Crises call for examining and questioning everything.
There are challenges aplenty for China during the current 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) epidemic. Despite the best efforts of the central and local governments at all levels, the spread of the epidemic has continued and panic is escalating. Global uncertainty is exacerbated as the outbreak impacts upon the society’s socioeconomic fabric and our lives.
As complaints and discrimination mount against Chinese tourists, and the Chinese people by extension, citizens of more and more countries have started heaping pressure on their governments. It is understandable, too, that many governments have imposed strict travel restrictions on travellers from China in the effort to ensure the safety and health of their own citizens.
Although seeing the coronavirus as a Chinese issue and reacting against China and its people is not the right approach to take, as stated by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, anti-China sentiments have mushroomed. The criticisms of China by some Western media, scholars and officials have gone beyond reason, tending towards sarcasm, vitriol, vilification and accusations. Some wish for the collapse of the Chinese economy and society, and the fall of China.
Individuals must act responsibly
In a rare move, President Xi Jinping has issued important instructions on three occasions on the mobilisation and deployment of national, party and army resources. This signifies the leadership’s grave assessment of the situation.
To discuss the question of China’s course of action, we can take reference from a quote from the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic scholar Liang Qichao, that “nations must behave like nations”. While Liang’s observation was made in a different context, it appears even more applicable for China as a nation today. More importantly, the nation is an entity made up of individuals who support it. It follows that a nation will conduct itself responsibly if the individuals act responsibly.
In reality, the Chinese leadership has given due attention to dealing with the outbreak, with the Political Bureau Standing Committee and all levels of government making the prevention and control of the epidemic a critical political task. In a rare move, President Xi Jinping has issued important instructions on three occasions on the mobilisation and deployment of national, party and army resources. This signifies the leadership’s grave assessment of the situation.
To ensure that all levels of government spare no effort in the fight against the epidemic, the Chinese leadership has recently issued a circular highlighting that the performance of the leadership team and cadres in this crisis will be important in the assessment of their political quality, sense of purpose, holistic perspective, ability, and accountability.
Following suit, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection also issued a circular on strict discipline enforcement to investigate and punish dereliction of duty, falsification and dishonest behaviour. In addition, pointless formalities and bureaucracy, as well as the shirking of responsibility, inaction, perfunctory work, buck-passing and passivity will be severely dealt with and rectified.
While the Chinese are indignant at being discriminated against in other countries, the Wuhan (Hubei) Chinese are discriminated against even by the Chinese themselves in China and overseas.
In the prevention and control of the epidemic, any negligence, misconduct or misappropriation of funds and supplies will be investigated and dealt with according to party discipline and the law. Disciplinary action has already been taken on more than 20 low-ranking officials in several provinces and cities, including the director of the health commission of the city of Huanggang in Hubei Province for her incompetence.
Although strong political commitment is beneficial in epidemic prevention and control, it has its shortcomings too. For instance, to prevent an increase in the daily reported number of cases of confirmed infection, patients with mild infections or those awaiting beds in hospitals have been treated as cases of common pneumonia. Frontline officials face the difficulties of a situation largely beyond their control, rendering their accountability in carrying out their duties a political judgment. Nevertheless, the Chinese government’s impressive mobilisation ability is unparalleled and has been recognised by the international community.
However, the story at the societal level is vastly different.
Problems highlighted by the epidemic
Discrimination against the Chinese from Wuhan (Hubei) has reared its ugly head. While the Chinese are indignant at being discriminated against in other countries, the Wuhan (Hubei) Chinese are discriminated against even by the Chinese themselves in China and overseas. Despite the media calling upon the people to fight 2019-nCoV and not the Wuhan (Hubei) Chinese, few people can rationally distinguish between the two in an environment of fear.
Since the outbreak, fears are propagated practically every day. People are snapping up supplies, including masks, rice, alcohol sanitiser, goggles, ultraviolet lamps, gloves and Shuanghuanglian oral liquid ( 双黄连, a herbal flu medicine believed to be effective against 2019-nCoV). To them, the end is near and one must seize the last life-saver.
