Chuang, Social Contagion and other material on microbiological class war in China, Charles H Kerr Publishing Company, 2021
At the beginning of the pandemic, China was ground zero. Yet today, according to its government, China is very close to COVID-zero. How has the country at the heart of the crisis so far avoided the worst of it? The most common answer points to China’s centralised, authoritarian state, and its apparent advantages over Western states – the latter rich but hampered by democratic rule and special interest groups.
A new book published by the communist collective Chuang challenges this narrative. Social Contagion and other material on microbiological class war in China is a collection of essays, reports and interviews dealing with the emergence of the pandemic, the experience of lockdown in China, and the ramifications for the future of Chinese capitalism and its state. Although at times a scattered grab-bag of ideas and information, Social Contagion is worthwhile reading for left-wing observers of Chinese politics.
Most commentary on COVID-19 is fixated on how states have responded. Chuang argues that Marxists ought to begin their analysis of the pandemic with capitalism, and not the state or its policies.
The rule is to speak of the plague without speaking of its origins, to speak of the pandemic as a purely administrative matter conducted by those at the helm of the state. In short, the most common way that the pandemic is spoken of today is not to discuss it at all and to discuss the state in its place. (p.110)
With this in mind, the first essay – Social Contagion – contains a useful analysis of how capitalist dynamics produce pandemics in general, and COVID-19 in particular.
While pandemics have their origin in pre-capitalist urban civilisations, capitalism drives their potential to new extremes. Industrialisation, urbanisation and globalisation provide pathogens with constant potential to mutate in animals, jump from animal to human (zoonosis), and spread rapidly between humans. Historically, the centre of gravity in the world capitalist system – where the above processes are occurring most rapidly – has been the seedbed of new and devastating pandemics.
This centre was once colonial Europe – with its bovine-borne rinderpest that ravaged much of Africa – before shifting to the United States. The misnamed Spanish flu is now widely believed to have originated amongst Kansas livestock before spreading through the US meatworks industry and cramped, dirty working-class slums.
More recently it is China that has been ground zero for many viruses. The first known case of H5N1 “bird flu” was traced to Hong Kong in 1997, followed in 2002 by the original SARS coronavirus, first identified in the southern province of Guangdong. Yet contrary to popular imagination, this has nothing to do with Chinese people eating “weird” animals or having dirty habits. Rather, as Chuang points out, it follows from China’s rapid transformation into the world’s major manufacturing hub. Adam Tooze makes the same point elsewhere: “There has been much debate in economics about the ‘China shock’ – the impact on Western labor markets of globalisation and the sudden rise in imports from China in the early 2000s. SARS-CoV-2 was a ‘China shock’ with a vengeance”.
China has completely changed since the state opened its capitalist economy to foreign investment in the 1980s. Hundreds of millions of rural migrants – after millennia of labouring on private plots – moved to urban centres to become wage labourers. The urban population has leapt from 20 percent in 1970 to 60 percent today. It is an unparalleled transformation in world history. The driving force has not been an abstract progress, developmentalism or consumerism, but capital’s insatiable need to accumulate profits and expand production.
Not only has urbanisation massively increased population density and factory farming; it has also led to a complete encroachment into wilderness. Capitalism no longer has a “natural periphery”, only “a subordinated hinterland…plugged into global value chains”. (p.31) Deforestation and the trade of wild animal products increases humanity’s chances of interacting with novel pathogens, and ever-growing cities shrink the space between them. As Wallace explains, this also destroys “the kind of environmental complexity with which the forest disrupts transmission chains”. While investigations into the origins of COVID-19 are ongoing, the most likely scenario is that the virus originated in bats and was transmitted to humans by an intermediary wild animal.
Globalisation has dramatically increased the risk and speed of pathogen spread. Production chains have fanned out across countries and trade between them has deepened. China, the world’s largest exporter, is a nexus of globalisation, and Wuhan, a transport hub of China, doubly so. “Who knew that there were regular direct flights from Wuhan, China, to America?” Thomas Friedman asked in the New York Times on 30 May 30 2020.
Lastly, as in so many parts of the world, the dire state of Chinese healthcare – privatised, managerialised, and “rationalised” – has massively aggravated the lethality of the pandemic. The system has been left to decay for decades. Collapsing expenditure has been “obscured behind the splendor of glittering cities and massive factories” with “most public spending directed toward brick-and-mortar infrastructure – bridges, roads, and cheap electricity for production”. (p.25) The average citizen saves very large portions of their income for the inevitable medical bills that accumulate as they age. Hundreds of millions of migrant workers living outside their registered locality are ineligible for any kind of social benefit except through the insurance funds of their employers, who frequently refuse to pay into them. Ordinary Chinese people have had a lifetime of experience with the dilapidated, user-pays healthcare system to learn that they should do everything they can to avoid a new virus.
