Since January 2020, governmental responses to COVID-19 across the globe have been marked by a communication strategy that portrays the measures taken against the pandemic as unprecedented. Examining the case of China, in this short article, I would like to argue that, beyond the level of mere propaganda, this discourse points at the way the party-state perceives itself and its world-historical role.
Interviewing a cohort of forty postgraduate students at a major medical school in China, I found that the vast majority of them were quarantined on campus. One research student recounted to me how she was initially quarantined in her dormitory. Twice daily she and her colleagues had to note their temperature and fill in a form with the relevant data, as part of a weekly review on which depended the issuance of a health certificate allowing “not suspicious” students to exit the dorm. According to the same informant, “only four [certified] people could go out of campus in one day in order to buy supplies, but most people opted to stay within the walls, as that made them feel more secure”. According to another research student, when he was diagnosed as ‘suspicious’, due to high temperature, he was isolated alone in a dorm room with nobody allowed to go near him. Food and water would be left at his doorstep, and for two weeks he was totally off limits, receiving no medical treatment other than anti-fever drugs until his temperature dropped and he was allowed to move out of isolation. Another research student was diagnosed as ‘suspect’ and isolated because she had visited a ‘danger area’. She was kept for ten days alone in a room of an isolation building in campus where she took her own temperature every day. Food and water in her case were left daily out of the building and the twenty people who were isolated within would never meet anyone from the outside, until their reported temperature met the norms. None of them received any debriefing or psychological support after their release.
This interview was not taken in 2020 but in 2008 and was related not to COVID-19 but to the 2003 SARS epidemic, when quarantine, isolation and lockdowns were extensively applied in China. What is then striking is not the newness of epidemic measures in response to COVID-19 but the narrative of newness. For in reality, epidemic response to COVID-19 has relied on centuries-old technologies, namely quarantine, sanitary cordons and isolation, and in some countries lucky enough to have proactive governments, with the nineteenth-century technology of contact-tracing. These are of course amplified and mediated by new electronic technologies, diagnostic techniques, etc., but in their essence or guiding principles remain unchanged. What is new is the scale of their application, mostly as regards the hybrid form of quarantine, isolation and sanitary cordons we now call “lockdowns”.
Since January 2020, China has been at the forefront of portraying epidemic control measures as unprecedented innovations. From the imposition of lockdowns, to app-assisted contact-tracing, the rapid building of isolation hospitals, or the mobilisation of trucks in massive urban disinfection, China’s epidemic response measures are invested with an aura of innovation. However, China has been well-versed in epidemic control techniques for over a century. Lockdowns and methods of mutual-surveillance were extensively applied in the case of SARS, when the authorities had also managed to build an isolation hospital in Beijing in eight days, making the celebrated Wuhan’s Huoshenshan isolation hospital constructed in ten days in February 2020 but a repetition of this achievement (which did not actually manage to break the 2003 construction record).
One could simply say that, as part of China’s epidemic communications, the “newness” of its control measures is but a prop in internally and externally oriented propaganda by the one-party-state. But I think that this would be to banalise what is in fact a much more interesting phenomenon. Epidemic control “innovation” has been part of China’s narrative of what Ruth Rogaski has called “hygienic modernity” since the final years of the Qing Empire. The Manchurian plague epidemic of 1910-11, which marked the first time Western medicine and public health were employed by the Chinese state on the ground in an effort to halt an infectious disease outbreak, became the field where the Chinese state developed and advertised for the first time epidemic control measures as world-leading innovations. These included makeshift isolation wards, and, most famously, the development of the anti-epidemic mask we all know today.
The question thus arises regarding how the Chinese state articulates and re-articulates its capacity in epidemic control innovation, not simply as part of its externally or internally oriented propaganda machine, but more importantly as part of what we may call its political ontology. My provocation here is this: could it be that, portraying epidemic control methods employed against COVID-19 as “new”, is not simply a way for the Chinese party-state to advertise its place in the world in relation to other states, or its ability to lead globally as regards medical and public health innovation, but much more importantly, a way for asserting what the Chinese Communist Party sees, through the lens of its residual Marxist-Leninist Weltanschauung, as its world-historical ability (and indeed destiny) to pave the way of new paradigms of confronting and mastering humanity’s relation with “nature” as a dialectical field of emerging emergencies?
The subtleties of announcements by Chinese officials during the COVID-19 pandemic are often lost to untrained ears. So when on January 28, Xi Jiping described the coronavirus as a demon, this was quickly dismissed as a mere metaphor. In reality, however, this image provides a window into understanding one of the key hegemonic attributes of the Chinese Communist Party: the idea that nature (personified here as an epidemic demon) is a force whose mastery makes the party-state indispensible.
If the word ‘demon’ elicits eschatological images in the minds of Western audiences, everyone in China would recognise in Xi’s choice of words the shadow of the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong, who in 1958 wrote one of his most famous poems, “Farewell to the God of Plague”:
So many green streams and blue hills, but to what avail?
This tiny creature left even Hua To powerless!
Hundreds of villages choked with weeds, men wasted away;
Thousands of homes deserted, ghosts chanted mournfully.
Motionless, by earth I travel eighty thousand li a day,
Surveying the sky I see a myriad Milky Ways from afar.
Should the Cowherd ask tidings of the God of Plague,
Say the same griefs flow down the stream of time.
The spring wind blows amid profuse willow wands,
Six hundred million in this land all equal Yao and Shun.
Crimson rain swirls in waves under our will,
Green mountains turn to bridges at our wish.
Gleaming mattocks fall on the Five Ridges heaven-high;
Mighty arms move to rock the earth round the Triple River.
We ask the God of Plague: “Where are you bound ?”
Paper barges aflame and candle-light illuminate the sky.
Written to celebrate and further boost mass-line styled efforts of eradicating schistosomiasis, a deadly infectious disease that was endemic in vast areas of the country, the poem has been taught at schools in the People’s Republic of China for decades. Describing the waste brought about by the pestilence, the poem ends with a promise of bidding the god or demon of plague farewell. Coming from Mao, and echoed in Xi, we should be reading this not as some metaphysical well-wishing, nor just as a promise of the party-state to its people, but as a political ontological blueprint as regards humanity’s relation with nature, and the role of the party-state in it. The “plague”, or more generally nature’s capacity to produce adversaries, Xi’s words seem to communicate, cannot be defeated once and for all, but must be constantly “struggled-against”, with new methods, new tools and new technologies; something that only the party-state can deliver. As historians have pointed out, the struggle against nature was an ideological cornerstone of the PRC’s state formation; perhaps an even more important one than its class-struggle equivalent. It is now more urgent than ever to examine and evaluate the resilience and transformation of this ideological apparatus in twenty-first century China.
Christos Lynteris is a Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews. His work examines epistemological and biopolitical aspects of epidemics with a particular focus on zoonotic diseases. His recent publications include the books Ethnographic Plague (Palgrave 2016), Human Extinction and the Pandemic Imaginary (Routlege 2019), and, co-authored with Lukas Engelmann, Sulphuric Utopias: A History of Maritime Sanitation (MIT Press, 2020). He was the PI of the ERC-funded project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic and is currently the PI of the Wellcome Investigator Award funded project The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis.