Reading Round-Up: China, Coronavirus, and Quarantine Theater

For most of us who work in the China field, there’s a lull at some point in January or February as the entire country takes an extended vacation to celebrate Chunjie, or the Lunar New Year. Factories shut down, foreign correspondents and businesspeople go on home leave, and the streets of Chinese cities are uncharacteristically vacant. I’ve always enjoyed being in China for Chunjie—there’s both celebration (so many fireworks!) and quiet (obligation-free days to spend binge-watching a TV series or binge-reading books).

Chunjie 2020 was different, as I could tell even from a distance of 7,000 miles away. The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has spread throughout China and elsewhere in the world over the past two months changed the nature of the holiday break. Factories were shut down for longer than usual—and aren’t fully back online yet—which will strike a significant blow to the country’s economy, with global repercussions. The streets were empty because people across the country were in self-quarantine at home. And while plenty of foreigners left China, both Chinese and foreign journalists have been working overtime to cover the outbreak.

While following new stories on Twitter is convenient, the constant churn of articles and commentaries means that many get posted and forgotten. Here, I’ve collected a wide array of pieces about 2019-nCoV and the effect it has been having on China’s society, politics, international relations, and economy. As usual when I do these occasional reading round-ups, my focus is on big-picture pieces that put current events into context, rather than day-by-day reporting on the subject, and I favor pieces that are broadly accessible over ones written for specialist audiences.

For the latest updates, see coronavirus coverage at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Caixin, and Guardian, all of which have been doing an outstanding job while reporting around the clock. The Sinocism and SupChina newsletters are always worth the price of a subscription, and they aggregate news story links on a daily basis throughout the work week.

Background Reading

If you’re not an epidemiologist, start with this helpful explanation at the New York Times of what the coronavirus is and how it spreads.

The epicenter of the 2019-nCoV outbreak is Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in Hubei Province that is most famous, to me, for being a major base of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. University of Bristol historian Robert Bickers shares more of the city’s history in a post at his blog, writing that “Wuhan’s direct entanglement with the world beyond Hubei province’s borders is nothing new.”

Ma Tianjie has a very helpful overview post at his Chublic Opinion blog, in which he provides a timeline for the outbreak in Wuhan, comparing and contrasting it with the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Get two wide-angle explanations of the strengths and weaknesses of China’s public health system in these posts at the Monkey Cage blog: Joan Kaufman, “Why China’s politics makes it easier — and harder — to control disease outbreaks,” and Elanah Uretsky, “Is China ready for this major global health challenge?”

In Hong Kong, the memory of the 2003 SARS epidemic is pervasive as the city braces for a possible rise in 2019-nCoV cases. At NPR, Jason Beaubien reports on the lessons learned from SARS in Hong Kong (though I think there’s also a strong undercurrent of anti-Mainland sentiment in many people’s attitudes toward the coronavirus that Beaubien—a science journalist, not a China specialist—doesn’t address).

Physicist and writer Yangyang Cheng has a wide-ranging essay at SupChina, “In Sickness and In Health,” that begins with the Chinese healthcare system and then moves on to discuss scientific research, bioethics, and politics:

By accounting for only one variable in a complex scenario, the simplistic approach creates more problems than the one it’s trying to solve. Shutting down a city may slow the spread of a virus, but at what cost? Without means of transportation, how do people get groceries, take care of the elderly, or go to the hospital? Stretched thin on a good day, how are hospitals handling the sudden influx of patients, and what is the impact on care for other medical needs? When the disease has common, flu-like symptoms, what is the effect of the lockdown on the public psyche, and how are healthcare workers handling stress and fatigue? When desperate folks try to break the quarantine, what measures might be used against them? In the aftermath of a natural disaster or terrorist attack, citizens turn to powerful organizations, usually the government, for help and protection. During a public health crisis, reliable institutions are especially critical. Without a trusted source for information, people resort to hearsay, and conspiracy theories fester.

(I had a really difficult time settling on only one quote from Yangyang’s essay—I definitely recommend reading the whole piece!)

