• Zhuo Ling

Beyond the Party: COVID-19 and Life in China

Wuhan had never been known internationally to this extent before January 2020. But if you ask a Chinese what his impression is about Wuhan City, his answers are very predictable: its breakfast culture, the Hot Dry Noodle, the Three Fresh Tofu Skin, the Yangtze River, the Sakura season… whenever people talk about Wuhan, a scene of morning labor along the River would appear. They don’t have a culture of night life, a substantial breakfast consisting mainly of carbohydrate is the start, and the most important meal of a whole day. Long in history, the development of Wuhan has relied on the river transportation, and the over-exploited muscle and sweat of the porters, the boat trackers, and the sailors. Bold, brave, always energetic, always simple and kind, that’s a typical figure of a Wuhanese. Wuhan does not enjoy international fame as Beijing or Shanghai, but that’s exactly how it could reflect the true situation of common Chinese. For the sacrifice they made in this pandemic, President Xi praised Wuhan as “a city of heroes”, and Wuhanese as “people of heroes”.

It has been more than two months since the lockdown of Wuhan began at 10 pm on January 23. Since then, the word “lockdown” has been used more and more often in the report of other cities’ control measures around the world, none of which could be compared to Wuhan: all flights were suspended, the highway was closed, people were strictly quarantined within their apartments – there were no exceptions like walking the dog or jogging, you can’t even go out for grocery, all food purchase should be done via mobile apps. What's even more frustrating is that after seven days, the epidemic reached its outbreak: that week, official reports of deaths increased six times more than before. As of the end of January, there were 11,791 confirmed cases, of which 259 died.

Wuhan is wakening bit by bit from this nightmare. The Hubei Provincial COVID 19 Prevention and Control Headquarters issued a notice on Tuesday, March 24, that starting at 12 am on April 8, Wuhan would lose the control measures for the exit channel and resume external traffic in its former way. Everything should be carried out in a safe and orderly flow.

Would this mark the new page of this city’s history? Perhaps yes and people are glad to see it. However, the discussion of everything happened in this city should not fade away. In fact, when foreign press and experts were fiercely arguing over the legitimacy of this lockdown, this topic has never been publicly debated in Chinese media. True, people have to make concession, including their human rights, when faced with a serious danger of life, but whether such concession is proportionable, to what extent it is effective, how could the government procedurally make such a decision— regrettably, such queries are absent. I personally object the misuse of the word “lockdown”, the pain that Wuhanese suffered was not universal, this measure should not be commonized, and absolutely should not be regarded as a normal tool equipped for the government. There should not be “a city of heroes”, there should not be “people of heroes”. Apart from praises and tears for all those sacrifices, what have people really learned from this disaster?

Not the Bats’ Fault

Yewei (from mandarin yěwèi) is a form of bush meat or game including exotic animals and wild animals in Chinese cuisine. In ancient times, humans often hunted wild animals and those activities became ritual. After establishing the Manchu dynasty, the nomadic barbarian hunting and game habit was brought into the Central Plains and became aristocratic. For example, the "Manhan Banquet" (the highest form of a state banquet in Manchu dynasty) involves a large number of different kinds of wild animals. Nowadays, after Yewei was hunted by humans in large numbers in modern times, the number has greatly decreased, and many species have become extinct or endangered. Although endangered animals in China are protected by the government, some people still hunt and sell Yewei for their own use. Some people are still superstitious that game is a "tonic", and it has the equivalent of strengthening and even aphrodisiac. Some people regard eating Yewei as a game of hunting and showing off richness.

Testing Rate Comparisons from other countries. Credit: Nilesh Goswami.

In the COVID 19 context, according to epidemiologists, they still cannot be sure how the virus will spread from animals to humans. Scientists believe that the natural host of the virus may be bats, and it is likely to be transmitted through intermediate hosts. Some speculate that it might be pangolins, and some Chinese would treat them as food.