From this point, Chuang sets out to answer the key question: so how did China manage to suppress the virus? The mainstream perception is that China’s centralised, authoritarian – even totalitarian – state was the secret to its rapid suppression of the virus. According to this narrative, the West succumbed to the virus due to the inexpediency of democratic governance, but the all-seeing Chinese state could track the virus through CCTV and issue demands down its well-greased chains of command.
The democracy-as-obstacle argument has been made from many corners, including, unsurprisingly, the Chinese Communist Party itself. “Why has the West still failed to prevent the epidemic?”, its newspaper Global Times asked on 15 March 2020. “In the West, politics is subjected to other forces. To win votes, politicians have to please the powers that control both the public and capital.”
While attempting to argue against authoritarianism, Fabienne Peter puts a near-identical case in a 27 August 2021 piece for the New Statesman. “The Covid-19 case shows that authoritarian regimes can work for the people… A combination of top-down decision-making mechanisms and the institutional power to ruthlessly enforce those decisions led to a set of policies that have been described as ‘brutal but effective’”. A report for the Lowy Institute concluded that “The power of the communist party, once applied in full, is akin to ‘war powers’ in a democracy and has proved highly effective in containing the virus within China”.
The book stridently and convincingly challenges this talking point. Chuang compares it to the old reactionary adage that “Mussolini at least made the trains run on time”. (p.4) In both cases, the statement is not only politically suspicious, but factually untrue.
Around the world, there appears to be no useful correlation between dictatorship, democracy, and pandemic outcomes. Many Western states had little, even less, difficulty in applying “war powers” once the need became clear.
China’s political system actually undermined suppression efforts, as described in an interview between Chuang and three Wuhan residents in the book’s third chapter. Authoritarianism was better suited to suppressing news of the virus than suppressing cases of it. Censorship of social media, denial and lies from municipal government in the news, and the arrest of whistle-blower doctors and journalists – these much more exemplified the initial state response. As activist and Trotskyist Au Loong Yu explained in an interview in February, 2020: “We have a government which is so effective at cracking down on dissidence and civil society, but it is absolutely incompetent in fighting the virus, or just warning the people”.
Interviewees first heard of the virus from friends living in Hong Kong and Japan. A visit in mid-January by a Shanghai friend wearing a face mask made a deep impression. “That was the first time we really became aware of the danger. He spoke of Wuhan as if it were a war zone, whereas most people here didn’t take it seriously”. (p.68) At this time, the Wuhan government was still denying that it was SARS and that it was transmissible. Four days later, on 23 January 2020, a lockdown was finally announced at 2 o’clock in the morning. Effective from eight hours hence, all public transport was cancelled and no one was allowed to leave the city.
But aside from these measures, the lockdown was a disorganised, shambolic affair. Hundreds of thousands of residents had already left Wuhan for Chinese New Year. No preparations whatsoever had been made to bolster the healthcare system or ensure supply of provisions to people sheltering in place. There were not even arrangements for alternative transport once tens of thousands of health workers could no longer take the bus to work.
In the early days of the lockdown, public feeling ran hot in Wuhan. Social media erupted in anger at the death of whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang. The city mayor was forced to admit on television that they had delayed the release of critical information. One interviewee describes the sentiment right after the lockdown was announced:
The government’s behaviour felt like a joke, when they suddenly decided to close down the city after weeks of inaction, without providing any information about the virus or how to deal with the crisis – and worse, propagating misinformation. At that time, people were wondering whether the government was giving up on Wuhan, and our trust in the authorities was shattered, so we felt we could only rely on ourselves to get whatever we would need to survive. (p.95)
Despite this, the virus was suppressed. Chuang identifies three factors that worked very fortuitously in the government’s favour.
First was the extraordinarily opportune timing for an emergency shutdown. People had been buying large amounts of food in the lead-up to festivities, and most shops and workplaces already planned to shut or reduce operations for weeks of the holiday period. The Chinese state would have had a far bigger crisis on its hands if it had had to solve the issue of food supply and business shutdown almost any other time of year.
Secondly, the worst of the initial outbreak was centred on one locality. “The central government only had the capacity to provide effective coordination in the Hubei epicenter. Its responses in other provinces – even wealthy and well-regarded places like Hangzhou – remained largely uncoordinated and desperate.” (pp.42-3)
The last factor was the mass mobilisation of millions to bolster the COVID relief effort, and the willing compliance of the vast majority who were rightly afraid of infection. The videos – quickly suppressed – of patients dying in hospital corridors and waiting rooms were a sign of the total incapacity of the state to protect or provide. In those first few weeks of lockdown, tens of millions strictly adhered to staying home; not because the government could make them, but because the government would not help them if they got sick.
But voluntary efforts went well beyond choosing to stay home. At the outset, the government faced such a resources and personnel crisis that all residents were effectively deputised to commandeer vehicles, create roadblocks, and quarantine people at their discretion. Images of village entrances defended by “big uncles” with weapons give a sense of both the seriousness with which people took the virus, and who was left to plug the gaps in the state’s response.
In those initial weeks and months, Chinese state had little capacity to truly enforce compliance nor to provide for people’s basic needs. Xi Jinping’s call for a “people’s war” on the virus was a nationalist way of admitting that the Communist Party did not have the personnel or resources to manage a lockdown in even one city. Or as the New York Times described it, “entrusting front line epidemic prevention to a supercharged version of a neighborhood watch”.
There is a lot of information in the book about the mutual aid efforts of Wuhan citizens in those early weeks. Networks of volunteers providing face masks to citizens, as well as food, PPE and sanitary products for intensely overworked health workers, are a testament to the cooperative spirit that can take hold in a crisis. Some selfless volunteers even lost their lives to COVID-19 by carpooling health workers after public transport was cancelled.
However, as Chuang points out in the fourth essay, these volunteer efforts did not cast themselves as political or radical in any way. This was not merely tactical discretion; it reflects a deep depoliticisation across Chinese society that presents serious challenges for radicals organising illegally. Authority was not challenged, but merely supplemented. “The presumption that mutual aid is politically empowering [does] not carry if this empowerment not only fails to oppose the state but, in fact, keeps it afloat.” (p.122)
Although the writer provides a sharp critique of their deficiencies, the “mutual aid” efforts are studied in microscopic detail. This is informed by the “workers’ inquiry” tendency that the author describes as “the most fruitful left-wing current in contemporary China today”. (p.45) I am more sceptical that ultra-fine empirical studies on production processes and workers’ daily routines – or charity networks in this case – are the most illuminating area of study for Chinese radicals today. Certainly, for those reading from afar, this kind of radical sociology detracts from their broader interrogation essential to understanding the key dynamics at play in China today: of capital accumulation, state power, party rule and class struggle.
Despite the initial debacle, the virus has been very strongly suppressed – and at times eliminated – in China. This has undoubtedly increased the legitimacy of the Communist Party dictatorship; the great frustration and anger at the initial coverups have abated. Yet COVID-zero was a common feature across many Asian Pacific countries, “democratic” or not. The region’s experience of the first SARS outbreak from 2002-4 ingrained much stronger health norms such as mask wearing and some preparedness in health policy and institutions. This – not uniquely authoritarian capacities – led to China’s initial success in the first wave.
Since then, the more infectious Delta strain of the virus has changed the game in the Asia Pacific, with only Taiwan and China left standing as near-COVID-free. Yet the Chinese Communist Party’s determination to maintain COVID-zero, a worthy goal for humanity, is not pursued for its sake. The party fears political destabilisation if the virus is allowed to circulate, since Chinese citizens have maintained very high expectations that the country remain COVID-free. Strength and fragility characterise the Chinese state in equal measure.
The pandemic is shaping the future of the Chinese state. In the final essay – as long as the other three chapters combined – the writer deals with the nature of the dictatorship and its possible trajectory. Despite a very scattered approach that jumps between topics, themes and arguments, a strong defence and application of the Marxist conception of the state shines through:
Market and state are neither separate nor opposed in a capitalist society. This is a basic, irreducible component of the communist critique of the present world. (p.134)
The state is not an independent body, but integrated into the more fundamental economic relations of capitalist production. The key functions of the state are the “maintenance of baseline conditions for accumulation and management of conflicts within the ruling class”. (p.202) In liberal-democratic states, there is a division of labour between politicians in the state who “represent” the people and the capitalist class they really serve. No such illusion of separation exists in Chinese capitalism: “the Chinese state is direct administration of society by the organised capitalist class”. (p.135)
The writer describes at length how aspects of China’s social formation are drawn from its pre-capitalist past. Or, in their academic language, the Chinese ruling class “incorporates incidental institutional logics from its own indigenous genealogy of statecraft”. (pp.202-3) There is more than a grain of truth to this: Chinese capitalism was not built on virgin soil but out of the ruins of a very old civilisation.
Yet much more decisive were developments in the twentieth century. In the Mao era, capitalist accumulation began from an extremely low base. The mass of capital required to industrialise demanded its extreme concentration. The intensity of global competition – both military and economic – meant this capital had to be forcefully directed to specific ends. This compelled the ruling Communist Party to nationalise the entire economy. This case is made very convincingly in Robert K Schaeffer’s book Red Inc: Dictatorship and the Development of Capitalism in China, 1949 to the Present: “From the outset, the regime worked furiously to accumulate the capital it needed to finance rapid industrialisation and provide wealth for the ruling class…a goal shared in common with many other developmentalist dictatorships during the postwar period”.
Unfortunately, the Chuang collective argue that China in the Mao-era was a socialist developmental regime before turning to capitalism under Deng Xiaoping. While this is not a central thesis of this book, it influences its arguments. Continuities of state power between the “socialist” era and the modern one are attributed to deeper ancestral roots, “incidental institutional logics”, rather than to the fact that China was capitalist throughout. Nonetheless, Chuang’s analysis of contemporary Chinese society has many strengths since they firmly insist that it is completely run by and for capitalist interests.
The writers argue that this state is a work-in-progress and not some totalitarian Leviathan. China’s first lockdown, from January to March 2020, demonstrates that its political apparatus remains a highly decentralised one – much to the chagrin of the central authorities. The Wuhan municipal government did not act until the latter intervened decisively one month after it knew of the virus. Once the virus spread outside the province, Beijing authorities were quickly overwhelmed, with local authorities applying a patchwork of lockdown rules.
It took a whole month – from December 2019 to January 2020 – for the central authorities to step in and try to overcome the bureaucratic inertia of the municipal government. As Chuang notes, there was a far-sighted capitalist logic to this: protecting the health of the workers it exploits and preventing an even deeper crisis of political legitimacy. Yet ruling class foresight is limited and disciplined by the fundamentally short-term logic of wealth expansion. The state – even in state capitalism – cannot hold out indefinitely against the urgent drive for capital accumulation imposed on it by global competition. Within a few weeks, pressure was mounting. Beijing pushed Foxconn to rapidly implement certain health measures in order to restart production. On 23 February 2020, Xi Jinping told 170,000 party cadres it was time to reopen. The South China Morning Post reported on the meeting under the headline: “Xi Jinping rings alarm on China economy as country shifts priority to maintaining growth”.
By this time, however, the example set in Wuhan compelled local governments all across China to take very stringent measures, for fear of being held responsible for losing control of the virus. Just as the initial sluggish response of the Wuhan municipal government demonstrated the decentralised disconnect between central and local authority, so too did the overzealous response of local governments thereafter. “What worried the centre now was no longer Hubei-style malfeasance and foot-dragging but the centrifugal tendencies unleashed by overzealous local action”, Tooze writes. Once the central government tried to rein them in to restart the economy, they again faced local inertia, but of the opposite kind.
Chuang also puts in perspective another widely discussed aspect of the Chinese state: its surveillance powers. Does China have “the most expansive and sophisticated surveillance system in the world”, as the press commonly argue? The United States and China have roughly the same number of CCTV cameras per person and the former’s database for fingerprint and criminal history is far more sophisticated, streamlined and centralised. The same kind of facial recognition technology used in China is in operation in many Australian states, even before legislation has passed to allow it. Chuang compares China’s Orwellian “social credit scheme” – subject of much media commentary – with “the much more systematic and thoroughly enforced influence of one’s combined credit history and criminal record in any Western country”. (p.186)
There is no question that political repression is more severe in China than in capitalist “democracies”. This is especially true in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, where much surveillance technology is pioneered. Yet in terms of technical and organisational capacity to spy on, track and trace each member of the population, China still lags behind the advanced capitalist countries. There are clear efforts to narrow this gap and come out ahead: the grid management system – which delegates officials to collect information suburb by suburb, street by street – has expanded to hundreds of thousands of people in some cities and provinces. Yet such grand schemes require able bureaucrats and functioning chains of command. COVID-19 has shown that China does not have these.
Crises have exposed the state’s weaknesses and accelerated attempts to overcome them. Whereas the Global Financial Crisis propelled forward a greater centralisation of financial and industrial policy, the pandemic has forced the state to consider the nature of its local power and the networks that constitute it. At a moment of national crisis, the Chinese Communist Party – incompetent at the local level, overstretched at the central – depended on mass voluntary compliance and mobilisation. Whilst this exposed the government’s weaknesses, the response has bolstered it. A lack of faith in state capacity was not a rejection of state legitimacy.