Life Under Lockdown

On January 23, government officials ordered that Wuhan be locked down, attempting to contain the spread of novel coronavirus by preventing travelers from leaving the city. At the LA Review of Books China Channel, Xiaoyu Lu has written two dispatches about life under quarantine (both translated by Allen Young): “They Shut Down the City” and “Another Day of Life in Wuhan,” in which he writes this poignant passage:

Messages flood in, asking what the state of affairs is in Wuhan. No one has a clue, not even here. No one dares to go outside. No one dares to go to the hospital. No “locals” are left. We’re still here, living on the same ground, but it’s as though we’re suspended in mid-air, feet not quite touching the ground. Like people on the outside, we rely on social media to sift fact from fiction, to find out what’s happening just a kilometer away. We read about the world’s anger, sympathy, and indifference, and try our best to go about our lives as before.

Also at the China Channel, Lauren Teixeira reports from Chengdu on how the epidemic affected life in that city during the Lunar New Year holiday.

For those who have fallen ill in Wuhan, being isolated has further exacerbated the stresses on an already overwhelmed public health system. Emily Feng and Amy Cheng have a powerful print story at NPR’s website on how the city’s hospitals struggle to keep up with demand.

Within China, people whose identity cards identify them as registered in Wuhan—regardless of how recently they’ve been in the city—have found themselves subject to isolation and harassment, Paul Mozur reports for the NYT:

In the northern province of Hebei, one county offered bounties of 1,000 yuan, or about $140, for each Wuhan person reported by residents. Images online showed towns digging up roads or deputizing men to block outsiders.

See more on this topic at the Associate Press website, where Dake Kang reports on “The Shunned.”

You absolutely shouldn’t miss watching this stunning drone footage, produced by ChinaFile and the NYT, that shows (a) the scale of Wuhan and (b) just how empty a city of 11 million people can get.

Journalist and Wuhan native Xinyan Yu writes at The Atlantic about watching her hometown undergo lockdown from afar.

In Shiyan, a Hubei Province city seven hours from Wuhan also under lockdown, Lavender Au writes for the New York Review of Books, “There is the online reality, the reality portrayed by state media, and the reality I’m living.”

“Should we leave?” This is the question that Frankie Huang and her husband ask each other as they sit in their Shanghai apartment, unsure of what information to trust or how much risk they really face.

Coronavirus and the CCP

“Politics first. Stability preservation first. In such an environment, science can only sit by and watch. The scientific results could not be clearer, and the authorities likely had a decent grasp of the real situation. But nevertheless they could not speak the truth, and they spared no effort in keeping the outbreak under wraps.” So writes Wuhan-based journalist Da Shiji at China Media Project, explaining why Party officials kept the extent of the outbreak under wraps for many weeks.

That’s also the topic of two important investigations, at the New York Times and the Washington Post. At the NYT, Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers detail how “As New Coronavirus Spread, China’s Old Habits Delayed Fight”; the WaPo story, by Gerry Shih, Emily Rauhala, and Lena H. Sun, analyzes “how a bureaucratic culture that prioritizes political stability over all else probably allowed the virus to spread farther and faster.”

Li Yuan explains in this NYT commentary how the CCP’s bureaucracy and emphasis on party loyalty over technical abilities hindered information-sharing and open discussion of the threat 2019-nCov poses to public health.

At China Media Project, Qian Gang assesses what state media reported on during the month of January instead of sharing news about the coronavirus.

Despite censorship and the bureaucratic disincentives to allow information about the outbreak to circulate, some independent Chinese media outlets did manage to report on the coronavirus, as communications scholar Maria Repnikova explains in a commentary at the New York Times. “Journalists and activists,” she writes, “have demonstrated an impressive ability to mobilize in order to capture this complex story and, at times, challenge the authorities’ handling of the epidemic.”

But that period of openness was a brief one, as David Bandurski writes at China Media Project: “We have now entered a new phase in which propaganda authorities are making a renewed push to secure the source of information and wrestle back control of public opinion.”