In addition to “Wuhanese who escaped from the lockdown and spread the disease”, “Yewei Diner” is another “the other” who is created and used to bear condemnation and project fear. The diners were imagined by epidemic discourse as the "first contact" with the mysterious nature, who are not satisfied with the domesticated poultry, repeatedly cross the borders of civilized order to satisfy their selfish desires. Highlighted is the 'forbidden fruit' attribute of Yewei, and the original sin of stealing the forbidden fruit is self-indulgence and violation of Eden's order. “Yewei Diner” is analogous to a “Junkie” in the panic narrative. Their stealing behavior is considered to be an improper expression of individualized self-selection, while the social structure and social context behind it are hidden.

We need a more systematic understanding of how Yewei are commercialized and gifted in a social process. What is easily overlooked is the “gift” attribute of Yewei. The unique drinking and table culture in China are involved here. The biggest difference between Yewei and domestic animals in the sense of trading is that the former cannot be massively produced, thus gaining the status and value of preciousness and uniqueness, like an orphan product. Therefore, it participated in the gift economy. Compared with the ordinary gifts, another advantage of Yewei is that it will be consumed and digested right away at the table, leaving no trace for anti-corruption. What’s more, the surplus value produced by operating Yewei markets will become another form of gift, which will continue to corrupt local regulators in the form of dividends or equity. A seemingly individual consumption behavior is indeed deeply embedded in social relations and local corruption. In order to eradicate Yewei consumption, it is not enough to condemn the Yewei Diners as the target of "the other".

I Can’t, I Don’t Understand

According to public record, the third meeting of the Thirteenth People's Congress of Hubei Province closed on January 17; and the disclosure of information on the progress of the epidemic by government departments at all levels began gradually on the 17th and 18th. Prior to this date, the spread and infection of the virus were concealed, and the Hubei Provincial Government did not take measures to respond. It was not until January 20th, that the state incorporated Covid-19 into a legal infectious disease, and the Health and Medical Commission determined the most stringent treatment and control measures. After that, various provinces and cities issued their own control measures.

Of course, the official has its own statement that the kit has not been issued before. However, due to the lack of stronger evidence, this "coincidence" at this time still inevitably led many people to interpret the NPC meeting and the time when the news of the epidemic was blocked. The question is not whether they have done so, but whether they have the motivation, ability, and possibility to do so. The answer to this question is obvious.

A typical example of sacrifice for the governmental need for “social stability”, is the death of Dr. Li Wenliang. On December 30, 2019, Dr. Li communicated with his peers on WeChat, thinking that SARS appeared again, he reminded his colleagues to pay attention. As a result, he became one of the first medical expert to disclose the epidemic to the outside world, and was punished by police for posting false statements that raises warnings and admonitions. He was required to sign a statement saying that he can stop the demagoguery and he understand that his behavior has caused damages to society. After that, he continued to work in the front line. He developed symptoms around January 10. On January 31, he was diagnosed as infected. At 21:30 on February 6, Dr. Li passed away, at the age of 34. The death of the whistle blower caused public outrage. The night after he passed away, countless people were posting on social media stating, or taking selfies with masking saying “I can’t, I don’t understand”. Such a massive demand for freedom of speech is very rare in nowadays China.

The story of Dr. Li is a tragedy, and we should mourn for him as everyone else who has died as a result of working on the front lines of the epidemic. Perhaps his sacrifice did inadvertently make more people think about the issue of free speech, but I do not think that’s the right way to memorize him.

One statement has been deeply rooted: Dr. Li is not a hero. He is just an ordinary person. He can be you and me, and his fate can be you and me. However, an ordinary person is exactly a perfect, unstained victim under this context. We might as well ask: what if he is not an ordinary person? What if he is an activist who has been jailed several times and is interviewed by several “ill-intentioned” foreign media? Will people still be angry and organize spontaneous mourning? This is important, because it involves the basic principles of freedom of expression: with very few exceptions (which are controversial), most speech should be allowed without directly harming others.

