Behind the Mask

Elisabeth Forster. History Today. Volume 70, Issue 6, June 2020.

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak to be a global pandemic. The first reaction of officials in Wuhan, the presumed epicentre of the outbreak, was to cover it up, but by mid-January, the situation had become so severe that it could no longer be concealed. This was just before Chinese New Year, a time when many people travel to see their families. The Chinese government changed course radically at this point. First Wuhan and later the rest of China were put under lockdown and China’s leadership became involved in tackling the disease. By the end of April, when this article was written, China had reported that its outbreak was under control and life was gradually returning to normal. But the coronavirus had engulfed the rest of the world.

The main challenge in the pandemic is medical: ending the pandemic and saving as many lives as possible. Another is to mitigate the adverse effects on the economy. But around the world, politicians and publics also fight a battle for interpretation: ‘Whose fault is this?’ and ‘Who is doing the best job of dealing with this crisis?’ While voices in academia had long warned against a pandemic such as this happening in our globalised age, we struggle to place this experience into familiar patterns of understanding reality. Some of these patterns are taken from history. China, seeking to grasp the ungraspable, is drawing on themes and vocabularies from history in order to justify the present and shape the future.

Legacy of Empire

According to the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, on 23 March, the day on which he announced the UK lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson received a phone call from President Xi Jinping. Xi called to ‘express his sincere solidarity with the British government and the British people in resisting the Covid-19 epidemic’. He also offered ‘help and support’ and shared some of China’s experiences with ‘preventing and controlling’ the coronavirus.

This was part of a broader trend. If Chinese state media had focused initially on China’s struggles against the Covid-19 outbreak, once the epidemic had turned into a pandemic, it began depicting China as a country that was helping the rest of the world. In mid-March, Chinese Central Television (CCTV) documented the arrival in Italy of a Chinese plane carrying medical equipment and personnel. The clip was in Chinese, meaning that it was directed at domestic audiences. But it was also made available on CCTV’s official Youtube channel, to be viewed abroad as well. Youtube is banned in China.

When official news outlets depict China as the world’s helper in disease control, the legacy of empire is front and centre. In the imperialist age of the 19th and early 20th centuries, colonisers would frequently help colonies in dealing with natural disasters or epidemics. Usually framed as kind-hearted help, this was also designed to show off the colonisers’ scientific and ‘civilisational’ superiority. The historian William C. Summers describes how, when the pneumonic plague broke out in North-east China (Manchuria) in 1910-11, imperialist powers, including Britain, Japan, Russia, Germany and France, scrambled to offer help, with the intention of later gaining colonial rights.

‘Around 1900, both Chinese intellectuals and Western observers began to describe China as the “sick man of Asia”‘

Centre of the World

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, China was semi-colonised by Western powers. The importance the memory of empire has in Chinese political conversations of the present cannot be overestimated. Before the First Opium War (1839-42), China (then under the Qing Dynasty) had been the dominant power in East Asia and considered itself the civilisational centre of the world. The First Opium War eventually led to an extremely humiliating ‘scramble for colonial concessions’ by imperialist powers and the age of empire in China ended only with the Second World War.

Ever since, this ‘century of humiliation’ and China’s quest to overcome it and gain status as a global player have been central to a politically directed Chinese national identity. Part of this quest has been to offer help to weaker nations. During the Cold War, this sometimes took the form of helping fellow communist countries that China considered weaker, such as North Korea in the Korean War or the Viet Nimh and then North Vietnam in their respective wars. When in 2020 China offered to help foreign countries, one is reminded of this, even though no explicit references to empire are made. It seemed to be working when British media discussed stricter lockdown measures in the UK to ‘follow the same path as China’ (the Guardian) and when other newspapers called China a ‘superpower’ (Foreign Affairs, 20 March or the website of the German TV news programme Tagesschau). Over the course of April, however, China’s soft power success again diminished, when reports emerged about a range of unfavourable topics, from apparently faulty masks and tests bought from China (albeit not through companies recommended by the Chinese government), to discrimination in China against people from Africa and rumours that the epidemic might not be as defeated in China as official reports suggested.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, disease was also used as a metaphor to explain empire. Around 1900, both Chinese intellectuals and Western observers began describing China as the ‘sick man of Asia’. As the historian Liping Bu explains, at a time when many believed in the social Darwinist concept of ‘survival of the fittest’, having a sick ‘national body’ was particularly humiliating. The legacy of this metaphor re-emerged in the Covid-19 pandemic. On 3 February, the Wall Street Journal published an article on the coronavirus and China’s economy by Walter Russell Mead, whose headline – chosen by the editors, according to the author – was ‘China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia’. Many, especially in China and in the Chinese American community, perceived this as xenophobic, humiliating and disrespectful towards the Chinese people’s suffering and its efforts to stop the virus. On 6 February a tweet by the Chinese Communist Party-directed Global Times told Mead to ‘be ashamed of your remarks, arrogance, prejudice, and ignorance’. As a result, the Chinese government revoked the press credentials of three China-based journalists of the Wall Street Journal. Critics of the article did not want the China of the 21st century to be equated with this phase in history.

