When our nationwide self-isolation began in late January, it was said that Chinese people fall into two groups: cat types and dog types. Cat types were likely to suffer less from the quasi-house arrest that drives dog types mad. A cat type myself, I could see on WeChat Moments that my dog-type friends were going for a long walk every day, usually at midnight, when no one is around. During the day they would post funny videos of the new things they were learning via the internet – an absurd dance or a conjuring trick – cheering up the rest of us. The imperative to be careful and stay healthy, for your own good and in the interests of public health, has been paramount. A man phoned the emergency services with a fishbone caught in his throat only to be told off: why was he eating unfilleted fish during a national emergency?
I tried to meet friends for a cooking session and failed. The guards in every compound know the faces of the residents and stop strangers from entering. If you go to a café or a supermarket, staff at the entrance take your temperature, spray your hands with disinfectant and remind you to keep a safe distance from fellow customers. Now that there are fewer cases, occurring more sporadically, and the epicentre is shifting to Europe and the US, prevention is focused on visitors or returnees from overseas. Inbound international flights are confined to a few airports under highly controlled conditions. As I write this, China’s civil aviation authority has restricted airline companies to one inbound flight per week; all arrivals go straight into 14-day quarantine. Foreign nationals are barred from entering China except on urgent business. Anyone who steps out of line – by complaining about the food or drink at the quarantine hotel, lying about where they have been, or arguing with the police is publicly shamed on the TV news.
The debate about whether to reopen schools is at an impasse. Many parents, especially those who have returned to work, support the idea. But others agonise about the danger to their only child, even though no one under the age of nine is known to have died from the virus, and school governors are hesitant to take on responsibility for pupils’ health. There is talk of classrooms reopening later this month, but only if the virus doesn’t start to spread again among adults returning to work. A seven-year-old boy in my building attempts to ambush me every time I take the rubbish out. It’s hard for someone his age to spend so long away from his peers, and so he leaps out at random adults on the stairway to pass the time. Parents around the world are now attempting home schooling. American talk-show hosts, suddenly at home with the kids all day, are struggling for punchlines: ‘I learned that I have two young children, which is really something to find out’ (Jimmy Kimmel); ‘my kids have already learned a valuable lesson: their dad is an idiot’ (Jimmy Fallon). Trevor Noah feels lucky not to have children.
Chinese social media is now overwhelmed with information about other countries. Seeing the same disaster unfolding in new epicentres – though always at roughly the same pace – is disturbing. Medics everywhere are showing the same tenacity, the same sense of vocation, the same willingness to put their lives on the line. It is moving and difficult to watch them working without proper protection: all of us here saw what happened in Wuhan, where the virus first took hold, and all of us understand the risks; it’s no consolation that the same sacrifices are being made thousands of miles away.
With the virus gaining ground in countries where ‘draconian’ lockdown measures are supposedly in place, the Chinese are on a learning curve about the rest of the world. Italians, it turns out, have a gift for music and their mayors know how to rant, fortissimo, at disobedient citizens. In Spain, where walking your dog is still a legitimate reason to leave your apartment, people are renting out their pets. Dinosaur costumes are everywhere. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, and his brother Chris, a CNN journalist, are vying for their mother’s affections on live TV. We’ve learned that Westerners don’t like to wear face masks but do like to stockpile toilet paper. We already buy in bulk. ‘Why didn’t Chinese shoppers hoard toilet paper during lockdown?’ one joke goes. ‘Because they’d already bought enough for a whole year on 11 November’ – our version of Black Friday. There hasn’t been much about Russia, but snippets of fake news are doing the rounds. According to a post on my social media feed, Putin has released five hundred lions onto the streets of Moscow to keep people indoors. Memes and spoofs – for instance the Prada body bag – are flourishing.
Twenty years ago, it was impossible to take patriotism seriously. Anyone waving a flag was regarded as an opportunist. In recent years the ground has been shifting. Nowadays girls and young women paint the flag on their cheeks or wear it on a hairclip when they take to the streets for National Day on 1 October. Many went to see My People, My Country – a movie released last year celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China – not once but three times, to boost its box-office revenue.
Large numbers of overseas students have decided to return to China, including a significant number of medical students. The Global Health Security Index, which assesses each country’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to health emergencies, reported last year that the countries best prepared to deal with a pandemic were the US, the UK and the Netherlands; China was a long way down the list at 51. But since the pandemic unfolded across the world, China’s health system has begun to look like a high-performance model. It’s natural for Western leaders, feeling under pressure, to blame China for what’s happened, but despite the criticisms British cabinet ministers have levelled at our efforts, the Chinese response picked up rapidly. Capacity was boosted at impressive speed; new hospitals went up in a matter of weeks; medics worked round the clock, thousands of them contracting the virus. A wide range of possible treatments continue to be tested. During the early days, writing scientific papers in English was absolutely not a priority. The clinicians and epidemiologists who did publish them faced a storm of criticism, first from the Chinese public and then from countries that hadn’t yet experienced the full impact of the virus and thought we could have handled it better.