The distribution of donated supplies has become problematic. On the one hand, overseas supplies are either stuck in warehouses or prevented from reaching China. On the other hand, epidemic-stricken areas face severe shortage and medical workers have no choice but to use raincoats and garbage bags as protective suits. The Red Cross Society of China, responsible for the collection and distribution of donated supplies, has remained silent. The Red Cross Society of Hubei has become the target of public anger because the officially supported organisation is far less effective than a non-government organisation, like the Han Hong Charity Foundation (韩红爱心慈善基金会).
Although the Chinese leadership has emphasised the importance of controlling the epidemic and winning the war against 2019-nCoV, it seems that buck-passing is commonplace. Bureaucracies in the central government are pushing the responsibility to the local governments, and vice versa. So far, only the officials from Wuhan city and Hubei province have admitted to misconduct in the early days of the outbreak. However, it remains unclear whether it was due to human factors or policy and institutional reasons.
The behaviour of disease control officials is more baffling. As professionals, their primary responsibilities are to be vigilant to virus outbreaks, diagnose the cases and make the required disclosures to the relevant authorities and the society. Is writing and publishing academic articles in top international journals an attempt to be the first to publish or the only means to bring the matter to the attention of the international community? Eight doctors in Wuhan were punished by the local authorities for propagating news of the virus outbreak during its early stages.
Unfortunately, there has been no effective mobilisation of the society which comprises NGOs, religious organisations and the private sector.
As a result, the public indirectly became aware of the problem, and news of the outbreak eventually emerged. One could reasonably question whether the Wuhan city and Hubei provincial governments possess the necessary wherewithal and power to block and withhold information about the virus outbreak when the disclosure was made via various channels by central and local government officials in charge of disease control as well as the academia from elite universities. It should be noted that the original article entitled Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia in The New England Journal of Medicine is contributed by 45 authors. According to this article, it is already known in mid-December 2019 that human-to-human transmission has occurred, but official news of the outbreak emerged only on 20 January 2020. If these elites had risked being punished like the eight Wuhan doctors and publicly disclosed the information earlier, the situation now may be averted.
After the initial hesitation, the government at all levels is finally mobilised. Unfortunately, there has been no effective mobilisation of the society which comprises NGOs, religious organisations and the private sector. Although many of these organisations wish to actively participate in the fight against the epidemic, they are unable to find the appropriate channels.
A large-scale novel coronavirus epidemic affects the entire society. Without the society’s participation in epidemic prevention and control, the shortcomings of even the strongest government will reveal themselves. If the civil society can be mobilised, cases like the death in Hubei of the teenager suffering from cerebral palsy while his family members were quarantined for suspected infection can be avoided.
Despite its highly organised nature, the Chinese society appears to be in a state of chaos.
The epidemic has also brought about much negativity in the society. Many businessmen and companies, with scant regard for scruples, exploit this opportunity to make huge profits from the national crisis. Every attempt to market a product as being able to cure the viral infection capitalises on the public's fear. Some unscrupulous people even peddle used masks.
All these bear testimony to the dearth of common sense in human behaviour in society. Prevalent in society are anti-intellectualism, populism and ignorance, which cause irrationality and panic. The resulting large-scale panic in society is, in fact, worse than the epidemic itself. It may be understandable if the irrational behaviour was confined to the commoner, but the same emotions among the elites will result in the weakening of the tower of strength in the society. Despite its highly organised nature, the Chinese society appears to be in a state of chaos.
The causes of irrationality in Chinese society
Ensnared by their own individual interests, they often lack the larger perspective of the society’s interests and forget their social roles
What causes irrationality in thinking and behaviour in the Chinese society? It is certainly not because of the lack of wisdom or reason. For a vast country with 1.4 billion people, how has rationality disappeared?
