Essays

‘The Truth is the Most Effective Vaccine’

How the coronavirus pandemic exposes the suppression of information in China, and the real people’s war – Joan Judge

As the coronavirus pandemic escalates globally, and as we grapple with the missteps of our own leadership in the Western world, some are echoing the World Health Organization’s praise of the Wuhan lockdown as a model for the planet. At such a moment it is imperative to bear in mind the human cost of China’s belated and aggressive approach to the outbreak: both loss of life and the brutal repression of public-minded critique.

President Xi Jinping has declared this approach a “People’s War.” Desperate to deflect percolating anger and frustration over the local government’s delayed response to the virus, the central government’s subsequent draconian policies, and the over 3000 (recorded) deaths, Xi unimaginatively turned to familiar tactics of Maoist mass mobilization. Official media have glorified heroic medical personnel in the spirit of labor models of the 1950s and 1960s. They have gone so far as to post a video of a team of female medics having their heads shaved as they selflessly prepared to serve at the virus’s epicenter. Slogans are ubiquitous, galvanizing people to fight the People’s War by altering their behavior. “Those who gather together are shameless;” banners warn, “those who play mahjong are daredevils.”

Essays

How Anti-Chinese Sentiment During Covid-19 Draws on America’s Racist History

Trump’s “Chinese Virus” comments play up to xenophobic tropes – Elizabeth M. Lynch

Donna Chiu has dedicated most of her life to fighting for vulnerable New Yorkers. A petite, Chinese-American woman with a quick smile and contagious laugh, you would never think she would be able to take on some of New York City’s sleaziest landlords. But within the dark, dingy halls of New York City’s housing courts, she transforms into a pit bull, fighting for her clients, low-income tenants, and holding landlords responsible for illegal practices.

But Chiu has a new villain to fight – the anti-Asian sentiment that is on the rise in the United States as a result of Covid-19, and a President who seems to take sick pleasure in constantly referring to the pandemic as “the Chinese virus.” Since Covid-19 has hit the shores of the United States, anti-bias crimes and incidents against Asian Americans have increased. Since March 18, when President Trump doubled down on his use of the term “Chinese virus,” a Chinese language newspaper based in New York, The World Journal, published six articles on bias crimes and incidents against Asian Americans in New York City. Perhaps even more telling are the Wechat groups and Asian-American focused websites such as Angry Asian Man that are awash in conversations about the increase in anti-Asian incidents and crimes.

Essays

Is Coronavirus China’s Chernobyl?

Where similarities between the two disasters begin and end – Olivia Humphrey

Of all the images to hit the mainstream media over the past few weeks, some of the most arresting have featured Wuhan’s deserted streets during the coronavirus epidemic. These photographs take a city of eight million and reduce it to a ghost-town. In these still moments, it is hard not to think of another ghost-town – one that has actually been frozen in time, an ashy monument to a flailing communist superpower that mishandled a catastrophic crisis. For years, the empty factories, homes and schools of Pripyat were little more than a man-made playground for wildlife, tainted by plumes of plutonium. More recently, drones have been able to venture in. They have recorded beautiful and sad footage of what a town becomes when its people are suddenly wiped away: a ghostly observation wheel; a dodgem funfair ride overgrown with plants; a giant rusting hammer and sickle.

The Chernobyl-coronavirus analogy has not been lost on the media. Since the outbreak of the virus, and especially in February, journalists have pointed out parallels. First and foremost is the health toll, and how the damage proliferated. The radiation pollution that emitted from Ukraine in 1986 as a result of reactor 4’s meltdown nestled, quietly and terrifyingly, into millions of bodies. It is too early to tell the cost of coronavirus, but the fact that it also can spread silently, through people who are pre-symptomatic, gives it that same edge of phantom menace.

Essays

Being Twenty-One During Coronavirus

Advice for students out of school, from Shi Tiesheng’s celebrated essay – Nick Admussen

Ed: Nick Admussen is an associate professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at Cornell University, where all classes were cancelled last Friday. He penned this letter, edited for publication, to his students before leaving his desk.

As cases of Covid-19 spread and we begin a period of social distancing, I want to give you my argument for continuing to do the two things university was designed for: to read and to write. Colleges often present themselves to students as a package excursion for youth: open quadrangles, energetic friends and lovers, deep conversation, light beer, live music, parties. It is that, and much more. Yet my colleagues and I didn’t become literature professors – we didn’t become literate – by going to class. We learned what we know in rooms that lacked conversation, friends, and open doors.

Today I’ve been rereading the Chinese writer Shi Tiesheng, a Beijing native who was assigned to rural labor during the Cultural Revolution, when at the age of 21 his spine was injured in an accident and he was rendered paraplegic. His 1991 essay ‘The Year of Being Twenty-One’, translated by Dave Haysom, records his struggles to come to terms with the new limits on his mobility and his future. In the essay, he watches carefully as the other patients in hospital respond to their own illnesses, and to the social and emotional sicknesses that constrain them. From his sickbed, Shi talks with a man with aphasia (“Bed Two”) who has lost all nouns. He remembers a seven-year old boy who fell off a truck and never walked again. And he tells of a pair of lovers pulled apart by an accident, and more. Their stories leap off the page, as if there is something bigger behind them, laboring to push its way through.

Essays

Unpredictable Hong Kong

The perils of prognostication and lessons of history when it comes to Hong Kong’s protests Jeffrey Wasserstrom

How long will the large-scale street actions that began to take place regularly in Hong Kong last June continue? And what kind of development is most likely to bring to an end these protests, which were first triggered by an extradition bill but are now in large part calls for the government to rein in and investigate the police?

I was often asked variations on one or both of these questions during the period lasting from early June until early October of 2019 that I spent writing Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, February 2020). As the length of the struggle went from days to weeks to months, I grew used to either dodging the questions or providing equivocal answers. I continued to do so during the final weeks of 2019 and the first weeks of 2020 – right up until the main questions people asked me shifted, just before Vigil came out, from being about the protests to about the coronavirus. Whether I refused to make any kind of prediction or made a careful one with all sort of caveats and prevarications, I typically began my response to the two questions by making some or all of the following points: