Governments across the world are desperate for someone else to blame. Their mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis has led to countless unnecessary deaths due to lack of preparation and insufficient response capacity. Healthcare systems are being pushed to their limits and millions of vulnerable workers have been laid off. Amongst this chaos Western politicians, aided by mainstream media, are redirecting public anger by capitalising on people’s misconceptions about China to whip up negative sentiment towards its people and their culture, leading to a wave of abuse and violence around the world towards Chinese people and other people of East Descent.
It’s an inescapable conclusion that those pushing this sentiment have a deeper agenda when you look at their reaction to the Chinese mobilisation against coronavirus. When the city of Wuhan was locked down in January and the Chinese state began building vital healthcare infrastructure, such as a 1,000 bed hospital built in Wuhan in just 10 days, news stories focused on the speed and urgency with which they acted. These stories were coloured with the belief that these kinds of actions were exclusive to “totalitarian” states exercising the kind of control over their citizens which is unthinkable in the West. When the virus began to spread and several cities in China were put on lockdown, Western news outlets referred to their action as “Mao-style mass crusades ” (New York Times) or that China was “Descending into a zombie-apocalypse scenario” (The Conversation).
In March, an international group of scientists published a paper in Science titled “An Investigation of Transmission Control Measures During the First 50 Days of the COVID-19 Epidemic in China” this paper proposes that if China had not started the Wuhan lockdown and the national response, then there would have been an additional 744,000 COVID-19 cases outside Wuhan. Furthermore, after the World Health Organization created a report after a visit in February, their team members wrote, “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” The Chinese government knew that placing 60 million people on lockdown and placing restrictions on a further 1.3 billion people was going to have serious social and economic impact. Despite this the CPC stated from the beginning of the crisis that the economic consequences were not going to play a role in its response; the health and lives of people came first.
Undeterred by the success of the Chinese response, Western journalists, politicians and public figures waste no time reframing the facts to fit the anti-China, anti-Communist narrative. When Chinese citizens criticize the government, it’s proof of their weakness. When Chinese citizens praise the government, it’s proof that they are being brainwashed. When China reported hundreds of deaths a day, it was proof of their incompetent response. When deaths dropped, it was proof the government was lying about their figures. When China had not yet sent aid abroad, it was portrayed as cruel. When they did send aid abroad, it was portrayed as cynical propaganda. One particularly propagandised area was the false claim that the Chinese Communist Party suppressed the initials reports of the virus. In fact, timelines are available in Ireland that show the party sprang into full action as soon as information went above the local level. The party responsibly waited for the investigating doctors’ confirmation before announcing the disease was contagious, but even this prudent and expert-led approach has been framed as a conspiracy by Western media outlets. The local bureaucrats who attempted to caution Li Wenliang for raising the alarm were later disciplined.
In the Western response to China we see a pattern emerging based on anti-Chinese sentiment which existed long before the coronavirus pandemic. People from Western nations often hold a distorted view of the People’s Republic of China as an “other”; an inferior and archaic society with values incompatible with the West’s. This pandemic has simply created a “socially acceptable” justification for liberals and conservatives alike to voice their barefaced contempt for China.
This “us vs. them” mentality is bound to have consequences as the pandemic progresses. A sense of Western exceptionalism will be many nations’ undoing as they refuse to learn from responses coming not just from China but from other countries in Asia, such as Vietnam (who have not had a single death) or from other socialist countries such as Cuba (whose doctors are heroically rising to the challenge of delivering healthcare abroad).
With miles upon miles of cars lining up to access food banks in the US and child poverty in the UK set to reach its highest point recorded. It has become clear that neoliberalism is going through a crisis of legitimacy. Faced with a problem that cannot be easily bombed, sanctioned or blockaded, capitalist powers are shifting into a new Cold War mentality. In this intensifying political climate, it is crucial that we look critically at our own assumptions and our sources and challenge Western propaganda in all its forms.