Header Image: Security personnel guard the gates to a traditional Lunar New Year temple fair in Beijing, closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Quite a few of my friends and contacts have been in touch to ask how I am coping with the viral outbreak in China. I appreciate their concern, but it has caught me by surprise. "Am I missing something?" I've wondered. "What are people hearing on the news back home? Is it really so bad that they feel the need to check up on me?"
Clearly there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding the new (or "novel") coronavirus, and good reason to be cautious. But some perspective is needed. Consider the following:
The vast majority of cases and fatalities have been limited to a single Chinese province, Hubei, effectively sealed off to the outside world since late January.
China is a massive, continent-sized country, and while every region has confirmed cases, none has reported anything near the scale of Hubei's.
Over 400 people have tragically died after contracting the virus, but this pales in comparison to the lives lost this winter from more common illnesses, such as influenza (responsible for around 10,000 deaths in the US alone).
Just one person outside of China has sadly died from the coronavirus, while the relatively small number of international cases appear to have been well controlled through strict quarantining measures.
Yet such facts are seemingly lost amid the deluge of alarmist headlines, blanket travel bans, and unhelpful hysteria emanating from commentators with limited medical expertise (for example, this post by China law specialist Dan Harris). Of greater value has been the measured, sensible analysis offered by public health professionals with first-hand experience of viral outbreaks in the region (like this NYT piece by physician Dr. Elizabeth Rosenthal).
Against this backdrop, I thought it might be useful to share what I have seen "on the ground" in Beijing's old quarter (where I am currently based) and in parts of Shanghai (during an unavoidable recent day-trip there). Here are my three major observations:
1. A plethora of prevention awareness information
A huge number of notices and slogans have appeared in the surrounding streets and alleyways of my neighbourhood (some of them quite creative, as seen elsewhere by David Bandurski). This is despite the fact that, to date, only two coronavirus cases have been recorded in this district, Dongcheng.
In particular, people are being advised to wear masks in public, and this is even being enforced in certain areas, such as train stations.
Side note: How the fate of the humble face mask has evolved. Long worn in China as a way to guard against pollution and keep warm in winter, masks have most recently been seen donned by protesters in Hong Kong and consequently banned at public gatherings in the city. Now, in a reversal of fortunes, their use is being enforced across China to prevent infection. Whatever the purpose, widespread mask usage is not a great look for China as it seeks to improve its global image.
Various catchy slogans have appeared overnight on the traditional propaganda banners. This signals to residents that the coronavirus prevention campaign is now the single-most important issue in the eyes of the government.
2. Mobilisation of citizens and community officials
Most of these messages seem to be getting through to people and spurring them into action. Evolving from the "mass campaigns" of the Mao era, the modern Chinese state continues to excel at mobilising its grassroots cadres and citizens. But rather than seek to reshape people's ideology as in the past, the aim of present-day campaigns is mostly to reform the way people behave in public (see work by scholars Elizabeth Perry and Luigi Tomba for more on this topic). Such mobilisation (or should it be 'immobilisation' in this case?) has been acutely visible here during the coronavirus crisis.
For most people, this simply means wearing a mask in public and not going out except unless absolutely necessary. The extent to which people are acquiring and wearing masks is excessive, but that is probably better than doing too little. And beyond their practical function, masks have taken on a symbolic function, as a sign of solidarity and cooperation in the fight against the coronavirus.
Both Beijing and Shanghai have been very quiet. Streets usually full of cars and pedestrians are now nearly totally empty. I feel very safe walking around, but also detect a palpable sense of heightened alert among others. It is quite strange, eery at times, but also fascinating to see such quiet and calm in these usually bustling urban spaces.
The transport system has been operational but with greatly reduced passenger numbers. Again, this lack of activity is unheard of in China under normal circumstances.
Stations, trains, buses, taxis and public buildings are being regularly disinfected. There is a strong smell of disinfectant in some places.
Most shops have heeded the government's advice to stay closed for longer following the Lunar New Year holiday. Some businesses such as Starbucks and McDonald's have closed all of their stores in the country, while the likes of KFC and Pizza Hut remain open outside of the epicentre Hubei.
Beyond staying indoors and shutting their businesses, people are being 'mobilised' into other forms of action, such as undergoing temperature screenings and completing health forms. The latter is aimed at tracking down and treating people who may be infected, based on their connection to known cases. Officials from the local residents' committee (juweihui) have been going door to door with information and instructions regarding the virus (in both Chinese and English). Security guards have been deployed to guard gated communities, now strictly closed to delivery men and other non-residents.
