When the media asked me how the Chinese government was handling the crisis of COVID-19, I offered them a distinction which comes from the social sciences: the Wuhan authorities acted well as sentinels but failed to act as whistleblowers.
Indeed, the death of 34-year-old ophthalmologist Li Wenliang from COVID-19 on February 7, after warning on the emergence of a coronavirus similar to SARS as early as December 2019 and being blamed by the Wuhan authorities for doing so, raised a waive of compassion and anger all over China. Compassion for Li Wenliang reminds Chinese citizens of the “barefoot doctor,” a figure who mixes with the people and is ready to die in the fight against a common enemy (Lynteris 2012). Chinese propaganda enforces this discourse of sacrifice: physicians sacrifice themselves for the rest of society, Wuhan sacrifices itself for China, and China sacrifices itself for the world to avoid a pandemic. But the anger expressed in the social media also shows that the hierarchical power implemented by Xi Jinping through social control and digital surveillance fails to deliver alert in a timely manner, for fear of rumours that could disrupt China’s “harmonious society.”
However, the COVID-19 crisis is a success for Wuhan as a sentinel post. Since its creation in 1927, through the merging of three trading posts on the Yangze River developed by Western investors (Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang), Wuhan has been at the centre of the economic and scientific development of modern China. After the SARS crisis in 2003, the Chinese and French academies of sciences allied to develop in Wuhan the only biosecurity level 4 laboratory in Asia, which was inaugurated in 2018. The staff of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which involves 600 researchers, can use this facility to manipulate dangerous pathogens. This explains that as soon as COVID-19 was identified around the Huanan Seafood and Wholesale Market in Wuhan, the virus was sequenced and its similarities with a bat virus sequenced in 2018 were published by Chinese virologists. But Wuhan is also the centre of the Chinese revolution in 1911, when soldiers rebelled against Imperial authority for allowing Western investors to finance the construction of railroads. As in January 2020, following instructions coming from Beijing, the Hubei authorities imposed a quarantine or lock-down to an area of 50 million people. As rumours spread that the new coronavirus could have escaped from this laboratory built with Western help, authorities feared that new expressions of anger with revolutionary potentials (geming means “revolution” but also “change of heavenly mandate”) might emerge if the crisis lasted too long.
The distinction between sentinels and whistleblowers has been present in the memory of Chinese citizens since the SARS crisis. Virologists from Hong Kong, who had prepared for an avian influenza pandemic since the emergence of H5N1 in 1997, were the first to identify the coronavirus that caused the disease and its animal reservoirs among bats through the mixing vessel of masked civets, which are consumed in Chinese traditional medicine and killed in South China’s wet-markets. In 2003, Kennedy Shortridge, Malik Peiris and Guan Yi published an article, “The Next Influenza Pandemic: Lessons from Hong Kong”, which concluded with these words: ”The studies on the ecology of influenza led in Hong Kong in the 1970s, in which Hong Kong acted as a sentinel post for influenza, indicated that it was possible, for the first time, to do preparedness for flu on the avian level” (Shortridge, Peiris and Guan, 2003: 79). Their argument was that Hong Kong was well-positioned to act as a sentinel post for emerging zoonotic viruses coming from China, because commodities and goods were transferred through Hong Kong as a gatekeeper and because its good system of information allowed it to raise alert for the world on potentially pandemic pathogens. They also noticed that Hong Kong was connected to the Guangdong province, considered then as the “workshop of the world.” Their good relations (guanxi) with Zhong Nanshang, head of the Institute for Respiratory Diseases in Guangzhou, allowed them to obtain samples from patients infected with SARS at an early stage of the epidemic.
