is detected, they are treated with suspicion, partly because of this they are discriminated against and above all frightened. You’re worried even before you have the virus and live in fear of forced isolation. What I found terrible was how the sick who were in need of help were turned into sources of danger. There were many banners that brought this home, for example, ‘People from Hubei are ticking time-bombs,’ ‘If you love your life then don’t mingle,’ Strangers are hidden dangers’. The measures did not build on cooperation anywhere, they were carried out as police operations. Patients and potentially sick people were treated only as objects to be controlled: someone takes your temperature but doesn’t tell you the result because it’s not about whether you’re healthy, only to carry out orders.
At the same time, hardly anyone sick was found with the use of such measures (and it would be easy to out-trick the controls). Seen from a rational viewpoint it’s hocus-pocus, like tying wooden blocks to my forehead as protection against the virus or praying to God like Mike Pence. (Wooden blocks would also have the advantage of constantly reminding me of the virus and not to put my fingers in my face – in a similar way, wearing masks is a constant reminder to be careful.)
The information about measures that we could learn from China are also fairly weak. What the author recommends is either a quarantine theatre show or actually authoritarian. Taking over the treatment costs is the only sensible indication given by the author of the article; they could have also mentioned the Chinese government’s tightening of protection against job dismissal and rent holidays during the epidemic!
Only measures that, on the one side build trust (meaning that there is a common interest in maintaining public health, that people avoid suffering, getting medical help when you fall ill etc.) can be effective. Of course I’m interested in cooperation in the detection and containment of the illness. If I independently isolate or do social distancing (which I find much easier than I thought), I reduce the infection rate just as much as forced isolation would. I can always decide for myself if I go for some fresh air, fetch my medicine for a chronic condition from the pharmacy or help my grandma with the housework. All such indispensable trifles become unsolvable problems through coercive measures, of which the not so few suicides in this context bear witness to.
Here’s an interesting link,  an interview in which, amongst other things, talks about state lockdown compared to the willingness of people to help each other amongst the population.
Sequence of events
The first case was recorded on November 17th; by the end of December there was clear evidence of its infectious character, and there were around 266 cases in total although only 27 were reported to the WHO. On the 7th January Xi Jinping gave a statement about the struggle to fight the virus at the internal meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee. Again on the 14th January the WHO, citing investigations from China, reports that there was no evidence of infectiousness, even though there was possibly already around 500 infected doctors and nurses. On January 18th the local government in Wuhan organised a new year feast with more than ten thousand participants – two days later it was made known that the virus could be transmitted between people. Only since then and for the first time is it allowed to talk about the infectiousness publicly. Nevertheless, around five million people from Wuhan left the city before the lockdown. For me, it’s less about whether the lockdown should have happened ‘sooner or later’, and more about the kind of reaction. Nevertheless, more and more studies state that there would have been 66% fewer people infected if ‘China’ had acted a week earlier. And if they had taken the information from the doctors seriously back in December, instead of disciplining them, they could have probably contained the virus in Wuhan.
So after the Communist Party of China had made this colossal fuck up, countless volunteers, accepting the possibility of infection, and hundreds of millions of Chinese people, either through forced deprivation of free movements (locked, barricaded or behind welded apartment doors) or self-imposed social distancing or staying at home, did everything they could and sacrificed much to protect themselves and others from further disease.
Against this background we can ask whether China or the Communist Party bought more time for the people of China and the rest of the world. For me the answer is clear: No, the Communist Party didn’t do that. The ordinary working people of China did, because it was them who really tried to delay the spread of the virus. But even they didn’t ‘buy the west more time’. What happened in China after 20th January shouldn’t be viewed as granting ‘the west’ more time, rather it should be seen as self-protection. Self-protection of the ordinary population in their own initiatives – and self-protection of the ruling class to defend their own privileges.
We shouldn’t talk about ‘China’, but differentiate point blank between the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the general population. And then again between wage-dependents, the middle class and the super-rich. That’s why the New York Times commentary is so obtuse, because it only talks about countries for example, from the realm of the cultural sphere, following the motto that there would be no more classes in an epidemic. No wonder then that the author earnestly claims that ‘enforced social distancing’ in China isn’t authoritarian!
The virus is not the reason for the catastrophe, but the totality of measures (and failures) to fight it
The Chinese state’s track record of prevention and preemptive measures to contain pandemics is known to be bad (SARS, African Swine Flu). And in February many articles were published in ‘the West’ which, in a derogatory way, made the absence of a parliamentary democracy and western-style justice system responsible for ‘China’s incapability’ of detecting pandemics early on and to fight them in a transparent way. This exercise served the purpose of defending the liberal democracies, which in reality have become increasingly unequal and repressive. Therefore the impulse of the New York Times journalist and Mike Davis to point out that a lot of bullshit, sloppiness and brutality can be seen in regards to dealing with the virus outside of China too. In the meantime the tide has turned and the mass media praises ‘China’ in particular for its draconican treatment of people – and at this point the argumentation of Mike Davis’ and others not only becomes absurd, but dangerous.
China’s state leadership is not incapable because they pretend to wave the red flags of communism and don’t hold free elections. Rather it’s because the hierarchical order of society for the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few is highly irrational and inhuman and doesn’t seriously care for the human misery it causes. Between mid-December and 20th of January, by using police and disciplinary measures, the CPC prevented hundreds of doctors and nurses from informing each other about the new virus’ increased infection rates. I assume that it is otherwise normal amongst doctors to share information about new diseases, like it is normal on a construction site to warn each other of faulty scaffolding.
