On 25 January 2020, the full moon signalled that the year of the pig was giving way to the year of the rat in what should have been a jovial occasion of national celebration. The rat is the first of the twelve animals on the nation’s astrological cycle and stargazers predicted 2020 to be a year of ‘new beginnings’. But for the 60 million people across China holed up in their apartments, the only thing novel about 2020 is the coronavirus spreading across both the country and, now, overseas.
As the Chinese Communist Party goes into crisis mode, building two new hospitals from the ground up and sending Premier Li Keqiang to the epicentre of the epidemic, many are wondering why yet another virulent epidemic has emerged in the world’s second largest economy and just how it has spread so fast.
Timing has been a major factor. Confucianism is a family-centric creed, but after Deng Xiaoping introduced his reform agenda dubbed ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in the 1980s, centuries of tradition were compromised as people migrated far and wide in search of work. One might have imagined Spring Festival celebrations to have declined in this era of transience but they have only grown more important, affording dispersed families a rare opportunity to get together. According to the state-owned China Daily, 450 million domestic trips were anticipated in the chunyun or ‘spring movement’ period of early 2020, the largest annual movement of people on Earth. These sons and daughters were travelling just as the coronavirus went viral, many of them passing through or heading to the city of Wuhan.
Wuhan sees a lot of traffic due to its location at the heart of modern China. The tri-city of Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang straddles the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers. The latter, reported Marco Polo, ‘carried more wealth and merchandise than all the rivers of Christendom’, and this 11th century description rings true today. As many as one in fifteen of the world’s human population depends in some way on the Yangtze for their livelihoods and 400 million people live directly on its banks (more than the entire population of the United States). Some estimates have the Yangtze River nurturing 20 per cent of China’s GDP. When the southern Yuehan and northern Beihan railway lines met in the city of Wuhan in 1936, the city’s status as central transport hub was cemented. Nowadays, Wuhan has two high-speed stations and an international airport while several key expressways converge in the city. It’s an affluent place by Chinese standards and many of its residents can afford holidays abroad.
But, as we’re seeing, China’s massive investment in its transport infrastructure over the past decade, combined with poor hygiene standards and poor public hospitals, have created the perfect environment for the spread of the coronavirus. The virus is alleged to have evolved in a wet market in Wuhan that advertised meats such as koala, swan, camel, snake and scorpion. Anyone who has travelled in the country will be familiar with such markets where animals are caged alive in close proximity until purchased, when they are butchered on the spot to make sure meat is as ‘fresh’ as possible.
Although Wuhan, and the province of Hubei it governs, has seen the worst of the coronavirus, more than 28,000 cases and 600 deaths have been reported from across China, numbers that have already exceeded the SARS epidemic of 2003. On 2 February, the Philippines confirmed the first overseas death, a tourist from Wuhan who was just 43 years old.
Authorities have enacted draconian measures, locking down 16 cities, effectively imposing house arrest on a population akin to Spain’s. But many more people across a country larger than Europe are holed up in their homes under voluntary quarantine, fearing what President Xi Jinping has labelled ‘a demon’ virus. Isolation, as well as uncertainty, is cultivating a climate of fear, particularly for those who have children or elderly in-laws.
Mr Li, a photographer at home in Yiyang, Hunan province, says his town has two confirmed cases: ‘My wife will give birth in two months and will have to go into hospital. I’m not religious so all I can do is hope.’ He shows me the plastic disposable gloves people are wearing just to go outside. ‘But I haven’t got a face mask which is a real hassle as they won’t let you in the supermarket without one.’
Young mother Yan Jing, who is spending New Year with her husband’s family in the southeastern port city of Shantou tells me: ‘The city was partially locked down, then the government changed its mind, but it has still scared us and we don’t go out unless we have to. I don’t know when we can return home to work in Huizhou [a Pearl River Delta city].’ She then asks: ‘Can you courier an N95 face mask from Hong Kong to me please? There are none on sale in Shantou. It’s terrifying.’
Panic-stricken Hong Kong, from where I write these words, has seen a run on surgical face masks, with street-length queues outside pharmacies selling the last of these scarce commodities, despite scientific advice that masks only offer superficial protection from the coronavirus. A strike is planned by medical workers if the border with China is not completely closed. The Special Administrative Region has recorded 15 cases to date.
Just north of the now partially-closed Hong Kong border, Chen Lan and her family are stranded. They drove from Beijing via Wuhan to be with friends in Shenzhen for the holiday period. The coronavirus ended all that. ‘Everyone refused to go out for Spring Festival so all four of us have holed up in a hotel room. The building is empty and there’s virtually no-one outside. My son had a fever two nights ago and I almost died with worry. There’s nothing to do but sit and wait,’ she says of the cabin fever currently affecting millions.
As China struggles to contain the virus outbreak, censors are also struggling to contain a growing chorus of criticism from an angry public. Food hygiene standards and abysmal hospitals are the principle complaint of even the most politically apathetic Chinese, but allegations of cover-ups and foot-dragging has plunged social media app WeChat into a maelstrom of dissent.
Young Wang in Beijing believes this is a virus with Chinese characteristics: ‘In late December, eight doctors expressed concerns publicly over a SARS-like virus and were silenced by the authorities. This is a symptom of our toxic system where so-called public servants do not serve the people but merely the powers-that-be and the official narrative.’
Teacher Cui, also based in Beijing, agrees that a lack of transparency and a top-down power structure has exacerbated the problem. ‘Officials are not chosen by the people but appointed by the powerful, so their responsibility is only to their superiors, not to the common man. Wuhan’s mayor, and his staff, missed the best chance of containment. When eight medical professionals posted information online they were treated as troublemakers and forced to admit fault. But they didn’t make a mistake, the system is at fault.’
Mr Li in Hunan puts it most bluntly saying: ‘Everyone on WeChat is criticising the government right now. Hopefully this virus will illustrate how corrupt our leaders are.’
In a story evolving virus-like day by day, the number-crunchers are yet to calculate the full magnitude of the outbreak on the economy of a country already hurting due to an ongoing trade war with the US and unrest in Hong Kong. But to illustrate what a dormant China implies, consider industrial Wuhan at the centre of this crisis, which in normal times boasts an economy the size of Israel’s. With its wheels locked, the economy will stagnate.
This is the worst-case scenario for a party that derives its mandate to rule as the Confucian protector of Han civilisation, one ever able to keep the furnaces burning. Big infrastructure projects come easy to a one-party state, but if it can’t protect children or the elderly from disease, the government’s legitimacy will be in question. Already, censorship is in overdrive.
Imperial Chinese dynasties were often toppled by natural disasters which were traditionally perceived as symbolic of Heaven’s contempt. The demise of the Yuan dynasty that ruled when Marco Polo visited was certainly accelerated by the Black Death. For many hiding in their houses in the first weeks of the new year, such symbolism, particularly as the Communist Party celebrates its centenary in 2020, will be writ large. The character shu (for rat) is meant to represent ‘a fresh start’ but it will be better associated with the two-character word shuyi meaning ‘plague’ and a gnawing sense that Chinese history is, indeed, cyclical.
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