Phases of Responses to an Epidemic

While holed up in a quiet corner as the COVID-19 epidemic sweeps the world, I have been intrigued by the worst and best in human responses to the epidemic. There seem at this stage to be a few phases, but I am sure there will be more as the epidemic unfolds over the rest of the year.

Let me say that I have had to cancel all travel for the foreseeable future, not merely because the air-conditioned nature of many forms of travel are now highly risky situations (COVID-19 can reach up to amost 5 metres and remain in such environments for up to half an hour after an infected person has left), but also because the useless travel insurance companies will not cover you if you travel to a part of the world that has even the threat of an epidemic. To be clear: I was planning to go to Europe to join my wife, but now that cases in Europe are rising rapidly, the travel insurance was certainly not going to help me if I contracted the virus. So I am staying put. Actually, I would love to be in China, since it is the safest place in the world right now. Already, about 60,000 (out of 80,000) have recovered and new infections are very few indeed.

As for the phases:

Phase 1: Racism.

With the first news of a new virus first identified in Wuhan only a couple of months ago, the uglier side of human responses became obvious. In those few parts of the world that used to be colonisers – the ‘West’ – highly offensive and openly racist statements were made in the media and by political ‘leaders’. I will not repeat them here, but they also appeared official travel restrictions and in everyday comments and actions, such as avoiding Chinese restaurants. Sure, they were dressed up as anti-communist Sinophobia, but they were a more blatant form of the official racism and hate speech that has been run-of-the-mill for a couple of years now.

At the same, people in countries who have experienced such forms of colonial racism were quick to send aid to China where needed, especially in terms of much-needed medical equipment while local producers caught up. Think of South Korea and even Japan, who were quick to help their Asian neighbour.

Phase 2: Rumour

They say that the first casualty in war is truth. The same applies to an epidemic. Rumours flew, aided by social media and a good number of deliberate efforts to seed such rumours. The rumours included a supposedly secret ‘biochemical weapons’ laboratory in Wuhan, from which the virus escaped. Or the completely false depiction of Chinese people eating bats. Or that another country had unleashed a biochemical attack on China. Or that the Russians were to blame for accusing the USA of a biochemical weapins attack. Or that China had secretly weaponised the virus to get back at the USA. Or that all sorts of weird and wonderful things could cure you from infection. On they went.

Thankfully, the media outlets in places of the world where responsible media is a reality – such as China – were soon up to the task. They provided up-to-date services with reliable information for people, while the World Health Organisation worked hard with its ‘myth-busters’ service. Indeed, it was precisely the WHO that came in early, with people on the ground in China and the formulation of a distinct plan of action.

Phase 3: From Complacency to Reality

This phase was my experience. Since I was in a relatively remote corner of the world, largely by myself, I assumed that the whole epidemic was happening ‘over there’ and that it would not affect me too much. I pondered matters such as the human-animal disease cycle but largely kept to usual patterns of life. I continued to make travel plans and thought things would be fine in the immediate future. I was keen to get back to China, since I feel so much at home there.

Then it finally hit: this is actually serious (as my Chinese friends had been warning me for some time).

The outcome: I cannot travel. I need to be very wary of public gatherings. I need to wear a face-mask when out. I need to be extra careful in Australia, since the regime here is alarmingly inept, even as more and more schools in the major cities have cases of COVID-19. So I will to stay put for a few months, if not the rest of the year.

The plans of yesterday change today, and will change again tomorrow.

Phase 4: A New (China) Model

As I have mentioned a few times in earlier posts (here and here), the Chinese approach is to offer a model of the best possible way to do something. Even more, they learn from their experience, address shortcomings, and seek to present an even better model next time. If someone else wants to follow that model, well and good. The Chinese will not insist on it, but they will help to adapt the model to local conditions.

Obviously, this is a positive turn. It has been assisted by the World Health Organisation saying very loudly and clearly that the resolute and differentiated approach in China in dealing with the epidemic is unprecedented in human history. Other countries should learn and learn fast.

Some did: South Korea knew that China had bought it time, so when the epidemic broke out there they followed the Chinese approach. Quickly quarantine affected areas, close down public events and travel, get hold of the necessary equipment and contain the outbreak. Japan too followed suit. And since these countries had been quick to assist China, the latter reciprocated tenfold with expertise and experience. In Iran, which is facing sanctions from the rogue state known as the USA, China moved quickly to assist with the outbreak there.

Indeed, the early criticism of China’s socialist system soon waned in other parts of the world. As Europe began to see the epidemic rising across that part of the world, countries began to adopt the China Model. Italy first quarantined Lombardy, where the largest outbreak initially happened, and then moved to quarantine the whole country and ban travel. Neighbouring Austria indicated that it too would follow the China Model.

More will do so as the epidemic spreads further: France, Germany, The Netherlands … But I fear for places like Australia and the United States, since the health systems in these places now count as inferior and the regimes in power are alarmingly inept.

Chinese Trust in the Government

The overwhelming majority of Chinese people trust their government like no other country on earth. This may seem strange to some foreigners who routinely mistrust their government. Yet the statistics speak for themselves. For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2019 notes a rise in the general public’s trust of the government and public institutions to a staggering 86 percent. Meanwhile, the monthly Ipsos surveys indicate that on average 90 percent of people have confidence in the direction in which China is headed. And in the five-yearly World Values Survey, the vast majority trust the government to promote human rights in China and throughout the world.

Why is this the case? One reason is of course the effect of Xi Jinping’s leadership, with effective rule by law and its closely associated Social Credit System, anti-corruption campaign and recovery of both traditional Chinese and Marxist values.

Yet, this is only part of the story. The assumption of trust in governance runs deep in Chinese society – assuming of course that the government in question has earned that trust. To understand how this works at a deeper cultural and social level, we need to go back a few centuries.

He Xiu’s Three Worlds

Important here is a certain He Xiu, who lived from 129 to 182 CE. He Xiu wrote a commentary on a commentary; more precisely, he wrote a commentary on the Gongyang commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (reputedly edited by none other than Confucius). This particular history is not so important here. Instead, He Xiu[1] introduced a crucial distinction between three terms:

  1. What is ‘rumoured [suochuanwen]’.
  2. What is ‘heard [suowen]’ and thus reliably recorded.
  3. What is ‘seen [suojian]’ and therefore verifiable.

The importance of this distinction can hardly be underestimated. What is rumoured concerns words and indeed a world that is ‘decayed and disordered [shuailuan]’. This is a world of chaos in which the heart is ‘course and unrefined [cucu]’, the country is broken up into small warring states and the records virtually non-existent. Rumours abound of skulduggery, assassination, intrigue and inappropriate behaviour in light of established rituals. In other words, hearsay and gossip are highly unreliable, to be mistrusted at every turn.

By contrast, the world that is reliably reported is one that has written records, which enables the unity of the many different Chinese peoples. It is clearly better that rumour, hearsay and chaos, but it still has its problems. The best is the world that is ‘seen’ and therefore empirically verifiable. One has first-hand evidence, or what is now called scientific evidence, truth from facts (shishi qiushi), as Deng Xiaoping said on many occasions. This verifiable world is united, whether distant or nearby, large or small, and even the heart (xin) or inner being is now deep and thoroughly known (xiang).

In Chinese history, the prime body responsible for reliable records and verified facts is of course the government. Indeed, these are signs of good governance and thereby one that can be trusted.

He Xiu’s distinction has many further ramifications today, whether the refusal of newspapers to engage in gossip, the scepticism concerning oral traditions, the transparency of political statements, or the need for any government statistics to be based on solid research. Let me focus on three examples.

Mao Zedong’s Works

The first concerns editions of Mao Zedong’s works. In China, there are two main editions, The Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong Wenji) and The Selected Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong xuanji). Apart from these two, there are a number of other small collections, relating to early writings or those on specific topics. These have all been carefully produced by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, which is fully resourced and responsible for reliable editions of all works in the Marxist tradition.

At the same time, there are a number of other editions of Mao’s works, the most notable being Mao Zedong ji, published in 20 volumes in Japan. While most Chinese scholars have copies of this edition, they are also suspicious. Why? An individual scholar has edited the works rather than a major institution funded by the government. Is it reliable? Can it be cited? Not sure. One has to wary indeed when relying on such material. And the five volume collection, Mao Zedong Thought Lives Forever, published without a place, date or editorship during the Cultural Revolution, is way beyond any form of reliability.

Number of Christians in China

The second example concerns the number of Christians in China. This has been the subject of what are now called the ‘Internet Wars’. The official government figure is 38 million, which foreigners interested in such matters disregard since they suspect that the government wishes to downplay the numbers. Instead, they postulate more than 100 million, based on an anecdote: supposedly Ye Xiaowen, the former director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, mentioned in a closed-door meeting at Peking University in 2006 that there were more than 100 million Christians in China. The problem here is that those who like to cite this anecdote provide no source for the statement, third-party evidence or indeed check with Ye Xiaowen himself. It turns out that – according to scholars who were actually present at the event – Ye Xiaowen had never said that there were more than 100 million Christians in China, but he did say that there were at that time more than 100 million religious believers. The difference is obvious, and the foreigners who like to peddle this number draw on unreliable rumour.

By now I am drawing on an article published in early 2019,[2] based on a long-term project at Peking University: the ‘China Family Panel Studies’. Carefully calibrated so as to be relevant to Chinese conditions, relying on a vast survey sample with multiple follow-ups, this sociological survey found in 2016 that there were 39.69 million Christians in China (about 2.8 percent of the population), of which 28.29 were ‘open Christians’ and 11.67 million ‘hidden Christians’. The ‘open Christians’ can mostly be attributed to the many legal forms of Christianity in China, such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches (Protestant) and the recently united Roman Catholic Church, while the ‘hidden Christians’ are mostly from the illegal ‘house churches’.