When Xi Jinping called Boris Johnson in March, he not only expressed his solidarity, but also voiced his conviction that, ‘under the leadership of the prime minister, the British people could certainly win the war against the epidemic’. War is central to how politicians in China and all around the world have framed the Covid-19 pandemic. They describe it as a battle and they repeat patterns from an earlier event that engulfed the world – the Cold War. Boris Johnson, too, has evoked the Second World War, Donald Trump has called himself a ‘wartime president’, Emmanuel Macron said ‘We are at war’ when announcing the French lockdown in March and Angela Merkel called the pandemic Germany’s biggest ‘challenge since the Second World War’.

The war rhetoric had a specifically Chinese twist in the early stages of the epidemic. In February, Xi Jinping was quoted saying that China had to ‘resolutely win the people’s war of preventing and controlling the epidemic’. The ‘people’s war’ harked back to the era of Mao Zedong, who had coined the expression to describe wars of revolution. The idea behind a ‘people’s war’ was that, even if a group faced an enemy that was militarily superior, it would win if it had the support of its people. ‘What is a true bastion of iron? It is the masses’, says the Little Red Book.

Making Martyrs

The people fighting on the front line of this metaphorical war in 2020 were the health workers, who, the People’s Daily reported, came to Wuhan from all corners of China to help. The paper celebrated the heroism of the medical staff who signed up, prepared to go to the ‘front’ and to ‘charge ahead’. They did so out of a sense of professional duty or out of a sense of moral duty bestowed upon some of them by their membership in the Chinese Communist Party. In early April, healthcare workers and a few others were officially given the honorific ‘martyr’. On 4 April, the country observed a ‘moment of silence’ to, as the People’s Daily wrote, ‘mourn the martyrs, who have sacrificed themselves in the struggle to resist the Covid-19 epidemic, and the compatriots who have passed away’.

In 2020 the Cold War has also resurfaced along old battle lines. Instead of seeing the virus as an enemy that humanity has to fight together, people all around the world have blamed others for the outbreak. This involved racist abuse directed at people thought to be Chinese in the West. There has also been a range of conspiracy theories or fake news, such as the idea that the virus was created in a lab in Wuhan or that it had originated from, or been manufactured in, the US. This last idea was supported on the social media channels of some Chinese officials, after the epidemic had turned into a global pandemic. It is part of a broader rivalry between China and the US, which has manifested itself in the form of the recent trade war between the two countries.

Its causes lie, on the one hand, in the fact that an aspiring superpower like China easily comes into conflict with the world’s established superpower, the US. On the other hand, the antagonism is a legacy of the Cold War, when the US was the superpower of the capitalist Western Bloc and China a member, albeit a troublesome one, of the socialist Eastern Bloc. The US and China had not always been at odds. In the Second World War, for example, the US had been China’s ally against Japan and before that it had a reputation as a relatively benign coloniser of China. However, a range of anti-American propaganda campaigns and wars in which China and the US found themselves on opposing sides (such as the Korean War) in the 1950s and 1960s consolidated the image of the US as an enemy. While relations improved from the late 1960s onwards, the frictions never disappeared and have re-emerged recently in a variety of forms.

Name Games

This rivalry manifests itself when Chinese officials implied that the coronavirus might be American in origin and when President Trump called Covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’, antagonising people in China and in the Chinese-American community. To avoid exactly this result, the WHO recommended in 2015 that new diseases should not be named after ‘geographic regions’, in order ‘to minimise unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people’. But Trump is not the only one to play the name game. Chinese news outlets refer more often to the illness, rather than to the virus itself, and call it, literally translated, ‘the new coronavirus pneumonia epidemic’. This is very much in line with the WHO nomenclature. But many in Taiwan frequently refer to the pandemic as the ‘Wuhan pneumonia’. Epoch Times, a Chinese-language dissident newspaper based in New York and said to be close to Falun Gong, a religious group banned in China, had by late March even taken to calling the virus the ‘Chinese Communist Party virus’. The political messages behind this name hardly require further comment.

