Sunday 26 January 2020

China: What Else Will the Virus Bring?

This is not to make light of the new coronavirus outbreak, which (we must suppose) could be the death of us all.  It is, after all, pretty much exactly the scenario painted by those who write about how pandemics are much more likely to do for mankind than any other phenomenon you might hypothecate, in our world of careless hygiene and careless freedom of movement.

However, as is my wont I am following it with interest as yet another window on the ways of mysterious Cathay under the Xi regime.  Many commentators have lauded the (relative) openness with which the Chinese have made information available on the current outbreak, in stark contrast with the SARS episode.  Of course their idea of what impresses people - mostly, their own people, I suppose - is a little quirky by our standards: those pictures of earthmoving kit, working 100 to the hectare, on "a new hospital to be built in 10 days", are "impressive" in the way that 10,000 drummers were at the start of the 2008 Olympics.  And it was a little two-edgey to hear the expert roped in by the Beeb, saying that it was a good job the outbreak happened in China, because "they can do remarkable things" - i.e. they are a dictatorship.

Xi doesn't seem to mind ordinary Chinese people being interviewd in the street about the outbreak, and they seem to say, quite spontaneously, things he'd be gratified by: "China is a very strong country, we can fix this" etc.  We needn't doubt that's what they'd naturally want to say, and want to think. 

Still, I can't help thinking ...  isn't this just another small step along the road to "westernising" Chinese thinking?  The idea - dinned into so many instinctively dictatorial western CEOs - that openness is its own reward, tht the cover-up is infinitely worse than the original cock-up, that honesty in the face of potential embarrassment is a sign of strength raher than weakness; that if you suppress the truth, the rumours get seriously out of hand, etc etc etc.  And that eventually, when you take these small progressive steps and multiply them by 1.3 billion, with the further multiplier effect of social media ...  And, not all of Chinese public reaction will be quite so congenial to Xi

But I've been wrong many times on this, notably over the 2008 Olympics which I (and many others) felt would inevitably force upon China a step-change towards liberality.  Well, there wasn't much sign of that.  And one could float a couple of contra-indications.

Firstly, perhaps (after a putative success on the part of the Chinese authorities in getting on top of the outbreak) it'll be spun as a triumph for the dictatorial, controlling ways of Chinese government.  See, telling people what to do for the best, and making them do it instantaneously, via habits of unquestioning obedience and trust in a wise government, is the way to solve 21st C problems ...

Secondly, take a look at the CiF BTL comments on the Grauniad piece cited earlier, reacting to articles on how "wet markets" for meat are to blame.  The trolls (state-sponsored?  freelance?) are out attacking any idea that China has to change its ways: e.g. this, from a commenter imaginatively calling themselves "ID9634782" 
"Guardian articles that cover the spread of the virus in China carry a racist undertone and as expected bring out a whole lot of racists crawling out of the woodwork. But in this case the racists are mostly from the so-called enlightened left who demands the Chinese people to change their living habits to suit their world view... how arrogant some commenters are to demand the closure of wet markets, which is an essential fixture of Asian cultures. Because your taste bud is used to the stinky smell of the frozen cold meat, it does not mean that Chinese people have to do the same."
Old habits die very hard.  And not just the culinary habits.



decnine said...

The thing that struck me about the overhead shot of all the earthmovers was...not a single truck.

Matt said...

SARS, Bird Flu, Asian Swine Flu, climate emergency - is there a day where a world wide disaster isn't predicted?

Raedwald said...

I saw some ground shots of the construction site and the backhoes seemed to be distributing piles of sub-base material a bit like our Type 1 - to form an aggregate platform on which to stand multi-story portacabins, which is what the new hospital will be.

Yep the Chinese eat some funny stuff but the food culture amongst poor peasants perpetually on the verge of starvation will always include the animals and bits of animals that the wealthy can afford not to have to eat. With kudos to restaurants such as St John's, pig's trotters did not originally feature on the tables of the wealthy because they could afford the nicer bits. Having a sufficiency of animal protein in the markets is a new experience for the Chinese peasant and one I suspect to which they have not yet quite adjusted in food hygiene terms.

The fact that it's our own woke Grauniad-reading food health fascists getting an earful from readers offended at their cultural imperialism is a delight; these are the people who have tried to ban unpasteurised cheese and who make it impossible to buy a pink beefburger. Serves them right.

And yes. This will be the proofing of China's system of benign authoritarianism. Paradoxically, State-controlled capitalism may be the only form of socialism that has ever worked.

Anonymous said...

Surely I must have thrown Eamon Fingleton at you dozens of times by now? The mercantilist far east is eating the lunch, the jobs and the technology of the "muh free markets" west.

Two bets are on the table. One has been placed by the Washington establishment, the other by the Chinese Communist Party.

Analyzing China’s prospects in terms of fashionable globalist ideology, Washington is betting that a rich China will be a free one. The theory is that the only way China can continue to grow is by embracing Western democracy and capitalism. Moreover, the very process of China’s enrichment is supposedly undermining the Beijing government’s authoritarianism. More wealth means more freedom means more wealth...

Abroad too the Washington view is increasingly prevalent. After visiting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair cited the rise of a Chinese middle class and the spread of the Internet as factors that had produced “an unstoppable momentum … towards greater political freedom [and] progress on human rights.”

The Washington view has become so widely accepted that almost no one has noticed that there is second bet on the table–that of the Chinese leadership. It has been placed on a disturbingly different outcome: that a future China can be both rich and authoritarian.

Is it just coincidence that China opened its first Biosafety level 4 lab two years ago - in Wuhan? Is it coincidence or the long arm of Donald which saw two senior Chinese researchers escorted from their Canadian lab last week?

We need to fund Porton Down better, btw. We'll soon see how "race doesn't exist" pans out as a theory when bugsb or viruses are modified to differentially affect ethnic groups. It didn't pan out too well for Native Americans when a load of people who'd evolved alongside Old World diseases arrived in the New World.

E-K said...

I'm amazed we've lasted this long. If not this then we're on borrowed time anyway.

Anonymous said...

With the current incident, the Communist Party only started being open when they realised it was too late to cover the whole thing up.

How many epidemics might have started and been contained without the rest of the world finding out?

"Wet markets" exist in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other developed places around Asia, yet they manage to adhere to reasonable standards of hygiene. (SARS affected Hong Kong badly because of poor construction of waste water piping in blocks of flats)

Chinese people from richer countries may like "exotic" foods but they also look down on the poor hygiene practiced in mainland China. One could say that Chinese are racist to each other, but that is like saying Europeans are racist to each other if a white English guy doesn't want Romanians coming to England.