The outbreak has been incorrectly blamed on everything from the conspiratorial and/or accidental release of a virus strain from the Wuhan Institute of Virology—a dubious claim spread by social media, particularly via paranoid Hong Kong and Taiwan Facebook posts, but now buoyed by conservative press outlets and military interests in the West—to the propensity of Chinese people to consume “dirty” or “strange” types of food, since the virus outbreak is linked to either bats or snakes sold in a semi-illegal ‘wet market’ specializing in wildlife and other rare animals (though this was not the ultimate source). Both major themes exhibit the obvious warmongering and orientalism common to reporting on China, and a number of articles have pointed out this basic fact. But even these responses tend to focus only on questions of how the virus is perceived in the cultural sphere, spending far less time digging into the much more brutal dynamics that lie obscured beneath the media frenzy.
A slightly more complex variant at least understands the economic consequences, even while it exaggerates the potential political repercussions for rhetorical effect. Here we find the usual suspects, ranging from standard warhawk dragon-slaying politicos to the spilled-latte pearl clutching of haute-liberalism: press agencies from the National Review to the New York Times have already implied that the outbreak may bring a “crisis of legitimacy” to the CCP, despite the fact that there is barely a whiff of an uprising in the air. But the kernel of truth to these predictions lies in their grasp of the economic dimensions of the quarantine—something that could hardly be lost on journalists with stock portfolios thicker than their skulls. Because the fact is that, despite the government’s call to isolate oneself, people may soon be forced to “gather together” to tend to the needs of production. According to the latest initial estimates, the epidemic will already cause China’s GDP slow to 5 percent in this year, below its already flagging growth rate of 6 percent last year, the lowest in three decades. Some analysts have said Q1 growth could sink 4 percent or lower, and that this may risk triggering a global recession of some sort. A previously unthinkable question has been posed: what actually happens to the global economy when the Chinese furnace begins to grow cold?
Within China itself, the ultimate trajectory of this event is difficult to predict, but the moment has already brought about a rare, collective process of questioning and learning about society. The epidemic has directly infected nearly 80,000 people (at the most conservative estimate), but it has delivered a shock to everyday life under capitalism for 1.4 billion, trapped in a moment of precarious self-reflection. This moment, while full of fear, has caused everyone to simultaneously ask some deep questions: What will happen to me? My children, family and friends? Will we have enough food? Will I get paid? Will I make rent? Who is responsible for all this? In a strange way, the subjective experience is somewhat like that of a mass strike—but one which, in its non-spontaneous, top-down character and, especially in its involuntary hyper-atomization, illustrates the basic conundrums of our own strangled political present as clearly as the true mass strikes of the previous century elucidated the contradictions of their era. The quarantine, then, is like a strike hollowed of its communal features but nonetheless capable of delivering a deep shock to both psyche and economy. This fact alone makes it worthy of reflection.
Of course, speculation on the imminent downfall of the CCP is predictable nonsense, one of the favorite pastimes of The New Yorker and The Economist. Meanwhile, the normal media suppression protocols are underway, in which overtly racist mass-media op-eds published in legacy outlets are countered by a swarm of web-platform thinkpieces polemicizing against orientalism and other facets of ideology. But almost the entirety of this discussion remains at the level of portrayal—or, at best, the politics of containment and the economic consequences of the epidemic—without delving into the questions of how such diseases get produced in the first place, much less distributed. Even this, however, is not quite enough. Now is not the time for a simple “Scooby-Doo Marxist” exercise of pulling the mask off the villain to reveal that, yes, indeed, it was capitalism that caused coronavirus all along! That would be no more subtle than foreign commentators sniffing about for regime change. Of course capitalism is culpable—but how, exactly, does the social-economic sphere interface with the biological, and what kind of deeper lessons might be drawn from the entire experience?
In this sense, the outbreak presents two opportunities for reflection: First, it is an instructive opening in which we might review substantial questions about how capitalist production relates to the non-human world at a more fundamental level—how, in short, the “natural world,” including its microbiological substrata, cannot be understood without reference to how society organizes production (because the two are not, in fact, separate). At the same time, this is a reminder that the only communism worth the name is one that includes the potential of a fully politicized naturalism. Second, we can also use this moment of isolation for our own sort of reflection on the present state of Chinese society. Some things only become clear when everything grinds to an unexpected halt, and a slowdown of this sort cannot help but make previously obscured tensions visible. Below, then, we’ll explore both these questions, showing not only how capitalist accumulation produces such plagues, but also how the moment of pandemic is itself a contradictory instance of political crisis, making visible to people the unseen potentials and dependencies of the world around them, while also offering yet another excuse for the extension of systems of control even further into everyday life.
COVID-19 can’t be understood without taking into account the ways in which China’s last few decades of development in and through the global capitalist system has molded the country’s health care system and the state of public health more generally. The epidemic, however novel, is therefore similar to other public health crises that came before it, which tend to be produced with nearly the same regularity as economic crises, and to be regarded in similar ways within the popular press—as if they were random, “black swan” events, utterly unpredictable and unprecedented. The reality, however, is that these health crises follow their own chaotic, cyclical patterns of recurrence, made more probable by a series of structural contradictions built into the nature of production and proletarian life under capitalism. Much like the case of the Spanish Flu, the coronavirus was originally able to take hold and spread rapidly because of a general degradation of basic healthcare among the population at large. But precisely because this degradation has taken place in the midst of spectacular economic growth, it has been obscured behind the splendor of glittering cities and massive factories. The reality, however, is that expenditures on public goods like health care and education in China remain extremely low, while most public spending has been directed toward brick and mortar infrastructure—bridges, roads, and cheap electricity for production.
Before the country’s piece-by-piece incorporation into the global capitalist system, services like healthcare in China were once provided (largely in the cities) under the danwei system of enterprise-based benefits or (mostly but not exclusively in the countryside) by local healthcare clinics staffed by plentiful “barefoot doctors,” all provided as a free service. The successes of socialist-era healthcare, like its successes in the field of basic education and literacy, were substantial enough that even the country’s harshest critics had to acknowledge them. Snail fever, plaguing the country for centuries, was essentially wiped out in much of its historical core, only to return in force once the socialist healthcare system began to be dismantled. Infant mortality plummeted and, even despite the famine that accompanied the Great leap Forward, life expectancy jumped from 45 to 68 years between 1950 and the early 1980s. Immunization and general sanitary practices became widespread, and basic information on nutrition and public health, as well as access to rudimentary medicines, were free and available to all. Meanwhile, the barefoot doctor system helped to distribute fundamental, albeit limited, medical knowledge to a large portion of the population, helping to build a robust, bottom-up healthcare system in conditions of severe material poverty. It’s worth remembering that all of this took place at a time when China was poorer, per capita, than your average Sub-Saharan African country today.
Since then, a combination of neglect and privatization has substantially degraded this system at the exact same time that rapid urbanization and unregulated industrial production of household goods and foodstuffs has made the need for widespread healthcare, not to mention food, drug and safety regulations, all the more necessary. Today, China’s public spending on health is US$323 per capita, according to figures from the World Health Organization. This figure is low even among other “upper-middle income” countries, and it’s around half that spent by Brazil, Belarus and Bulgaria. Regulation is minimal to non-existent, resulting in numerous scandals of the type mentioned above. Meanwhile, the effects of all this are felt most strongly by the hundreds of millions of migrant workers, for whom any right to basic health care provisions completely evaporates when they leave their rural hometowns (where, under the hukou system, they are permanent residents regardless of their actual location, meaning that the remaining public resources can’t be accessed elsewhere).
COVID-19 has gripped global attention with an unprecedented strength. Ebola, the avian flu and SARS, of course, all had their associated media frenzies. But something about this new epidemic has generated a different kind of staying power. In part, this is almost certainly due to the spectacular scale of the Chinese government’s response, resulting in equally spectacular images of emptied-out megacities that stand in stark contrast to the normal media image of China as over-crowded and over-polluted.
At a deeper level, though, what seems most fascinating about the state’s response is the way in which it has been performed, via the media, as a sort of melodramatic dress rehearsal for the full mobilization of domestic counterinsurgency. This gives us real insights into the repressive capacity of the Chinese state, but it also emphasizes the deeper incapacity of that state, revealed by its need to rely so heavily on a combination of total propaganda measures deployed through every facet of the media and the goodwill mobilizations of locals otherwise under no material obligation to comply. Both Chinese and Western propaganda have emphasized the real repressive capacity of the quarantine, the former narrating it as a case of effective government intervention in an emergency and the latter as yet another case of totalitarian overreach on the part of the dystopian Chinese state. The unspoken truth, however, is that the very aggression of the clampdown signifies a deeper incapacity in the Chinese state, which is itself very much still under construction.
