Shame and complicity in the reactions to the Coronavirus

The death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang on 7 February 2020 was a turning point in public reactions to the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The doctor had warned about the new virus, but was silenced and punished, because of the strict prohibition to spread any news about the virus. He got infected himself and this made him a martyr. The days after his death, many people shared emotions of anger and shame on social media. One posting was widely forwarded: screenshots of CCTV news anchors announcing the punishment of eight doctors for spreading rumours about the various in Wuhan, with a caption from Mencius: “The shame of being shameless. That is shameless indeed.”

Even though the reactions of the Chinese public and the criticism of the government on social media were surely exaggerated in the Western media, the case of Dr. Li Wenliang brought to the surface some longstanding feelings of resentment and frustration. In contrast to the actions of the martyr, news anchors and government officials fell short. Meanwhile, ordinary people tried to take advantage of the situation, acting in self-interest rather than helping others, only to be admonished by others – ‘don’t you see the nation is in difficulty? – a common phrase on social media and in numerous personal conversations over the last few days. Surely there are also countless acts of heroism, but the moral outcry should give us pause. An anonymous collective re-posting SOS messages from Wuhan, most of them deleted by the censors, states on their website: ‘They do not deserve that. And all of us are not innocent.’

In the blame-game of moral accusation and moral posturing, some people are led to shameful self-recognition: Seeing clearly that most officials are corrupt and most ordinary people selfish, while everyone pretends to be fighting for a common cause, thus creates a community of complicity – felt much more strongly precisely because these public secrets have to be concealed most of the time.

China watchers the world over are always ready to add insightful commentary. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, for instance, identifies a ‘dangerous obsession with secrecy’, whereas Nikolas Kristof points out that the ‘world pays for China’s dictatorship’, and Timothy Cheeks says we should learn from Chinese history. By contrast, The People’s Daily – the official news organ of the Chinese Communist Party – published an article entitled “In core moments, you clearly see the superiority of the Chinese system” and reported some ‘soul-searching over US failure in emergency response.’ Propelled by the urgent necessity of crisis response, everyone thus takes us on a ride on their hobby horse.

The crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. Given that practical everyday necessities have to be bracketed, and because of the urgency to find counter-measures – what happens if the virus spreads? – the assessments of the commentariat also have to cut the chase and get to the point. In the absence of reliable information there is a lot of speculation.

One central problem in epidemic control is information management: information about the virus and about infections has to be collected, has to be transmitted across the hierarchies of disease control and government, and then has to be broadcast to alert the population. Any government or disease control system dealing with an epidemic has to make tough decisions, for instance, whether to focus on limiting the spread of the virus (containment) or instead concentrate on fighting the effects among people already infected (mitigation). The policies to tackle the epidemic, importantly, also acquire a signal function: in the absence of reliable information, policies of containment in particular convey the message that the spread of the virus can and will be stopped – which might be counter-productive in terms of long-term efforts to deal with the virus, epidemiologists have argued. But what is specific about the Chinese system of information management and epidemic control?

In the case of the People’s Republic of China, information management in epidemic control combines elements of the Leninist Party hierarchy with a CDC-system inspired by U.S. models. The struggle over information about the virus takes place in an environment shaped by a renewed emphasis on grassroots mobilization and Maoist-style campaigns under Xi Jinping. The government has to strike a balance between encouraging and limiting public expression; it does so via a fine-tuned management of study campaigns, local party cells, and online discourse. During the virus outbreak, such local mobilization was implemented often by groups of ‘volunteers’ who turned into local vigilante groups, overseeing quarantine policies and sometimes controlling supply chains. The combination of all these elements creates unattainable objectives and catch-22 situations, which, in turn, reinforce a vicious cycle of shame and complicity. Consequences include a systematic underreporting of infections and a politics of stigmatization.

The tight policies of the lockdown exacerbate a general problem with Chinese government hierarchies, which is an excessive focus on negative incentives in the so-called ‘rule of mandates’. As long as local officials don’t offend against a series of core mandates (for instance, local stability – i.e., no petitions), they are fine. If, however, they do offend, they cannot be promoted. Now consider the announcement made by the Communist Party Secretary of Wuhan City, Wang Zhonglin, made on Wednesday 19th February: The recent campaign to find all infected cases, including those previously unreported, ‘must be taken seriously’, and if after the next Wednesday ‘a single new case is found, the district leaders will be held responsible.’

We can safely assume, that after Wednesday, the incentives for district leaders to report any cases they may still find, will be very low, and they might well choose to hide newly infected cases instead. Given that infections, even in the tight lockdown of Wuhan today, are well beyond the control of district leaders, the consequence of the ‘people’s war’ the party secretary declared, is inevitably to strengthen false compliance and under-reporting.

The largest daily increase in cases reported in Hubei in fact was possibly also politically motivated: It happened just the day before the same official, Wang Zhonglin arrived in Wuhan and took over the position of party secretary of Wuhan. Rather than the surge in cases being the reason driving the central government to purge officials, as reported by Chinese media, possibly the causality was reversed: The National Health Commission changed the way it classified confirmed cases of the virus in Hubei, which meant that all of a sudden 14,840 new cases appeared in the statistics. It’s not as simple as ‘making up numbers’, but rather that numbers have to be presented in a sophisticated way so as to serve their legitimizing purpose, and in this case, the new numbers were obviously politically beneficial for the new arrivals, because they could be attributed to their predecessors.

People are particularly afraid of stigmatization related to the virus. But calling the new virus ‘Wuhan virus’ and thus associating it directly with Wuhan and Hubei, and the emphasis of containment over mitigation (let alone prevention or public education), inevitably lead to further stigmatization. The continued lockdown adds further weight and complexity, especially when officials, foreigners, or otherwise privileged individuals are given special treatment against quarantine regulations. Stigmatization of the illness within China mirrors the racism towards Chinese people outside. Both should be sources of shame – they are definitely also sources of complicity.

As I write, Chinese officials ponder whether to allow normal routines, but risk further spread of the virus; or to keep everything on lockdown but ruin local economies. Meanwhile the virus keeps spreading elsewhere, with Italy, Iran, and South Korea reporting rapidly growing numbers of infections: we might do well to prepare for a global pandemic. As long as the focus of epidemic policy remains on containment, we will see an increased intensity in the politics of shame and complicity described here.

Hans Steinmüller is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Communities of Complicity: Everyday Ethics in Rural China (2013), and co-editor of Irony, Cynicism, and the Chinese State (2016). 


2 replies on “Shame and complicity in the reactions to the Coronavirus”

Comments are closed.