First, all levels of society are confused with their roles. In any society, every individual has its unique role, as well as a concurrent responsibility to the society for being a part of it. However, “exquisite egoism” as suggested by Professor Qian Liqun (钱理群, a former professor of Chinese literature at Peking University) is common among individuals in all levels of society, including officials, businessmen and scholars. Ensnared by their own individual interests, they often lack the larger perspective of the society’s interests and forget their social roles. As a result, even in a crisis like the 2019-nCoV epidemic, they will always seek out opportunities to pursue their own interests. To the exquisite egoist, every crisis is an opportunity, and behaviours such as the non-disclosure of information by officials, the writing of articles by academics and the opportunistic profiteering by businessmen are reasonable. As long as the individual benefits, the society is not a consideration.
Many cadres, like the incompetent director of the health commission of the city of Huanggang, have been promoted to positions of leadership over the years. The genuinely diligent ones are sidelined as they often act against individuals’ interests, offending others in the process.
Second, many policy factors have contributed to and reinforced their behaviour. The era of anti-corruption in China has made the people smarter and more sophisticated. Some cadres have concealed their previous behaviour and now perennially sing praises of the system and their loyalty to it, as though they are protecting the system. It goes without saying that these are meant for the eyes of their superiors and the leaders.
Many cadres, like the incompetent director of the health commission of the city of Huanggang, have been promoted to positions of leadership over the years. The genuinely diligent ones are sidelined as they often act against individuals’ interests, offending others in the process. As a result, everything appears perfect in the absence of crises but things fall apart as soon as a crisis occurs, often at the expense of the individuals and the society.
More importantly, the elites have lost their sense of progress. The Communist Party of China was a revolutionary party that propagated progressive ideas. However, over the years, many people have lost their original aspirations and are unable to distinguish between barbarism and civilisation, as well as regress and progress. Without the concept of progress, there is no sense of right and wrong. The resulting behaviours are vividly demonstrated in this epidemic.
For instance, perhaps out of necessity, some rural villagers employ various crude methods, including posting strong political slogans, to restrict the movement of people during the epidemic. The official mainstream media has applauded such actions, declaring these to be in line with the bottom-up participatory objective of the ruling party. In encouraging bottom-up participation, Mao Zedong once warned the party’s cadres not to behave like masters of the people or opportunists who sway at the people’s beck and call. With the official media applauding the latter behaviour, there seems no hope for progress.
In recent years, the prevalence of gaojihei (高级黑) and dijihong (低级红) within and outside the Chinese political system have inhibited science, rationality and progress in the nation. Gaojihei is the sarcastic euphemism for people who quietly lie in wait for the country’s problems to emerge, while dijihong refers to those who paint an untrue but rosy picture of the situation but take up arms like rebels in the Boxer Uprising in times of crisis. Today, wisdom and rationality in society are either manipulated by the gaojihei or eradicated by the dijihong. Where gaojihei and dijihong exist together, there is no room for wisdom and rationality.
...a huge tragedy may be inevitable if we pin our hopes on heroes while the society is a collective of ignorance and incompetence. No hero can single-handedly save the massive Chinese society.
Today's Chinese media clearly demonstrates the dominance of gaojihei and dijihong. Both official media and we-media stir up emotions and propagate crudeness and ignorance, instead of science, rationality and progress. A comparative analysis of the structures of the media’s content and people's social behaviour reveals a high degree of correlation. Although the Chinese leadership has long warned of the dangers of gaojihei and dijihong, the views and behaviours of these two groups have intensified.
In times of crisis, people always expect heroes to save the day. However, a huge tragedy may be inevitable if we pin our hopes on heroes while the society is a collective of ignorance and incompetence. No hero can single-handedly save the massive Chinese society.
The society’s salvation lies in all individuals taking up their social responsibilities. When all individuals are accountable to society for their actions, the society becomes a community of shared life. At the very least, if the people stop being gaojihei or dijihong, internal friction within the society can be minimised. With solidarity among the people, no problem is too big to solve.
No man is a saint but, to adapt Liang Qichao’s words, “people must conduct themselves respectably.” “Respectability” comes from the modern individual who is scientific, rational, and progressive. With a little effort in this 21st Century information age, everyone can be this modern individual. For nations to conduct themselves respectably, as advocated by Liang Qichao, societies of modern individuals are the prerequisite.