This itself gives us a window into the nature of the Chinese state, showing how it is developing new and innovative techniques of social control and crisis response capable of being deployed even in conditions where basic state machinery is sparse or non-existent. Such conditions, meanwhile, offer an even more interesting (albeit more speculative) picture of how the ruling class in any given country might respond when widespread crisis and active insurrection cause similar breakdowns in even the most robust states. The viral outbreak was in every respect assisted by poor connections between levels of the government: repression of “whistleblower” doctors by local officials contra the interests of the central government, ineffective hospital reporting mechanisms and extremely poor provision of basic healthcare are just a few examples. Meanwhile, different local governments have returned to normal at different paces, almost completely beyond the control of the central state (except in Hubei, the epicenter). At the moment of writing, it seems almost entirely random which ports are operational and which locales have restarted production. But this bricolage quarantine has meant that long-distance city-to-city logistics networks remain disrupted, since any local government appears able to simply prevent trains or freight trucks from passing through its borders. And this base level incapacity of the Chinese government has forced it to deal with the virus as if it were an insurgency, roleplaying civil war against an invisible enemy.
In response to the central state’s call to mobilize, some localities have taken their own strange and severe initiatives. The most frightening of these are to be found in four cities in Zhejiang province, where thirty million people have been issued local passports, allowing only one person per household to leave home once every two days. Cities like Shenzhen and Chengdu have ordered that each neighborhood be locked down, and allowed entire apartment buildings to be quarantined for 14 days if a single confirmed case of the virus is found within. Meanwhile, hundreds have been detained or fined for “spreading rumors” about the disease, and some who have fled quarantine have been arrested and sentenced to lengthy jail time—and the jails themselves are now experiencing a severe outbreak, due to officials’ incapacity to isolate sick individuals even in an environment literally designed for easy isolation. These sorts of desperate, aggressive measures mirror those of extreme cases of counterinsurgency, most clearly recalling the actions of military-colonial occupation in places like Algeria, or, more recently, Palestine. Never before have they been conducted at this scale, nor in megacities of this kind that house much of the world’s population. The conduct of the clampdown then offers a strange sort of lesson for those with a mind for global revolution, since it is, essentially, a dry run of state-led reaction.
This particular clampdown benefits from its seemingly humanitarian character, with the Chinese state able to mobilize greater numbers of locals to help in what is, essentially, the noble cause of strangling the spread of the virus. But, as is to be expected, such clampdowns always also backfire. Counterinsurgency is, after all, a desperate sort of war conducted only when more robust forms of conquest, appeasement and economic incorporation have become impossible. It is an expensive, inefficient and rearguard action, betraying the deeper incapacity of whatever power is tasked with deploying it—be they French colonial interests, the waning American imperium, or others. The result of the clampdown is almost always a second insurgency, bloodied by the crushing of the first and made even more desperate. Here, the quarantine will hardly mirror the reality of civil war and counterinsurgency. But even in this case, the clampdown has backfired in its own ways. With so much of the state’s effort focused on control of information and constant propaganda deployed via every possible media apparatus, unrest has expressed itself largely within the same platforms.
The death of Dr. Li Wenliang, an early whistleblower on the dangers of the virus, on February 7th shook citizens cooped up in their homes across the country. Li was one of eight doctors rounded up by police for spreading “false information” in early January, before later contracting the virus himself. His death triggered anger from netizens and a statement of regret from the Wuhan government. People are beginning to see that the state is made up of bumbling officials and bureaucrats who have no idea what to do but still put on a strong face. This fact was essentially revealed when the mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, was forced to admit on state television that his government had delayed releasing critical information about the virus after an outbreak had occurred. The very tension caused by the outbreak, combined with that induced by the state’s total mobilization, has begun to reveal to the general populace the deep fissures that lie behind the paper-thin portrait that the government paints of itself. In other words, conditions such as these have exposed the fundamental incapacities of the Chinese state to growing numbers of people who previously would have taken the government’s propaganda at face value.