The Covid-19 outbreak has also triggered a debate about political systems, about whether authoritarian or democratic systems are better suited to tackle epidemics. This revives the Cold War debate of whether socialism or capitalism is better, a discussion that morphed into a purported competition between authoritarianism versus democracy after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The fight against the epidemic was connected to political systems early on. When a new hospital was built in Wuhan within two weeks and the city was put into lockdown on 23 January 2020, many foreign observers were in awe, if also somewhat horrified, by the efficiency of the Chinese state. Imposing lockdown on a whole city was inconceivable in the democratic West at that point in time. But while the epidemic was raging in China, many Chinese ‘netizens’ were less than impressed by the Chinese Communist Party’s handling of the outbreak. Anger was directed particularly at the local Wuhan government’s early cover-up of the outbreak (a failure subsequently condemned by China’s leadership). This anger erupted when the Wuhan-based doctor Li Wenliang died in February 2020, at the age of 34. Li had warned against a new form of pneumonia in late December 2019 and had been silenced by the police. His death provoked public anger at the government’s handling of the crisis and its increasingly heavy-handed censorship. Calls for political reform were expressed on Chinese social media with unprecedented fury. The government later appropriated the figure of Li Wenliang to support their story of the pandemic: the police’s handling of Li’s case was in late March officially declared ‘inappropriate’ and in early April Li was proclaimed one of the ‘martyrs’ who had died fighting the pandemic.

China Crisis

History came into play here, too. The Chinese Communist Party has long been facing a legitimacy crisis, which it has weathered much better than many observers expected. This crisis stems from a range of issues. One is that the Chinese Communist Party is in charge of a de facto capitalist country, ever since this very party launched economic reforms after Mao Zedong’s death in the late 1970s. Academics have long argued that the Chinese Communist Party maintains its legitimacy through good governance. But, as the legal scholar Carl Minzner has argued, in recent years the Party has been undermining public support through ever-increasing censorship and crackdowns on freedoms. In 2020, anger erupted when some in China felt that the government was handling the public health crisis badly (bad governance) and that part of this was down to censorship (the silencing of doctor Li Wenliang).

The tide seemed to have turned for China when it emerged in March that Europe, the US and other Western countries were also overwhelmed by the Covid-19 outbreak, while China appeared to be handling the public health crisis better. While China was offering help and advice to democratic countries such as Italy and the UK, the earlier distrust of its authoritarian approaches to the outbreak turned into debates about whether authoritarian states were actually better at tackling epidemics than democracies.

But another legacy of the Cold War intervened in this debate in the form of suggestions to follow the model of democratic Taiwan, rather than that of authoritarian mainland China. Taiwan is an island, which the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) claims as part of its territory, but which is self-governing – a legacy of the Cold War. Immediately after the Second World War, the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Guomindang (GMD) fought a civil war between 1945 and 1949. The Guomindang lost, withdrawing to Taiwan in 1949 and turning the island into a place that was part of the Cold War’s capitalist bloc and therefore under the protection of the US. In the 1950s and 1960s, many capitalist countries even considered Taiwan to be the ‘true China’ and the Chinese Communist Party an illegitimate government. Since the 1980s, Taiwan has become a multiparty democracy and parts of its society advocate a formal declaration of independence from China – much to the anger of mainland China.

Taiwanese Technology

As of late April 2020, it is generally understood that Taiwan has tackled the Covid-19 outbreak well. Having learned from the SARS outbreak of 2003, it deployed a range of technology-supported methods, such as strict and sophisticated techniques of contact tracing and rationing how many face masks each person could buy. A democratic society, in other words, did well in fighting the coronavirus. Arguments soon emerged that Taiwan was not successful in spite of its democratic form of government, but because of it. Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl wrote in Foreign Affairs, for example, that Taiwan was beating the coronavirus through ‘a fusion of technology, activism, and civic participation’, benefitting from ‘one of the world’s most vibrant political cultures by making technology work to democracy’s advantage rather than detriment’. Political systems are still debated along Cold War divisions.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put plans for 2020 on hold. It drives home just how connected people are around the world, how the global impacts the local and the individual and how a virus that (as one of the more popular theories goes) hopped over from an animal in a market in Wuhan has brought the whole world to a standstill and into crisis mode.

There are many side effects to the pandemic beyond the medical disaster. One is that China is renegotiating its place in the world and the world is discussing China’s place in it. Predicting the future is a hazardous enterprise. But one should not be surprised if, after the pandemic has passed, the political fallouts stay with us for a long time to come.