China didn’t do it

It’s imperative to move beyond “China did this” and specify who did what. No country per se ever acts, specific people or groups of people do, e.g. Hitler, the Nazi party, Mao, Deng, Kissinger, Pol Pot etc. Rwanda didn’t commit genocide. Specific groups and people did.

Yes, specific people in China – associated with Xi Jin Ping and he himself – willfully suppressed information and timely responses and to date we lack information to know what’s actually happened – I doubt the “no new cases” claims. Beijing (i.e Xi Jin Ping) also claims that the Tienanmen Square massacre and the confinement of more than 1m Uighurs never happened, that all of maritime Southeast Asia “belongs” to China, and that basic human rights do not exist. Do you believe it?

No matter how widely they are able to broadcast their deadly propaganda – whether via China Daily falsities inserted for dirty money into US newspapers or adds on morally bankrupt Facebook –  it is necessary to hold corrupt power to account.

For the same reasons we need to specify Trump’s (and not America’s) culpability for his deceit and for his corrupt administration’s and ultimately the federal government’s awful and lethally inept response.

And ultimately we need to question why public health systems in the US and even in European counties with otherwise much more effective and equitable health systems have been ineffective in the face of a pandemic. Where was the societal preparedness, where was the public money? Iran and Afghanistan, 2008 bailouts, tax cuts for the super rich, and secret bank accounts come to mind. Where was and is the state capacity? It’s too late. That takes a generation, at least.

It is not too late and it is essential to recognize publicly the culpability of Xin Jin Ping and those a party to his cult of personality for making this global pandemic possible.

Because these are the facts: If public authorities in Wuhan had effectively managed biohazardous wildlife markets allowed to function for 17 … 17 years (!) after SARS 1 … and had responded responsibly to specific threats in November and December of 2019 and all of January of 2020 we would not see thousands dying across the rest of the world and the millions more soon to follow.

It is now likely that millions will die around the world because of Xi Jin Ping’s mismanagement of public markets and suppression of an effective response, including allowing thousands of outward bound flights from a known epidemic hot spot. Never lose sight of that.

We can, correspondingly, reject the Xi regime’s sneaky campaign to dupe the rest of the world, claiming total victory and claiming superior competence, while looking down on the rest of the world for dying and descending into economic and social collapse in a global pandemic that his regime and its systemic corruption effectively permitted and facilitated.

Remember, too, there were more than a few right minded Mainland Chinese people – including even responsible members of his own party and thousands of mainland Chinese citizens – who did try to raise alarm and initiate effective public health responses, who were silenced and even imprisoned.

Nor should we delude ourselves that authoritarian or Confucian values themselves are somehow more effective. Taiwan and South Korea are democratic societies. Confucian culture, as Lu Xiao Bo has pointed out, can be deadly when it facilitates top down and violent suppression, like the Tiananmen Massacre and the suppression of its historical fact since 1989, which most certainly contributed to the culture of docility that allowed the current incompetence, deceit, and carnage.

The ability to cooperate for the purposes of public good in times of crisis or in normal times demands levels of social trust that are sometimes stronger in East Asia and in certain European social democracies than in other places.

We need to ask why. Why are Taiwanese and Koreans living in democratic societies and mainland Chinese and Singaporeans and Hong Kongers living under more or less authoritarian circumstances able to coordinate when necessary in the public interest but unevenly effective in managing risks to public health (like, in the case of China, allowing deadly pollution, the consumption of melamine, the production and export of toxic foods and drugs, or conditions conducive to allowing bat to pangolin to human transmission to occur etc).

These are all important questions that need to be addressed if we are to have a safer world. We also need to ask why whistle blowers continue to be silenced at the expense of overwhelming risk. If the Chinese doctor Li Wen Liang and the American doctor Helen Chu who each detected early disease spread in their countries were not suppressed we would be in a better position than we are today. Both were victims of chauvinist suppression, along with all of us.

Racism, in other words, will not help us and nor will blaming entire countries. Similarly, praising authoritarians or ‘Confucian culture’ as inherently good is unhelpful at best. So stop with that.

Hold specific public officials to account instead. And speak up for, vote for, and insist on effective, responsible, and transparent government. Remember the anonymous gentleman who stood in front of the tank in Tienanmen square. Remember Rosa Parks. Don’t ever lose your voice.


Jonathan D. London is Associate Professor of Political Economy at Leiden University’s Institute for Area Studies, in the Netherlands. His most recent books include Welfare and Inequality in Marketizing East Asia, published in 2018 and the Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Vietnam, forthcoming in 2020. London has more than 20 years of experience living and working in Asia. He was born in Boston and raised in Cambridge Massachusetts. He holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.