After 5 months in Shanghai, here’s my take on some misperceptions and symbolism of Covid-19...
By Winona Lim (Guest Writer)
2020 begins with a bang (or rather, a series of bangs)
As we march into the new decade, 2020 is marked with much turbulence – US-China trade war, the looming Brexit, bushfires in Australia, melting Arctic ice caps and other problems – all against the backdrop of climate change and an impending global recession. We seem to have everything stacked against us; well wishes for a better start to the new decade only seem gestural.
Back home in Singapore, the recent buzzword since January has been Covid-19. While the immediate period following the DORSCON orange levels has seen some panic in our society, it is safe to say that an increasing number of Singaporeans have internalized the outbreak to be part and parcel of daily life -- how many people wear masks these days?
In China, the initial days where Covid-19 outbreak first started saw much panic amongst the Chinese and the rest of the world alike. Thus far, we have seen many news outlets reiterating stereotypes: Chinese people are uncivilised and the Chinese government is being authoritarian, amongst other claims. I find the opposite to be true: Covid-19 in China has demonstrated that myths surrounding China are not entirely accurate.
The Myth about a Monolithic China
Wuhan v.s the Nation - “They eat bats! Uncivilized people must pay for their misdoings”
All over the world, there has been mounting criticism on Chinese people. Anyone who looks remotely Chinese are often shunned or attacked. More than anything else, when the news of Covid-19 outbreak is suspected to be from the Huanan Seafood Market, netizens took to social media platforms to name and shame the Chinese for their “uncivilized ways” of eating exotic meat.
The blanket term “Chinese” has been used excessively when users send tweets and make memes out of the situation. It also does not help that the word “Chinese” has been associated with espionage episodes, territorial disputes (or some claim, territorial expansion) and a plethora of other stereotypical images. Currently, the divide between China and the rest of the world seemed more apparent than at other points in time.
While anti-China sentiments from other parts of the world are largely unsurprising, it is shocking to see people from Wuhan and the Hubei Province being ostracized by other Chinese nationals. Several sources depict Chinese from other provinces chasing these Wuhan people away from their villages, pasting signages or scribbling on walls that this household has someone who came back from Wuhan. This brings the idea of confinement to an extreme level, and also highlights the intense fragmentation of the Chinese society.
Division between Chinese Cities
In general, the western media has been covering Chinese news using the term “China” as a blanket term, with little distinction between the various regions. At best, we see coverages of the first-tier cities with buzzwords such as “Beijing”, “Shanghai” or “Shenzhen” being used. To see China as a monolithic whole is inaccurate and dangerous as we leave out the various nuances that make each region distinct.
By acknowledging the diversity and differences within China, this would enable better explanations on why certain phenomena is observed in some parts of China, but not others.
For example, why have first-tier cities seen more cases compared to other provinces outside of Hubei?
First, the extensive networks of China’s railways and domestic flight centers lead to ease of mobility. Second, the perceived superiority of healthcare facilities in first-tier cities. These help explain the sudden flood of cases to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. First tier cities which have been traditionally highly sought after by domestic economic migrants are now the place people flood to in hopes for better treatment.
While this shows the problem of unequal development between cities and less urban areas in China, the movement of 200,000 medical personnel into Wuhan to combat the COVID-19 outbreak has been contentious. Some view this mobilisation as beneficial to help overworked frontline medical staff to cope in Wuhan. Others feel this flight of medical staff will cause increasing strain on China’s medical facilities in other regions.
The decreased number of remaining staff may see longer work hours and schedules. As most Chinese cities are overpopulated, the shortage of medical personnel and facilities anywhere will exacerbate the situation.
Domestic political strife: Central v.s. provincial governments
Divides can also be seen through China’s political system. In some instances, the Wuhan (city) government and central government had issued differing statements. Since news of the outbreak first started surfacing in January, many blamed the Hubei provincial government for failing to report about the coronavirus earlier.
Many Chinese netizens were naming and shaming the Wuhanese city government and its leader, Zhou Xian Wang for their inefficiency, leading to the massive outbreak we see today. He has since been removed from his post.
In a live interview with Chinese state media, Zhou stated that he had been informed about the situation and reported this matter to Beijing, but was unable to disclose it without Beijing’s approval. This episode proved to be a rare instance of open criticism directed at the central Chinese government.
While the central government has been perceived to be the mastermind behind political, economic and social designs in the country, it is important to keep in mind that the central government still ultimately relies on the provincial and city governments to carry out their duties.
Where discrepancies exist, the execution orders get delayed or even significantly changed from its original intentions. As one of the largest countries in the world, public administration can be challenging even with China’s seemingly ubiquitous surveillance. Even when it implemented the heavy-handed policy of locking down cities to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, there is only so much the government can do, as cases continue to slip through loopholes.
Symbolic representation – “Mountains”
In Wuhan, the spread of Covid-19 quickly overwhelmed public hospitals. Videos of large swaths of people in hospitals have flooded Chinese sites. To tackle the intense pressure and shortages faced by existing hospitals, the building of 2 hospitals from scratch and conversion of existing space into temporary holding areas for patients have been carried out.
The Huoshenshan （火神山）and Leishenshan（雷神山）hospitals can hold over 1,000 and 1,500 hospital beds respectively. Inspired by the Xiaotangshan（小汤山） hospital that was built in Beijing during the SARS outbreak back in 2003, the names literally translate to Fire God Mountain and Thunder God Mountain. Personally, their names are perplexing as neither hospitals resemble tall mountains nor have anything to do with Chinese mythology gods.
On the other hand, some Chinese netizens speculate that the reason for naming the hospitals as such was because the Chinese Communist Party feared the virus and hence had to resort to using Fengshui elements to stop the outbreak. In Chinese mythology, the God of Fire (火神) together with the God of Thunder (雷神) played a key role in repelling the Plague God (瘟神), and that he would be aided by the God of Thunder.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials have revealed the use of Chinese culture as a reference point for the naming of these hospitals. This symbolism of resilience created by hospital names is crucial in dire times. By using icons of stability - in this case ‘mountains’, the government was able to provide a sense of psychological comfort and reassurance for the public that there is an unmoving and stable backing during this trying period. Only after ensuring public order is in place, can the country be able to combat Covid-19 effectively.
Against all odds: What next for China?
The mounting pressures on scientists and Chinese government to contain and control Covid-19 is coupled with a series of unfavourable conditions: disruption to its manufacturing sector, the unresolved political issue in Hong Kong, uncertainty over how China will respond to Taiwan’s recent elections, looming economic crises within the mainland. The current situation poses a serious challenge to the Chinese Central Government.
In addition, its people are waiting for existing promises to be delivered by the government. The party’s vision for China, outlined in their plans to create a moderately prosperous society by 2020 - xiaokang shehui （小康社会), is still unmet.
Beijing faces increasing pressure to ensure everyone returns to work, life goes on as usual, and the GDP growth hits 6% this year. Will they be able to do all these and still ensure Covid-19 is tightly contained and managed effectively?
There are no easy answers to these questions. As to what will happen next for China or the world, we can only wait and see.
The coverage of China on major news sites so far has only been rehashing content from neighbouring news channels. We still lack a proper coverage and understanding of China.
However, if one wishes to understand China, then I will advise a mixture of news sources from not only our go-to English sources, but also from Chinese news sites, Chinese netizens, and critically evaluate these information. Forget the biases. Only then, will one be able to understand the complexity that lies within China.
Winona Lim is a year three Political Science undergraduate in NUS. She had spent the semester abroad in Shanghai earlier this academic year. Currently, she is learning more about cybersecurity issues and wishes to pivot towards cyber issues in governance and policy making.
Views expressed here are strictly those of the author(s) and not of the organization.