This century-old principle is facing challenges in the 21st century—the number of exceptions is increasing, and the definition of hurting others is expanding. But apparently, the remarks of Li Wenliang, Liu Xiaobo, and the Hong Kong protestors are not exceptional. When people mourn for Dr. Li Wenliang in the name of freedom of speech, can they even imagine mourn for the Hong Kong protestors? The facts are clear: Mourning for Li Wenliang is an officially chartered free speech. It obviously does not count as free speech.

Of course, we can't expect people to march on the streets of mainland cities to demand the freedom of speech. But I don't see the commemoration for Dr. Li is a practical step on the road to freedom of speech. Since the beginning of the 21st century, a series of social events such as the Sun Zhigang incident, SARS, Putian hospital scandals, and Red Cross scandals have triggered public outrage. If there is any difference this time, I am afraid that it is not because the subjectivity of angry people is enhanced, but the ability of the regime to regulate public opinion has become stronger than ever before.

Dr. Li is a perfect victim, but people should dig their minds deeper: what are you really afraid of when you mourn for him? The menace to the right to free speech, or the menace to the right to life? We should not require a person to save thousands of lives, to be “perfect”, in order to enjoy the freedom of speech.

As we can see, after 41 days of investigation, on March 19, Chinese officials revoked the admonition and apologized to Dr. Li’s family, but only two grass-roots police officers were punished. The authorities emphasized that the message forwarded by Li Wenliang was inconsistent with the actual situation, and criticized people’ labeling on Dr. Li as an anti-system hero. “People have to remember that Dr. Li was a member of the Communist Party”, Xinhua News Agency commented.

The “Victory”

At first, the total dysfunction of the Chinese bureaucratic system evoked a huge upsurge of anger and critics among mainland citizens. It has become obvious, that the structural problems are the crux of the problems that are endogenous to the current political, legal, and other systems of China, and are the causes of the repeated mistakes. Punishing certain officials, while continuing to cover the problematic political structure is just a gimmick to resolve public dissatisfaction. If the problem lies only in one province of Hubei, or even one city of Wuhan, or only in the system of the Red Cross, why is everything so coincident, as if the virus has intelligence, to intentionally choose to broken the weakest link in Wuhan, Hubei?

At this moment, what makes me conscious is, the tone of mainstream narrative has been changing. Speak. I’m glad to see that the situation is turning better and better in China, but at present, they are turning a tragic event that should be remembered into a soothing event. There has long been a "victory" culture in all phases of Chinese history. Implied by Propaganda in China, "overcoming" the virus, "overcoming" the epidemic, and even online lessons have become a "victory", even if teachers, students, and parents are tormented Chinese leaders said this, announcing that China will "beat the virus." Trump also adopted a similar tone. ("We will win!") They are used to using the word "victory" for everything, that is, people can conquer nature. I don't think there is anything pleasing in such an event. With so many dead, their families don't see it as a victory anyway.

In addition, while media (including Chinese and foreign ones) mainly focus on the governments’ policy, people’s life are somewhat neglected. In western world, China is always described as a rising force, a powerful enemy, there are intelligent discussions about its political structure, its economic development, its foreign affairs policy, which would hardly appear in Chinese media. But in this process, Chinese people are also constructed as “the other”, common people: a street cleaner, a deliveryman, a vegetable seller… their fates are absent. The pandemic brought their life to the world’s attention, let’s listen to those voices, don’t make them submerged by the great narrative of victory. This page shall never be turned over.

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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About the Author

Zhuo holds a bachelor’s degree from Wuhan University in China. She is currently pursuing her L.L.M. at the School of Law, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Enchanted by the complexity of our world, she is mindful of illustrating the cause of significant events with expertise. She is interested in issues of human rights, entertainment, and feminism. She aspires to contribute her passion to the process of writing and publishing, and to contribute towards the well-being of the general populace.

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