Because of thorough repression, it is often impossible to know the opinion and perspectives of MLM comrades in China. But today, we are lucky to be able to publish the following article sent to us by a veteran MLM comrade on the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic in China.
A specter is haunting the world—the specter of COVID-19.
It knows no racial and national borders, infecting the Chinese population alongside those who believe themselves to be invincible. It ignores the arrogance and hierarchy of human society.
It remains unresolved how exactly the virus came out of the Pandora ’s Box. Science and politics, victim and scapegoat, are all tangled together now.
The virus is the common enemy of human beings and the human beings will defeat it together. This class/race-blind virus, however, unveiled many of the contradictions in our class society. The arrogance and prejudice of the public, and the ignorance and short sightedness of the ruling class are all apparent now.
1. Politicians, the Virus and the People
The name “corona” comes from the crown-like shape of the virus. In Chinese the character for “crown” and “bureaucrat” share the same pronunciation (guan). So people also call it the bureaucrat-virus. “Corona” gets at the shape, while the alternative gets at the substance.
It first affronted Wuhan, China. WHO named the disease COVID-19（Coronavirus Disease 2019), since it was discovered in 2019. First thought to be SARS, the virus became public on December 30, 2019, just before the new year.
On that day, Ai Fen, an ER doctor at Wuhan’s Central Hospital received a test report about an “unknown” pneumonia. She saw the “SARS” marker on it and due to the high level of vigilance about SARS as a Chinese person and particularly a Chinese doctor, she took a photo of the report and sent it out to her colleagues via WeChat. The report quickly circulated among the doctors’ circles in Wuhan that night. The people who publicized the information included eight doctors who were later reprimanded by the police for “spreading rumors.”
In fact, four days before that, on December 27th, Doctor Zhang Jixian from the Hubei Integrated Hospital of Traditional and Western Medicine, had already filed a report of four suspect cases to the Wuhan CDC. On 29th, the health departments from both Wuhan City and Hubei Province started an epidemiological investigation.
Doctors are the guards of health, almost like sentries, often discovering the enemies first. While Dr. Zhang Jixian later received official recognition for her work, the other eight doctors, or “whistle blowers” as many call them, were punished for publicizing the information. Dr. Li Wenliang, in particular, was scolded and reprimanded multiple times by the Wuhan health officials and the hospital. He was required to reflect on his “mistake” and write a self-critical essay. Unfortunately, he later died from the virus that the government wanted him to deny at the age of 34. He was the first to be reprimanded and the first sentry to died in the war. Why did Dr. Zhang and Dr. Li have such different experiences?
Sentries are not commanders. Whether to ring the alarm and implement societal mobilization is subject to a set of given rules and customs. Thanks to the social media, however, information can flow easily outside of the official public health system. If the information turns out to be damaging and wrong, it may soon become a widespread rumor, causing social panic in a less transparent society like China. This would not be tolerated under any regime.
From this perspective, the reprimanding of the eight doctors was not unreasonable. Such handling was not necessarily a violation of the freedom of speech. The government, while correcting a small glitch, however, made a bigger mistake—or rather serious crime!
On December 30, 2019, the eight doctors first publicized the information. The next day, Wuhan’s health department released a report on the pneumonia, refuting the claim of “human to human transmission” and “infected medical workers” and the eight doctors were reprimanded. On Jan 2, 2020, Xinhua news agency and the Chinese Central Television, among other mainstream media, all published the news of the “eight rumor mongers receiving lawful punishment,” de facto telling society that everything was safe and normal.
During the process, politicians and bureaucrats put on all sorts of farce and drama. To name a few: limiting the use of face masks and PPE among medical workers and letting a huge gathering take place in Wuhan. The local governments even organized new year parities under the guise of calming people down. It almost looked like they did not care about their positions and became truly concerned with people’s everyday lives. This went on until Jan 20, 2020, when Zhong Nanshan, a leader of the national health department’s expert team, publicly confirmed incidents of human to human transmission. This was three weeks after the first notice when there was already extreme community spread. Just three days later, on Jan 23, 2020, Wuhan was forced to lockdown.