The ability of the CPC to organise censorship and repression in Wuhan and elsewhere to such an extent is an expression of its concentration of power. Extreme material inequality, violence against people in the lower ranks of the pecking order, in particular against women, a high rate of work accidents etc. are the daily consequences. In no way should this monopoly of power be seen as or equated with being the ‘most perfect surveillance state’. On the contrary, the whole show proceeds chaotically, self-aggrandising and through informal relationships, every little cog in the machine has its side business and no one reports the full truth to their superiors. Because working people are disempowered by censorship, being forbidden the right to assemble and with the organisational units of the state being relatively large in China, accidents and catastrophes also tend to happen on larger scales.
The same thing happens in ‘liberal democracies’; in European countries, though, it would not have been possible for the governing parties to suppress the warning calls of doctors and nurses for such a long time and so effectively as in Wuhan. There is a historical relation between the failure to detect and fight pandemics and the crass usage of instruments of power and exploitation.
In times of emergency the rulers defend their class privilege even more fiercely. The pandemic (and the fight against it) doesn’t ‘make us all equal’, but aggravates social inequalities. Workers without formal work contracts are hit harder than those who have them; state employees and higher qualified white-collar workers in big corporations can often work from home without major inconveniences and don’t have to be too worried about their monthly pay cheque; rich people might lose some of their wealth, but their lives in their villas are hardly impacted, they have very privileged access to information and (preventive) care – and can finally go properly speeding in their SUVs along empty streets (no joke!).
When people return to the coastal towns, the state distinguishes between home- owners and tenants. Home-owners are allowed to self-isolate in their property, but tenants are not allowed to return. Instead they have to stay for two weeks in quarantine hotels, which they have to pay for themselves. There are enough reasons to oppose this upholding and even aggravating of social inequality for the purpose of maintaing the existing power relations, but apart from symbolic forms, opposition is difficult here. Perhaps that will work out better in Europe!
Alienation from ‘the West’
Right from when it was enacted my friends in Hong Kong thought that the containment in Hubei was just a show and prone to fail. My friends in mainland China on the other hand thought that the decision by some European states to not enact strict containment polices and talk about mitigation and heard immunity was irresponsible and shocking.
My impression is that many Chinese accept the party propaganda, the self-praise and criticism of other countries as lax and indecisive – but they have little choice. On one hand there is mistrust towards the government (which expressed itself during the lockdown in self-organised road blockades and the reluctant attitude towards a return to work). On the other hand, people are used to feeling powerless. Many accept the official news as being three quarters truthful, because ‘they cannot all be lies’. In addition many feel pride, arrogance and chauvinism regarding the power of China.
All this will increase the alienation from ‘the West’ or from foreigners. This alienation is aggravated – I think in a purposeful and more or less systematic way – in various forms through big propaganda and small stories and is based on the limited personal exchange between Chinese people and foreigners.
The nationalism of the Foreign Office drives all this further. The doctrine of the young generation of Chinese diplomats seems two-pronged: to insist on the ‘right of the more powerful’ on one side and playing the victim on the other, (“China is bullied by the international community, while already being down”). They change tack depending on whether the Chinese state is being blamed for the cover up of the pandemic or when the CPC once again wants to blow the trumpets of anti-imperialism.
An important target of party propaganda are Chinese people living abroad. This will increase their alienation and difficulties to integrate locally. I have read many posts on social media that discuss the anti-pandemic measures in Germany or England or describe the return journey to China. Many authors of these messages don’t portray brute nationalism, but a deep feeling of being misunderstood – they tolerate other ways to deal with the pandemic, but ultimately only see the Chinese government as capable of acting decisively.
The dirty propaganda war has started
‘Western leaders’ like Trump or Pompeo bawl about the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘China virus’. And at the same time the CPC spreads rumours in China that US-soldiers spread the virus during the World Military games in October in Wuhan (you might remember that the Chinese team was disqualified for obvious cheating). Here is an exposition of the CPC’s propaganda.
The party gloats about how well ‘they’ have mastered the crisis and steals and incorporates the effort of all volunteers, while censoring all criticism. When Xi visited Wuhan, police stood on the balconies of local residents in order to quell any voicing of discontent/ This had happened a week earlier during the vice prime minister’s visit. It doesn’t matter how things went, the CPC would sell any catastrophic event as a victory and expression of its omnipotence. They do this speedily, before any other details about the scope of the catastrophe and actual numbers of deaths come to light. All this is not new, but due to China’s economic and political power, the global pandemic, and the increasing tension between the global superpowers, the whole issue obtains a new significance for people outside of China and revives authoritarian dreams of a ‘decisive leadership’ – also in ‘the West’.
On the media and propaganda front, the tensions between China and the US are sharpened on a weekly basis, a tension that so far has found its most pronounced expression in the trade war. In February, China extradited three Wall Street Journal journalists. The official reason was the headline of an article they wrote (“China is the real sick man in Asia”), which Beijing denounced as “racist”. In response, the USA limited the number of employees of pro-Chinese media companies who are allowed to work in the country to 100 per company, which meant that around 60 Chinese journalists were thrown out of the US. On the 18th of March the Chinese Foreign Office said that more than a dozen American journalists would have to return their press passes within ten days and would not be allowed to continue working as journalists. The American ‘China expert’, Bill Bishop, comments that he “couldn’t remember a more dangerous time in the American-Chinese relationship in the last 40 years”.
It is not possible yet to fully assess the extent of the crisis related to the virus, the quarantine measures, border closures and global economic recession that rolls across the planet. It will undoubtedly surpass the 2008 crisis, with 20% unemployment in the US and more job cuts in China than in 2008… fear and anger regarding the political measures, which are even more haphazard and brutal than usual. Worldwide people go through similar fears and make common experiences, which hopefully will help to oppose the nationalism and authoritarianism rising with the crisis.
Gustav from China.
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