By contrast, Jiang Yanyong, a physician at the 301 Military Hospital in Beijing who raised alert on the number of patients in the capital city of China, can be considered as a whistleblower. In April 2003, he sent a letter to Karl Taro Greenfeld, a journalist at Time Asia, to denounce the Beijing authorities who were hiding patients in military hospitals during a visit of WHO experts to Beijing to inspect the epidemic situation (Greenfeld 2006). The publication of this letter led the new government of Hu Jintao to dismiss the minister of Health and the mayor of Beijing, and to tackle SARS as a national challenge. Aged 72 in 2003, Jiang Yanyong had treated students crushed by the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen square in 1989. In February 2004, after he sent a letter to the Communist Party asking for a rehabilitation of the students killed in 1989, Jiang Yanyong was arrested with his wife and placed under surveillance in a Beijing hospital. In August 2004, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, which is considered as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
What, then, is the distinction between a sentinel and a whistleblower? Both raise alert on an epidemic or any environmental problem that troubles social order and disrupts ordinary life. But while the whistleblower sends early warning signals to the public opinion, by writing letters or sharing posts on social media (Chateauraynaud and Torny 1999), the sentinel captures signs on the border between humans and non-humans. This is why the whistleblower can sacrifice him or herself, but not the sentinel. While the whistleblower aims at living and allowing others to live, they may have to sacrifice themselves if their early warning signals are not carried by intermediaries at the highest levels. Sacrifice is the result of a discrepancy between the small size of the whistleblower and the elevation of the cause he or she defends – saving China or the world from a pandemic. Public opinion is the space where the whistleblower can spread early warning signals and, in case of failure, die or be arrested under the gaze of others. By contrast, sentinels don’t have to sacrifice themselves, because they don’t need public opinion, but rather a chain of actors who follow the mutations of viral information as it spreads through social networks. Virologists in Wuhan, as those in Hong Kong, just need to build sentinel devices that connect them to bats and their mixing vessels – potentially pangolins for COVID-19. By contrast to birds, which were massively slaughtered as a precautionary measure against avian influenza, bats cannot be killed because they are a protected species. This makes their use as sentinels easier. Similarly to the surveillance of Ebola in Central and Western Africa, new relations between humans and bats will have to be invented in China after the COVID-19 epidemic, under the guise of new sentinel devices.
It is therefore wrong, in my view, to blame China for not leaving space for a public opinion where whistleblowers can be heard, by contrast to Europe or the United States where this figure was invented by the media as a form of political power in the last fifty years. China has a public sphere but because it is organized mostly through hierarchy and fear, whistleblowers have to use the violent means of self-sacrifice more often than the gentle voice of argumentation. In this sense, China may have to learn from the West. But China might be better placed than the West to implement sentinel devices, because it doesn’t rely on the separation between humans and non-humans, or between nature and culture (Descola, 2013), that has been dominant in Western societies in the last three centuries, and instrumental in justifying the exploitation of the world by Western business. Whistleblowers are part of a pastoral power, which Western and Chinese societies have shared for at least two millennia, even if they have not organized it in the same way (Foucault 2000). Sentinels are part of a cynegetic power, which Western societies have developed only as the “accursed share” of pastoral power (Bataille 1988; Chamayou 2012), and which, in the Chinese ideology of tianxia (“all things under heaven”), might have interesting potentialities.
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy. Translated by Robert Hurley, New York , Zone Books, 1988
Chamayou, Grégoire. Manhunts: A Philosophical History, Translated by Steven Rendall, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2012.
Chateauraynaud, Francis and Didier Torny. Les sombres précurseurs, Une sociologie pragmatique de l’alerte et du risque, Paris, EHESS, 1999.
Descola, Philippe. Beyond nature and culture (trans. J. Lloyd). Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013.
Foucault, Michel. “Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of Political Reason”. In James D. Faubion (ed.) Michel Foucault, Essential Works 1954-1984 Volume 3, Power, London, Penguin, 2000, p. 298-325.
Greenfeld, Karl T. China Syndrome. The True Story of the 21st Century First Epidemic. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
Lynteris, Christos. The Spirit of Selflessness in Maoist China : Socialist Medicine and the New Man, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
Shortridge Kennedy, Malik Peiris and Yi Guan. “The Next Influenza Pandemic: Lessons from Hong Kong”, Journal of Applied Microbiology 94,2003, p. 70-79.
Frédéric Keck is a senior researcher in social anthropology at the CNRS in Paris. He has recently published Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts (Duke University Press) and (with Ann Kelly and Christos Lynteris) Anthropology of Epidemics (Routledge)
- Echoes of Ebola: social and political warnings for the COVID-19 response in African settings
- Novelty and uncertainty: social science contributions to a response to COVID-19
- Shame and complicity in the reactions to the Coronavirus
- Covid-19, Sinicisation, and the Roman Catholic Church in China
- Should Wild Meat Markets be Shut Down?