The mass volunteer efforts during the lockdowns flooded previously hollow and defunct village and neighbourhood committees and gave them new life. Once the state eventually intervened, it shut volunteer groups and slotted this informal activity into its structures of command to create what Chuang calls “paraformal” relationships. Lacking any political critique of the state, these “grassroots” networks have simply knitted a tighter fabric of authority that has traditionally frayed as it approaches the ground.
On this basis, the writer predicts greater trends towards “new, seemingly democratic evolutions of local ‘autonomy’ that are nonetheless designed to bulwark the official bureaucracy”. This faux-democratic engagement will be “that of the social media platform. In other words, a tyrannical form of constant participation that offers little genuine autonomy and instead increases surveillance, snitching and self-censorship”. (p.186)
Another dimension of modern Chinese state-building touched on, but not explored by the writer, is the development of a more robust rule of law. Not only popular nationalist mobilisation, but more impersonal, regularised courts and contract law can strengthen the dictatorship’s rule by consent as it navigates through the crisis potentials of the 2020s. This concept is usefully elaborated by Elaine Hui in an interview about her new book Hegemonic Transformations:
The Chinese labour law system has produced a double hegemony, which deflects workers’ radical opposition against both the market economy and the Party-state, and thus pre-empts their rebellion… The abundance of labour laws has convinced some workers that the Party-state protects workers, and that the political regime is “autonomous” from the market economy and is willing to curb economic misdeeds. Furthermore, owing to the decentralised politics of China, local governments are delegated the task of capital accumulation, while the central government is preoccupied with maintaining political legitimacy and social harmony. Some workers perceive government corruption and its pro-business bias as being the fault of local governments and do not criticise the central government or the Party-state as a whole. This shifts the target of workers’ contempt from systemic state-capital collusion to individual officials and/or local governments.
As described in the book’s second chapter – a translated essay from the Worker Study Room blog – the effect of economic shutdown was severe for workers. During the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-9, millions of workers lost their jobs in the manufacturing hubs of southern China, many others suffered wage cuts, and class struggle declined. But the central government’s massive stimulus package led to a rapid recovery and significant labour shortages. By 2010, a strike wave was gripping China, starting in manufacturing but spreading to various regions and industries. The movement sharply declined from 2015, through a combination of harsh state repression and stronger “rule of law” mediation measures.
The impact of COVID-19 crisis was much greater than this. Under the initial lockdown, unemployment in the Pearl River Delta reached 20 percent, with 70 million jobs lost. Although recovering within months from this lowest point, the staggered return to work kept unemployment high. Governments and businesses used this to their advantage, with the former creating new legal categories to allow for “flexible employment” and “shared employment” in which workers must divide the hours and income of one job among two or more. Pay was cut for hundreds of millions of workers through this period and, despite a relatively strong recovery from the low point of the lockdown, wages growth is slower than ever.
During the GFC, the price of consumer goods actually fell. However in this crisis the cost of living has continued to rise sharply. As well, there is no boom coming at the end of COVID-19 for Chinese capitalism. While wage stagnation, inflation and labour insecurity may foster greater bitterness in the long-term, they make unlikely a strike-wave in the immediate aftermath, unlike what took place post-GFC. The essay mentions only one reported case of a strike or workers’ protest during the first half of 2020. For now, Chinese workers face worse job prospects and feel more hesitant to risk struggle. As the dead-end of arbitration courts becomes more apparent, radical workers may turn to more thoughtful and determined resistance.
Social Contagion’s order of argumentation at times feels disjointed and repetitive. Rather than developing its arguments chapter by chapter, it jumps from point to point: now the healthcare system of China, now an interview with illustrators about their experience in lockdown, now a digression on academic trends in Chinese political philosophy. This was somewhat unavoidable as a collection of essays from different contributors and periods during the pandemic. Yet especially the last essay could have argued much more concisely the conclusions it draws from previous chapters.
Lastly, while the writing does not count among the worst of modern academic writing on the left – obscure cultural references, indecipherable jargon, novel formulations for their own sake – there is definitely an overwritten style. A few claims – for example, that the “suspension of quotidian life” under lockdown acted on mass psychology like a “strike hollowed of its communal character” (p.10) – would be more compelling if they were more thoroughly argued, rather than simply dropped in as intellectual appetisers.
Social Contagion is a useful contribution to the Marxist left that may challenge preconceived notions about the pandemic and Chinese society. It provides an excellent analysis of the capitalist system behind the COVID-19 crisis, and a strong case for the traditional Marxist critique and antagonism to the state. Sometimes its central theses are obscured behind excessive detail, detours and flourishes. Yet this book is a worthwhile read for English-speaking observers of Chinese politics and ought to stimulate more debate and discussion.
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