Security theater is the practice of implementing elaborate but largely ineffective measures to signal commitment to public safety—such as American airports requiring passengers to remove their shoes when passing through TSA checkpoints. When I read this New York Times piece by Ian Johnson detailing the enforcement of often illogical anti-epidemic practices in Beijing, I tweeted that the Chinese government is practicing “quarantine theater.” As Johnson explains, the Chinese Communist Party is doing so because “Instead of having an adult conversation with the population about the virus and putting in place reasonable policies that have been used effectively elsewhere, the Chinese state has gone into full lockdown mode.”

To what extent is the coronavirus a problem for Xi Jinping? Analysts have been scrutinizing Chinese propaganda and social media for signs of which way the wind might blow for Xi and the CCP—if the 2019-nCov epidemic offers them an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities in the face of a crisis, or if this will be the event that brings down China’s government (while I’m iffy on the former, I think there’s almost zero percent of the latter). At ChinaFile, Yale Law professor Taisu Zhang considers the ramifications coronavirus could have on the CCP’s legitimacy.

While I expect the CCP will weather this crisis, there’s no denying that last Friday saw an outpouring of anti-government public sentiment after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to warn others about the dangers of 2019-nCov back in December but was silenced by authorities. At SupChina, Jordan Schneider and Pieter Velghe translate an essay by Wuhan resident Fang Fang in response to Dr. Li’s death:

Those who have not been in Wuhan will not understand. We’re not suffering because we’re being confined to our homes and can’t go out. What the people of Wuhan need most is consolation and the space to get things off our chests. Is this why the death of Li Wenliang has the people of Wuhan feeling so broken inside, and has made them want to cry and shout hysterically? It’s because the people think they and Li Wenliang are one and the same, that he is one of them, someone who was also trapped at home.

On the other hand, maybe this is a serious threat to Xi Jinping’s hold on power, as Jeremy Page and Lingling Wei consider at the WSJ.

Get both sides of this argument, plus much more, at a ChinaFile Conversation about the 2019-nCoV epidemic, which features short commentaries by an array of experts on Chinese history, politics, and society.

Also at ChinaFile, “When Fury Overcomes Fear,” an impassioned essay (translated by Geremie R. Barmé) by Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun.

For Those Who Prefer Podcasts

“Wuhan Goes Viral”Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies interviews China public health expert Yanzhong Huang at her China Power Podcast.

“Understanding China’s Coronavirus Crisis” — Asia Society Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski speaks with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health expert Thomas Inglesby at the Asia In-Depth podcast.

“Life at the Epicenter” — Another Asia In-Depth episode, this one featuring ChinaFile editor Susan Jakes interviewing ChinaFile visuals editor and Wuhan native Muyi Xiao about how the crisis is affecting her hometown.

“Outraged by the outbreak: Citizen journalism and coronavirus censorship” — China Econ Talk host Jordan Schneider interviews Quartz journalist Tony Lin.

“Coronavirus update with Yanzhong Huang” — Another conversation with Yanzhong Huang, in dialogue with Sinica Podcast co-hosts Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn.

“Wuhan Coronavirus: Impact on China Tech” — TechBuzz China hosts Rui Ma and Ying-Ying Lu discuss the effect that the outbreak could have on China’s tech industry, especially given Wuhan’s position in that sector.

“The Plague”Strangers in China hears from people all around China about how they’re dealing with fear and anxiety—and boredom—in the face of the coronavirus.

“China 2020 Foresight”Steve Stine speaks with Jim McGregor about economic fallout from the coronavirus, at the Inside Asia podcast.

Final Thoughts

The spread of the coronavirus has also resulted in a reprehensible display of anti-Chinese racism around the world; needless to say, we must all push back against any such expressions in our own communities. If you’d like to show support in another way, head to a Chinese restaurant—it might be seeing a hit to its business as coronavirus fears keep people away. This short piece by Philadelphia Magazine reporter Victor Fiorillo explains the muddled thinking behind such avoidance.

And wherever you are: please, please, please wash your hands.

Top image: Illustration of the 2019 novel Coronavirus, by Gianluca Tomasello, via Wikipedia.

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