This is why people in China say “eight people were shut up, then the whole China was locked down.” On a superficial level, the logic is that a lack of freedom of speech caused such disaster. But this is not the real issue. Such lying, covering up and spreading of fake news is also commonplace in the West with more freedom of speech. For instance, the president of the US can talk nonsense quite freely, while not alleviating one bit of the suffering of the people.
Who is our friend and who is our enemy? Normally that is quite clear when referring to the government, the working people, and a deadly virus. Unfortunately, in the pandemic, many people have conflated the problems of virus and those of the government.
During the Maoist era, China had many successful experiences combating diseases and public health challenges such schistosomiasis (snail fever) and malaria. This was possible because of a highly coordinated action by the communist party, scientists, and the people. This is an important legacy preserved in China.
In 2003, China had a severe outbreak of SARS, which left a strong impression on the Chinese people and made them take this kind of virus seriously.
After 2003, China spent more than a 100 million dollars building the world’s largest infectious disease and public health reporting system. The system can convey public health information to the central government in less than two hours, providing the basis for fast evidenced-based decision making. Ironically, a top Chinese CDC expert confidently asserted in 2019 that China would not repeat the tragedy of SARS.
A strong public health legacy, mass-based support for containing the virus, plus an advanced information system. Yet here we still ar . Who is at fault should be fairly straightforward.
2. Virus and Freedom
Everyone longs for freedom, and no one give it up easily. This is the same for those in the “free” world and the “unfree” one. Even viruses need the free movement of the hosts to spread and mutate. But what is freedom anyway?
Virus, like a “freedom fighter” from nature, exacts revenge on people and deprives them of their life and freedom. We must fight it, and we must also self-reflect and self-criticize.
In this capitalist world, the freedom of capital is the priority. Financial transactions, global trade, market competition—none of these are dispensable and none will stop. The accumulation of capital has guaranteed freedom to the endless extraction of oil, coal and minerals, water pollution and deforestation, poisoning of the air and slaughtering of the animals, as well as genetic modification. To satisfy their appetites, consumers presumptuously eat anything, be it civet, pangolin or bat.
On this unhindered freedom, nature takes its revenge. The frequent hurricanes, locust outbreak, droughts, fires, floods, smog and the infectious diseases (H1N1, MERS, Ebola among others)—are they simply “natural”?
The damage to the global economic order is clear when looking at the production and circulation of PPE during the ongoing pandemic. PPEs are urgently needed weapons to combat the virus. It seems the virus is laughing at neoliberal globalization.
Without a doubt, according to capitalists, profit comes before workers’ lives. They are extremely reluctant to slow down, much less come to a full stop. With labor quarantined, and the separation of the means of production and labor power, it essentially means a stop of capital accumulation. Wouldn’t that force capitalists towards desperate thoughts of suicide?
After all, this is the real reason behind the covering up and hesitation in politics that eventually led to the unchecked outbreak. Such a dilemma is the same for both the liberal democracies and the “others”.
The outbreak in China happened to occur near the spring festival (Chinese or Lunar New Year), which is a normal vacation week every year. This helped avoid the dilemma in decision making. China also benefited from the early revelation of mistakes, the deep understanding of SARS among the policy makers, and a modest attitude towards suggestions from science experts, and most importantly, the central leadership’s timely decision to lockdown Wuhan and the whole country. During this time, Zhong Nanshan (a well-respected pulmonologist with a history of experience with SARS) earned a god-like reputation among both the leadership and the people.
During the pandemic, a picture spread around social media in China, featuring Karl Marx and a fake quote: “When pandemics happen, capitalism shows its many problems; the pandemic is the death knell for capitalism as socialism inevitably replaces capitalism.”
This is obviously voodoo logic. Proletariat revolution will toll the death knell, not some pandemic. Marx would never make such unscientific argument. But the overview picture in China reflects some social opinions. It is said that the pandemic dramatically reshaped youth politics: more disappointment in capitalism, more regard for socialism.
After all, nature can continuously produce viruses and other natural disasters as long as human beings do not rethink the true meaning of “freedom” and do not eliminate capital and fundamentally resolve the human-nature contradiction. The end result, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out a 100 years ago, is either socialism or barbarism.