While these figures are derived from a completely independent sociological survey, it is scientifically based and relies on the assumption that one can only trust what is recorded and verifiable. Tellingly, it is very close to the government figures for Christians in China, for the government does not release figures unless they are based on what can be verified.

As for the speculative foreigners, they are simply relying on hearsay and rumour.

Concept of (U)topia

The third example concerns utopia, which in the Western European tradition refers to both a no-place and a good-place. Typically, writings about utopia postulate a world yet to be realised, on a distant island (Thomas More’s Utopia), in the distant future (William Morris’s News From Nowhere), or even on another planet. The accounts are typically imaginative, hearsay upon hearsay, if not rumour itself. Obviously, if the world in question does not exist and therefore cannot be experienced, one must rely on nothing more than rumour and imagination. In other words, it is a transcendent world, much better than ours, but one that we cannot know empirically.

Let us go back to He Xiu, for his threefold distinction of rumoured, recorded and verified is actually the background to a major contribution to the Chinese tradition concerning what is often known as ‘utopia’. But his proposal is completely opposed to Western European assumptions. In more detail, He Xiu proposed three worlds:

  1. The ‘decayed and disordered world [shuailuan]’, which is characterised by rumour and gossip (suochuanwen).
  2. The world of ‘rising peace [shengping]’, which is determined by what is heard and recordable (suowen).
  3. The world of ‘great peace [taiping]’, which can only be known by seeing and is therefore verifiable (suojian).

By now you can see what has happened. What in the Western tradition is called ‘utopia’, based on rumour, is actually the world of decay and disorder. What cannot be known is highly undesirable, with plots, skulduggery and lack of unity.

By contrast, the world of rising peace can be recorded, leading to unity at least within the country and relative stability and security. But the most verifiable world is precisely that of the ‘Great Peace’ or what is also called the ‘Great Harmony [datong]’. This world can hardly be connected with the Western tradition of utopia, although not a few have tried to do so. Why? It is not a world of rumour and innuendo, but one that can be verified empirically and through scientific investigation.

Thus, ‘utopia’ is a particularly bad term to use in this context. If we stay with the Greek origins of the terms, the best term would be topos, a definite place, and the Chinese tradition concerning the Great Peace and the Great Harmony would have to be called ‘Topian Thought’.

Trusting the Government

Let us return to question of trust in governance. As mentioned earlier, throughout Chinese history, the body responsible for recording and verifying information has been the government itself. Given the size of the country, government has always been a somewhat large affair, and in this respect at least the communist government carries on a long tradition. Of course, it has a distinct trajectory determined by Marxism, but it is still responsible for the most reliable information, for it has the best resources to ensure such information.

I would like to close with an unexpected contribution from He Xiu, a contribution carried through in the later tradition via Kang Youwei’s Book of Datong and Deng Xiaoping’s evocation – in a communist framework – of the old Confucian category of a xiaokang society (one that is moderately well-off, healthy and peaceful). For Deng Xiaoping and even more those who followed – Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping – this xiaokang society is the goal of the initial socialist phase of the new China, to be achieved by 2020.

This xiaokang society is equivalent now with what He Xiu called the world of ‘rising peace’. Most importantly, it is a world that about which one has reliable knowledge and is therefore able to provide reliable records. What does this mean for the core political program of achieving a xiaokang society in all respects by 2020? Is it merely political spin, a vague promise with little content? Not at all: it entails detailed and innovative planning, targeted projects, scientific analysis and rigorous assessment of results. For example, Xi Jinping has identified a peaceful and law-abiding country, environmental protection, and poverty alleviation as the three greatest challenges. Massive resources and initiatives have gone into each, with the Social Credit System, a wholesale shift away from environmentally destructive practices, and a last great push to lift the final 10 million people out of poverty (850 million since 1978).

Will these targets be achieved? Final assessment will tell. But one thing is clear: without them, a xiaokang society in unachievable; with them, it will be achieved. But such a society must be thoroughly recordable and verifiable. Trust in government turns on this fact.

Notes

[1] He Xiu. 1980. Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu. 28 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, p. 2200. Many editions of this work exist, in 28 volumes. It may also be found at https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=642006&remap=gb.

[2] Lu Yunfeng, Wu Yue, and Zhang Chunni. 2019. ‘Zhongguo daodi you duoshao jidutu? Jiyu zhongguo jiating zhuizong diaocha de guji’. Kaifang shidai zazhi 2019 (1):1-14. http://www.wyzxwk.com/Article/shehui/2019/01/398823.html.