For politicians in the US and western Europe seeking to distract from their own disastrous mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea of “China” has become a convenient scapegoat. The beauty of blaming “China” lies in its ambiguity. Are critics merely condemning the way the Communist party concealed information during those crucial January weeks? Both liberals and conservatives in the US, including Donald Trump, have used this defence.
Or, is the clear subtext that the real culprits are the “Chinese people” and their exotic culture and habits? Leave it to Nigel Farage to clumsily play both sides, claiming both that he held “no ill-will against the Chinese people” but that the problem lay with “appalling hygiene conditions in Chinese wildlife markets” and the customary diet of bats and pangolins. Whatever the intentions, we now see how criticisms of “China” have translated into an upsurge of racist violence aimed at the Chinese and Asian diaspora living in the US, western Europe and Oceania.
I applaud the liberal condemnation of these attacks as xenophobic, but also worry that vague cries of tolerance for “Chinese people” and “culture” play into the racist framing of the right, in which we wind up debating identity and difference at the expense of dynamic historical processes. Any serious attempt to grapple with China’s role in this pandemic must also consider the specific political-economic conditions of China’s ascent within the global market in recent years, which facilitated the virus’s spread as well as planting the seeds for an Euro-American backlash.
Let’s take the claim that the novel coronavirus was caused by a culturally peculiar fondness for eating pangolins. Though it is true that pangolin scales and meat are advertised as a sort of folk medicine in mainland China, statistics suggest the real key variable are the effects of globalisation, which have enriched the country’s business classes. Prices for the animal have climbed from $14 a kilo in 1994 to more than $600 today, while illegal shipments confiscated at the border regularly exceed 10 tonnes. Customers ordering wildlife often do so in order to flaunt their wealth or to celebrate a good day on the stock market, although they remain a minority: most Chinese citizens support strict limits, if not a ban, on wildlife consumption. Resurgent pangolin consumption is thus a result of economic liberalisation in China – which the US championed – not simply of traditional culture.
It was these same economic forces that also hastened the spread of the virus overseas. Wuhan, where the virus originated, originally served as a hub between coastal metropolises, such as Guangzhou and Shanghai, and inland China. Although considered a “second-tier” city, even Wuhan has been caught up in the latest phase of globalisation, as capital pursues cheaper land and labour markets inland. During February and March cases of the novel coronavirus illuminated economic linkages long hidden from view, such as Chinese investments into infrastructure in Qom, Iran or the ties between Wuhan’s car parts industry and factories in Serbia, South Korea and Germany. The coronavirus may have first appeared in China, but the ensuing spread and crisis also belong to the global assemblages of commerce, tourism, and supply chains erected by powerful interests in the 21st century.
The great irony of blaming some vague notion of Chinese culture is that the best responses to the pandemic have come from the ethnic Chinese majority governments of Taiwan (five deaths, 380 cases), Singapore (six/1,910), and Hong Kong (four/974). Yes, their responsible policies were due largely to the trauma of the 2003 Sars epidemic but also have to do with the history of robust welfare states in East Asia, which, unlike Europe and the US, have increasingly invested in healthcare infrastructure to deal with precisely such crises.
To push back on the anti-China line is not to apologise or defend the state’s actions. It is clear that local officials were wrong to silence Dr Li Wenliang, who alerted friends about the virus as early as possible, and that the government has consistently downplayed the virus’s contagiousness and the severity of deaths.
But is the contrast between authoritarian and democratic regimes so stark, as western ideologues allege? Most observers agree that China covered up the crisis in Wuhan for three weeks in January, and this lost time probably decided the difference between a local versus a global epidemic. Nevertheless, it is still sobering to read reports that even from mid-January other governments took even longer to respond: the UK dragged its feet for an interminable eight weeks and the US ignored clear warning signs for 70 days.
This inactivity was partly the product of a western exceptionalism that believed viruses and epidemics only happen “over there”, in poor and non-white countries. This is a crucial point for challenging anti-Asian racism. Rather than debate the blame game, as Justice is Global director Tobita Chow has written, we should point out how short-sighted nationalist perspectives have produced fatally ineffective responses. During Italy’s worst weeks, officials admitted they initially viewed the Wuhan crisis as a “science-fiction movie that had nothing to do with us”. In the US, a Kansas politician stated that his town was safe because it had only a few Chinese residents. In Philadelphia, in a more tragic offshoot of racial thinking, rumours circulated that the virus could not infect black Americans because it was a Chinese disease, misinformation that officials now fear exacerbated inequalities.
Ultimately, both the pandemic and the accompanying anti-Asian backlash are dynamics that go beyond questions of culture and xenophobia, carrying serious life-and-death consequences. Both are the indirect byproducts of China’s emergence as a major force in global capitalism, not only forging the supply chains and travel networks that conveyed the virus but also threatening Euro-America’s centuries-long economic and political prestige.
In the US, such fears were already manifest in populist claims that China alone – and not the domestic political and business class – was to blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs. In the wake of a referendum result seen as a vote against globalisation, anxieties in the UK have recently been manifest in panic over Huawei providing the country’s 5G network. Fears over China were not created by coronavirus, but find in it a most apt metaphor, as a global and invisible force of destruction.
It follows that these dangerous sentiments will not automatically disappear when a vaccine is created, unless we demand more than liberal appeals for tolerance. We need to also recognise and confront the political-economic forces behind the west’s anti-China backlash – and the inadequacy of nationalism in responding to the social and public health crises facing us today, which are global in scale.
• Andrew Liu is an assistant professor of history at Villanova University and the author of Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India