3. The East and the West
Since the epidemic first broke out in the East, the politicians in the West have framed the virus as something particular among the Asians. Correspondingly, the people in the East fought back with other conspiracy theories. The racist comments and conspiracy theories quickly mushroomed all over the world, and even different eating and life styles have been loaded with virus labels.
For example, the southern Chinese like to eat wild animals, and since the virus did break out in the South (Wuhan), westerners were convinced thus that the Chinese people’s eating style produced the virus (which only infect the Chinese). Thus, they overlooked the potential of community spread in their own countries. A counter-rumor from the Chinese is that the virus originated from a US biochemistry lab. Thus, they can keep eating wild animals.
Moreover, in the beginning, the Westerners discriminate against and even despised Asians wearing masks. This was based on the misconception that only sick people use masks, and masked “sick” people in public put others in danger. In other parts of the world, there is no such taboo. The Japanese wear masks to prevent hay fever, and the Chinese wear masks when air quality worsens. In fact, the pandemic has been so severe that even people in the West started buying masks, regardless of the official recommendations. The shortage of masks quickly expanded to sanitizer and toilet paper. It seems the “culture” of no-masks can quickly change under life threatening conditions.
As another example, the lockdown policies in China were initially criticized in the Western media. They condemn the “inhumane” Chinese government on the one hand, and scorned the “obedient, no-free-will” Chinese people on the other. In fact, this has not been the case, at least in the last few months. The Chinese people gave their fullest support and cooperation to the coercive policies, mainly because of the memory of the pain experienced during the 2003 SARS crisis. The Chinese bureaucracy had a sluggish response in the beginning, but after quick personnel changes, the bureaucrats were put on alert, and the whole system has run very smoothly.
The government has public resources like money and supplies, the medical workers have their expertise, and the people give strong community support. The three aspects together, as an effective combat team, are able to win the battle.
The public health campaign has been effective so far and the general public has been pleased. The Party and the government lost points at first, but made up for it later. This does not, however, mean that the people have changed their overall view and will be gracious and loyal to the government.
The Party Secretary in Wuhan City, made a bold “thank you” education plan, wanting the people of Wuhan to thank the Party and the leadership. The people disliked the plan so much that the officials do not talk about it anymore.
According to the assessment from Johns Hopkins University before the pandemic, the US had the best capacity to deal with an epidemic, while China ranked 54th. Chinese experts also point out that US has much better medical expertise than China.
As is imaginable, in a country with 1.4 billion population and a relatively low level of medical care like China, an unmitigated outbreak like the one happening now in the West would have had disastrous consequences. The Chinese people are already feeling some relief by now.
There are three things worth emphasizing during the fight against the virus:
- The entire national medical system supported Wuhan, and the public owned hospitals played a dominant role. The privatization of hospitals in China has been massive. In 2017, only 36% of the hospitals are still publicly owned, and in Wuhan, that ratio was even lower at 23%. Wuhan, a city of 10 million people, has 98 public hospitals and 258 private hospitals. During the pandemic, the private hospitals were either not qualified to take patients, or chose to close their doors. Without the national support, the public hospitals in Wuhan would not have been able to handle the situation.
- Free testing and treatment throughout the process. This policy ensures that anyone who should be hospitalized will be hospitalized, and anyone who should be treated will get treated.
- Lastly, let us briefly talk about the role of traditional Chinese and Western medicine. The collaboration between traditional Chinese and Western medicine has proven to be helpful. Due to concern for profits and the monopoly status of Western medicine, traditional medicine has been severely marginalized in China. The Chinese medicine was able to play a role in this pandemic due to the lack of Western medicine and equipment.
A few days ago, Tong Xiaolin, a Chinese Academy of Science fellow and chief researcher at the academy of Chinese medicine, published some findings. They show that traditional medicine has positive impacts on patients with both mild and severe symptoms and also the recovered ones. Chinese traditional medicine is effective throughout the treatment and makes unique contributions to the global effort in fighting the virus.
Chen A. F. (55 years old, Chinese Marxist-Leninist-Maoist)
April 6, 2020