For politicians in the United States and Western Europe seeking to distract themselves 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. Do critics simply condemn the way the Communist Party withheld information during these crucial weeks of January? Liberals and Conservatives in the United States, including Donald trump, used this defense.
Or, is it the clear subtext that the real culprits are the “Chinese people” and their exotic culture and habits? Let Nigel Farage play clumsily on both sides, saying that he has “no ill will against the Chinese people” but that the problem lies in “the appalling hygienic conditions on the markets of Chinese fauna ‘and the usual diet of bats and pangolins. Whatever the intentions, we now see how criticism of “China” has resulted in an increase in racist violence against the Chinese and Asian diasporas living in the United States, Western Europe and Oceania.
I applaud the liberal condemnation of these attacks as xenophobic, but I also fear that vague cries of tolerance towards the “Chinese people” and “culture” will intervene in the racist framework of the right, in which we end up debating identity and difference at the expense of dynamic historical processes. Any serious attempt to tackle China’s role in this pandemic must also take into account the specific political and economic conditions of China’s rise in the world market in recent years, which have facilitated the spread of the virus and sown the seeds for it. seeds of a Euro-American reaction.
Let’s say that the new coronavirus was caused by a culturally penchant for eating pangolins. While it is true that pangolin scales and meat are advertised as a kind of folk medicine in mainland China, statistics suggest that the real key variable is the effects of globalization, which have enriched the country’s trading classes. Animal prices have gone from $ 14 per kilo in 1994 to over $ 600 today, while illegal shipments confiscated at the border regularly exceed 10 tonnes. Customers who order wild animals often do so to display their wealth or to celebrate a good day on the stock market, although they remain a minority: most Chinese citizens support strict limits, even a ban, on the consumption of ‘wild animals. The resurgence of pangolin consumption is therefore the result of economic liberalization in China – which the United States defended – and not only of traditional culture.
These same economic forces have also accelerated the spread of the virus abroad. Wuhan, where the virus originated, originally served as a hub between coastal cities, such as Guangzhou and Shanghai, and inland China. Although considered a “second tier” city, even Wuhan has been caught up in the last phase of globalization, as capital searches for cheaper land and labor markets inland. In February and March, cases of the new coronavirus highlighted long-hidden economic links, such as Chinese investment in infrastructure in Qom, Iran or links between the Wuhan auto parts industry and factories in Serbia. , South Korea and Germany. The coronavirus may have appeared for the first time in China, but the resulting spread and crisis also belong to the global assemblies of commerce, tourism and supply chains built by powerful interests in the 21st century.
The great irony of blaming a vague notion of Chinese culture is that the best responses to the pandemic have come from the majority Chinese ethnic governments in Taiwan (five deaths, 380 cases), Singapore (six / 1,910) and Hong Kong. (four / 974). Yes, their responsible policies are largely due to the trauma of the 2003 Sars epidemic, but also have to do with the history of the robust welfare states in East Asia, which, unlike Europe and in the United States, have increasingly invested in health infrastructure to deal with these crises with precision.
To reject the anti-China line is not to apologize or defend the actions of the state. It is clear that local officials were wrong to silence Dr. Li Wenliang, who alerted his friends to the virus as soon as possible, and that the government has systematically downplayed the contagiousness of the virus and the severity of the deaths.
But is the contrast between authoritarian and democratic regimes so striking, as Western ideologists claim? Most observers agree that China covered the Wuhan crisis for three weeks in January, and this wasted time probably decided the difference between a local epidemic and a global epidemic. However, it is still disappointing to read reports that even from mid-January other governments took longer to respond: the UK dragged its feet for eight weeks and the states United States ignored clear warning signs for 70 days.
This inactivity was in part the product of Western exceptionalism which believed that viruses and epidemics only occur “there” in poor, non-white countries. This is a crucial point to challenge anti-Asian racism. Rather than debate the blame game, as Tobita Chow, director of Justice is Global wrote, we need to emphasize how shortsighted nationalist perspectives have produced fatally ineffective responses. During Italy’s worst weeks, officials admitted that they initially viewed the Wuhan crisis as a “science fiction film that had nothing to do with us”. In the United States, a Kansas politician said his city was safe because it had only a few Chinese residents. In Philadelphia, in a more tragic branch of racial thought, there have been rumors that the virus could not infect black Americans because it was a Chinese disease, misinformation that officials now fear. aggravate inequalities.
Ultimately, the pandemic and the accompanying anti-Asian backlash are dynamics that go beyond issues of culture and xenophobia, with serious consequences for life and death. Both are the indirect byproducts of China’s emergence as a major force in global capitalism, not only by forging the supply chains and travel networks that carry the virus, but also by threatening economic prestige and politics of Europe in America.
In the United States, these fears were already evident in populist claims that China alone – and not the domestic political and trading class – was to blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs. In the wake of a referendum result seen as a vote against globalization, concerns in the UK have recently been expressed in panic about Huawei providing the country’s 5G network. The fears concerning China were not created by the coronavirus, but find there a most appropriate metaphor, as a force of world destruction and invisible.
It follows that these dangerous feelings will not automatically go away when creating a vaccine, unless we only ask for liberal calls for tolerance. We must also recognize and confront the politico-economic forces behind the West’s anti-Chinese reaction – and the inadequacy of nationalism in responding to the social and public health crises we face today, which are global in scope.
• Andrew Liu is an assistant professor of history at Villanova University and author of Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India