Many migrant workers, including those who had stayed in their work cities for Spring Festival or were able to return prior to various lockdowns being implemented, are now stuck in a dangerous limbo. In Shenzhen, where the vast majority of the population are migrants, locals report that the number of homeless people has begun to climb. But the new people appearing on the streets are not long-term homeless, instead having the appearance of literally just being dumped there with nowhere else to go—still wearing relatively nice clothes, unfamiliar with where best to sleep in the open or where to obtain food. Various buildings in the city have seen an increase in petty theft, mostly of food delivered to the doorstep of residents who are staying home for the quarantine. Across the board, workers are losing wages as production is stalled. The best case scenarios during work stoppages are dorm-quarantines like that imposed at the Shenzhen Foxconn plant, where new returnees are confined to their quarters for a week or two, paid about a third of their normal wages and then allowed to return to the production line. Poorer firms have no such option, and the government’s attempt to offer new lines of cheap credit to smaller businesses will probably do little in the long run. In some cases, it seems like the virus will simply accelerate pre-existing trends in factory relocation, as firms like Foxconn expand production in Vietnam, India and Mexico to make up for the slowdown.
If the campaign against COVID-19 can also be read as a dry run against insurgency, it is notable that the central government only has the capacity to provide effective coordination in the Hubei epicenter and that its responses in other provinces—even wealthy and well-regarded places like Hangzhou—remain largely uncoordinated and desperate. We can take this in two ways: first, as a lesson on the weakness underlying the hard edges of state power, and second as a caution on the threat that is still posed by uncoordinated and irrational local responses when the central state machinery is overwhelmed.
These are important lessons for an era when the destruction wrought by unending accumulation has extended both upward into the global climatic system and downward into the microbiological substrata of life on Earth. Such crises will only become more common. As the secular crisis of capitalism takes on a seemingly non-economic character, new epidemics, famines, floods and other “natural” disasters will be used as a justification for the extension of state control, and the response to these crises will increasingly function as an opportunity to exercise new and untested tools for counterinsurgency. A coherent communist politics must grasp both of these facts together. At a theoretical level, this means understanding that the critique of capitalism is impoverished whenever it is severed from the hard sciences. But at the practical level, it also implies that the only possible political project today is one able to orient itself within a terrain defined by widespread ecological and microbiological disaster, and to operate in this perpetual state of crisis and atomization.
In a quarantined China, we begin to glimpse such a landscape, at least in its outlines: empty late-winter streets dusted by the slightest film of undisturbed snow, phone-lit faces peering out of windows, happenstance barricades staffed by a spare few nurses or police or volunteers or simply paid actors tasked with hoisting flags and telling you to put your mask on and go back home. The contagion is social. So, it should come as no real surprise that the only way to combat it at such a late stage is to wage a surreal sort of war on society itself. Don’t gather together, don’t cause chaos. But chaos can build in isolation, too. As the furnaces in all the foundries cool to softly crackling embers and then to snow-cold ash, the many minor desperations cannot help but leak out of that quarantine to gently cascade together into a greater chaos that might one day, like this social contagion, prove difficult to contain.
Whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang who first warned his doctor colleagues in China about the epidemic in early December, was reprimanded for “spreading rumours.” Police detained Li for “spreading false rumours” and forced him to sign a police document admitting that he had “seriously disrupted social order” and breached the law. This authoritarian response by the Chinese state was not only unfair to Dr Li – it has had serious worldwide consequences. Dr Li developed fever soon after, was diagnosed with Covid-19 at the end of January, and succumbed to the virus in early February. His death sparked outrage in China – and the Government responded by trying to censor and delete posts critical of the government and “educate” people to publicly “thank” Xi Jinping for his handling of the crisis. Wuhan residents “flatly rejected” the attempts to coach them to express gratitude and suppress criticism.
In response to the intense criticism, China set up an enquiry into the allegations that Dr Li had broken the law. Following his death, China’s anti-corruption bureau filed a report finding that Dr Li had not disrupted public order. However the report also maintained that Dr Li had not verified the information before sending it, and it was “not consistent with the actual situation at the time”. In keeping with the report’s recommendation, the deputy head of the police station and an officer had been given a demerit and a warning respectively. Chinese social media users asked, “How can you let these police at the very bottom bear the burden? They were just carrying orders. Don’t hurt them.” Then, the anti-corruption bureau issued a statement syaing it had “solemnly apologised” to Li’s family and promising to “conscientiously draw lessons and improve” its operations. But China’s people are still not satisfied, pointing out that the bureau’s report criticised “anti-establishment” voices for labeling Dr Li a “hero” and “awakener”!