3. Essential services are in tact, but with some shortages
While there have been reports of empty shelves in some supermarkets, it appears that this has mostly been in Wuhan and its environs, where people rushed to stockpile food following the announcement of the lockdown. I have also heard rumours of panic buying in other cities such as Shenzhen.
In Beijing, I have noticed many restaurants and some stores staying shut. Those that are open do not seem to have as many sizes and varieties of products as usual. But shortages and delays are not unusual around this time of year following the Lunar New Year lull, and this has simply been exacerbated by the official extension to the holiday.
Let me be clear: There is no sign of a serious food shortage, at least as far as I can tell. And the Chinese government will be doing everything possible to ensure limited disruption to food availability. Hunger is a sensitive topic in China, something that those born up as recently as the 1970s can remember living through.
Part of the authoritarian contract that has kept the CCP in power for so long is the incredible rise in economic prosperity and food security that has benefited millions of people in China. The coronavirus situation would thus have to deteriorate dramatically before people were allowed to starve. But let's not even go there.
Apart from the food supply chain, I have not seen any obvious disruption to other critical services. There have been few restrictions imposed on transport within cities. Buses and trains and taxis have all been operating as normal, though with far fewer passengers.
I have heard reports of medical supply shortages, particularly in Wuhan, however I do not have any insight into the full scale of the crisis there; supposedly a lot of extra supplies have been or are being shipped into those areas in need. In Beijing and Shanghai, items such as surgical masks and alcohol rub have widely sold out, as has bleach.
The government and also some businesses have subsequently made efforts to hand out free health supplies. I was fortunate enough to walk past the local pharmacy the other day just after the delivery of a new batch of surgical masks. Customers were entitled to three each upon presenting a Chinese ID card or foreign passport.
Conclusion 1: The macro and micro pictures of the crisis differ greatly
While the big picture of the coronavirus is rightly concerning for people and governments around the world, the everyday situation on the ground in China is somewhat more nuanced. Life is largely carrying on as normal, albeit with the difference that most people are staying at home to work or enjoy an extended holiday. But experiences differ greatly from person to person, as in the following:
For many, the extended holiday has been welcome. It has arguably been a kind of 'reward' in return for the various social and economic costs that people are incurring (not seeing relatives, not travelling, not earning their usual income etc.) Again, this can be viewed as the CCP fulfilling its part of the social-political contract, or what scholar Ching Kwan Lee has described as "bargained authoritarianism".
For those in the essential services or businesses that have not closed, the situation has clearly not been so pleasant; it is uncomfortable to have to wear a face mask while working all day, and it is potentially dangerous to be in frequent close contact with large flows of customers during a viral outbreak.
For those with existing illnesses or elderly family members, it is likely that they will be especially worried. It is advisable that they take extra preventative measures, as it those groups which have been disproportionately affected in this outbreak.
For students of China such as myself, this has been a valuable opportunity to see first hand how the Chinese government and society handles a crisis such as this. It is amazing to see the full force of the Chinese state suddenly seeping down into almost every aspect of daily life!
Conclusion 2: Signs of a 'constructive authoritarianism'?
In the West, our 'software' of liberal democratic values programmes us to reject China's authoritarian practices as universally 'draconian' and an infringement on people's human rights. Sadly this is very often true. The trouble in taking this approach, however, is that we rule out the possibility there may be some positive or constructive sides to authoritarianism that actually benefit and empower people in certain difficult situations.
I would argue that such a 'constructive authoritarianism' is precisely what is being demonstrated in China, as I tried to point out in the three observations above. Namely, it is the power of the authoritarian Chinese government to (1) raise awareness through propaganda, (2) mobilise people and officials into action, and (3) fulfil its part of the social-political contract, that can in fact be a force for good at times like these.
Of course, critics will retort that the outbreak may not have got to this stage had it not been for a lack of transparency by Wuhan officials, and that this ultimately stems from China's authoritarian system. There is undoubtedly some truth in that. But now is not really the time for discussion of systemic change in China; it should and likely will follow once the virus has been tackled.
People have also questioned the effectiveness of lockdowns, self-isolation and tracing. But there is evidence and lived experience to suggest that these rather extreme practices do work: it was partly because of such methods that China was eventually able to overcome SARS in 2003.
In writing this blog, my aim is not to defend authoritarianism as a whole, but merely point out that it may have some constructive qualities that are in fact helping to alleviate this crisis. I hope I have also provided a sense of what things are like here on the ground, so that your impressions are not shaped solely by often rather alarmist media reports and government travel advice.
Finally, I should point out that this is by no means meant to be a scientific study, and is not necessarily representative of what's going on elsewhere in China, merely a snapshot of what I have seen in Beijing and Shanghai.