Despite the severity of the restrictions, people in quarantine have mostly had it easy: necessities and luxuries are one click away for tens of millions of digital users. All state employees continue to be paid in full and there have been no redundancies. If you are laid off by a private company, you can receive unemployment insurance for up to two years, depending on how long you have worked for the company. Migrant workers (such as domestic staff) rarely have a proper contract. Many of them live in or have returned to the countryside, where the cost of living is low and agricultural work still available. Most important of all, more than 95 per cent of Chinese families have savings. It came as a shock for many Chinese to hear recently that almost half of Americans don’t have $400 for an emergency.
Now that the rest of the world is learning from our experience, Chinese patriotism is reaching new heights. Fang Fang, a writer in Wuhan, has been posting an online diary that has become a battleground between liberal, easygoing Chinese and entrenched patriots. Fang writes honestly about daily life in Wuhan, giving anxious outsiders a window to peer through. Her tone is calm, her style is plain, she says nothing inflammatory, and yet the patriots are up in arms. They accuse her of exaggerating her stories, undermining collective solidarity and diminishing China’s efforts to tackle the virus. In this narrative, the suffering of human beings, from doctors to peasants, is a price worth paying for the greatness of the motherland.
Liberal sentiment in China is at a low ebb. The pro-democracy cause has been weakened drastically since Trump took office. How do you defend a system that gives power to a celebrity with no knowledge of international relations who filed for corporate bankruptcy half a dozen times? Trump’s early attempts to wave away the threat of the virus looked dangerously short-sighted to people here; his bid for an America-only vaccine grotesque. As racist attacks against Chinese-Americans have surged in the US, along with the virus, it has become impossible to argue for a Western model of freedom and democracy. Crestfallen liberals have turned to Japan, which has (so far) avoided a lockdown, relying on its citizens to observe government guidelines. There has been no obvious digital surveillance there and no evidence of mass panic. The only visible sign of anxiety has been annoyance at people without masks coughing or sneezing on transit systems. Perhaps Otaku culture has given the Japanese a head start in self-isolation.
Chinese patriots are predictably fired up with ‘positive energy’ and are taking advantage of the situation to rail against ‘evil infiltrating foreign forces’. But it’s worrying to hear diplomats using the same language. China’s ping-pong diplomacy of the early 1970s, and its panda diplomacy, which began in the seventh century and lasted through the Cold War, have given way to ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’: in the Wolf Warrior films heroic Chinese militants fight evil foreign mercenaries. They always come out on top. Tensions with the US that predate the Nixon era are re-emerging in new forms and the language on both sides is once again becoming infantile. Chinese commentators are happy to report that Trump’s trade war has forced American companies to look for other Asian suppliers, only to get ripped off, especially in Vietnam, where mark-ups – often on products originating in China – are huge. The WTO’s lengthy investigation into intellectual property theft, driven by the Americans, and Washington’s Cold War-style probes of Chinese scholars and students living in US are driving scientists and academics back to China. Some of those recently returned from Western institutions made critical contributions in Wuhan during the early stages of the outbreak.
Back then the official line was to do with saving lives and containing the virus; there was no word from Beijing on the repercussions for our economy. The numbers are bad: unemployment sharply up; productivity even more sharply down. But entrepreneurs in China never fail to see an opportunity in a crisis. After Chinese New Year in January, several private companies and factories defied the lockdown decree, hoping to be one step ahead when business returns to normal. They know that the first people ready when orders come in again will sweep the field. The economy is stumbling through Schumpeterian ‘destructive creation’. Some economists think the pandemic will force countries to bring their supply chains closer to home, or to rediscover the art of self-sufficiency. But the pandemic won’t do away with globalisation overnight. When Trump is finally allowed to resume business as normal, his advisers will have to explain that the country from which he has tried so hard to ‘decouple’ is the only one that’s ready to make and sell the goods Americans want.
Our recent obsession with domestic and international news is turning us into insomniacs: #coronasomnia is trending on Twitter. Sleeplessness, we’re told, is undermining our immune systems, making us more vulnerable to the disease, but we won’t be able to get sleeping pills: the doctors are far too busy dealing with coronavirus cases. I know people who read every scientific paper on the virus they can find, as if knowing your enemy could hold it at bay. They are as helpless and susceptible as anyone else. A silver lining, if there has to be one, is that only a few days after lockdown, I could see the stars again for the first time in years. My city is at a standstill and the smog has cleared. The sky at night is a revelation.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.