Crisis in Discourse

by Emily Rust

Illustration by Sylvia Atwood

published February 14, 2020

In recent years, China has moved up the value chain. No longer the world’s cheap factory, it has passed on the manufacturing torch to countries like India, Malaysia, and Vietnam. However, some things are still made in China—which the Western media will not let the country forget.

Of course, some of this recent scapegoating has focused on the wrong target. The novel coronavirus itself was not made in China. Believed to have come from an animal, an outbreak of the virus could have, in theory, emerged in any place where humans do not take necessary precautions when in contact with wildlife. The epidemic, on the other hand, was made in China. This is not because of the Chinese people, or Chinese culinary practices, or Chinese culture—the epidemic has reached the point it has today because of the poor governance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In China, the CCP has the incentive and means to downplay and hide information about the epidemic—primarily online but also in hospital reports. This kind of censorship was initially used by local officials to prevent the central government from catching wind of the problem. However, coverups remained after the management of the epidemic was assumed by central authorities. No longer about saving face within the Chinese government, a portion of such a lack of transparency is about saving face on the international stage. This is more than just an authoritarian impulse to control the flow of information. Among the biggest fears of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his counterparts is weakness—the perception that they are no longer in control. As the virus spreads, Xi Jinping’s governance tactics become discredited in the overseas eyes of both his allies and enemies.

The last time an outbreak like this happened in China was in 2003, when severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) infected over 8,000 people and killed 774. Since then, the media environment has undergone an extraordinary transformation. This, in turn, has changed the way we confront disease and crisis. Relative to 2003, the public has a different role in the way current events are conceptualized today. No longer having to seek out the news, we receive it in a deluge of live updates on social media. Even in China, where social media is limited by the Great Firewall, the ubiquity of news has made ordinary people engage with current events in a new way, on platforms like Weibo and WeChat. For the CCP, the optics of the recent coronavirus epidemic are higher stakes than they were during SARS. This visibility has made the party feel particularly vulnerable, which has resulted with even more draconian control. The Chinese government’s insistence on suppressing discourse about the coronavirus prevents its control measures from functioning at full force.

The discourse surrounding the coronavirus has been suppressed in some places and amplified in others. This swelling virality has only encouraged more fear. In China, due to the fears of the government, the epidemic has been exacerbated by a lack of discourse. In the US, irrational panic has prevented people from respecting the actuality and gravity of the issue. Across the world, this sense of alarm has prompted bigoted scapegoating to come out of the woodwork both online and in people’s actions.

Discourse shapes the way that we conceive of an issue. The flow of constant information that we are subject to has strengthened our feeling that we must always have something to say, for fear of falling behind. As this Indy editor, however, has learned over the last few weeks, being levelheaded is not the same thing as being aloof. There is no reason to create a sense of crisis when that energy could be spent on individuals and families who are actually impacted by the virus. Empathy and solidarity rarely sound like hysteria.




Last week, New York Times reporter Chris Buckley tweeted a photo of a red banner in Wuhan that reads “科学防,不恐慌,莫让谣言帮倒忙.” (Scientific prevention, don’t panic, don’t let rumors do more harm than help.) Political banners like this are common in China, usually displaying dogmatic slogans that encourage leading a “文明” (civilized) life, celebrating the harmony of the supposedly united Chinese people, and imbuing oneself with “Xi Jinping thought”.

‘No panicking’ and ‘no rumormongering’ are solid standards to live by no matter where you reside. However, the banners shed light on a deplorable aspect of the Chinese government’s initial handling of the outbreak. While US discourse of the epidemic has involved excessive hysteria, far too much time has passed before any kind of discourse was allowed in China. The virus was first detected in December, but the full-scale fight against the epidemic only began in the third week of January. The government’s more than month-long delay in acknowledging and tackling the virus results from a problem that has plagued party politics throughout the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This problem is the disconnect between the central party leadership based in Beijing and the local officials who oversee provinces, townships, and villages. When it comes to sensitive issues, these local officials err towards secrecy for fear of being dismissed or otherwise penalized, a dynamic that goes hand in hand with the punishment of whistleblowers. Just as the outbreak and spread of SARS in 2003 was concealed by local officials for months, Wuhan authorities made great efforts to downplay the virus in December. In fact, Mayor of Wuhan Zhou Xianwang shifted some of the blame to Beijing in an interview with China Central Television in late January. Wearing a face mask, Mayor Zhou explained that his delay in releasing sensitive information was a result of rules that required approval from Beijing. Though implicit, this critique of Xi Jinping’s top-down leadership style was shockingly blunt.

A headline by the satirical publication the Onion captured the dark undertone of Buckley’s banner well: “Xi Jinping Vows To Combat Coronavirus By Making It Illegal To Mention Within A Week.” A fabricated quote in the article reads, “We are directing massive resources towards eradicating the slightest hint of any person speaking about the virus, and I promise you that any conversation or literature pertaining to the virus will be completely eliminated during the next seven days.” The Onion article is dismally accurate, aside from its absolute blame on Xi Jinping. In reality, it was the Wuhan authorities who stood for most of the “elimination of conversation and literature” during the outbreak’s early stages, as they channeled resources into the containment of discourse rather than the containment of disease.

Although Xi Jinping’s policies have worsened the central-local disconnect, this is far from the first time it has brought harm to the Chinese people. An infamous example is the economic campaign known as the Great Leap Forward, in which local officials felt pressured by their superiors’ unrealistic production goals to falsify grain yields. Largely due to this disconnect, the Great Leap Forward resulted in the starvation of millions of people in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In December, local officials silenced doctors and other whistleblowers for warning about what they feared could develop into a SARS-like epidemic. According to the New York Times, officials told doctors not to “use the words viral pneumonia” in their reports. One doctor was forced by police to sign a statement that he had engaged in “illegal behavior” for raising red flags. Following an announcement in late January that the disease did indeed spread from human to human, it was revealed that fourteen medical workers had been infected by a single patient. The city government’s calculated denial of the virus exposed Wuhan’s 11 million people to a danger that doctors had perceived early on.

The red banners are in place not just to instill calmness in the traumatized Wuhan population, but to serve as a warning to people who are tempted to share information condemning the government. In fact, one of the whistleblowers who was reprimanded by police has now contracted the virus, a tangible and devastating consequence of the central-local disconnect. As reported by the Shanghai-based, online publication Sixth Tone, this doctor, named Li Wenliang, had “been working on the front lines of the epidemic” until he began to develop a cough and fever. He and his parents were hospitalized in early January. In a text message to Chris Buckley, Doctor Li wrote, “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”

Now that the handling of the epidemic has been extended to Beijing, it is central authorities who are in charge of stifling discourse of the virus. Last Friday, Hu Xijing, editor of the CCP-controlled publication the Global Times, wrote an article criticizing the government for its lack of transparency and delay in confronting the epidemic. Within a few hours, the article was removed from the Global Times website.




Although some might experience a degree of déjà vu based on the similarities between the handling of SARS and the coronavirus, the epidemics differ in the way they were conceived of and made viral by the media. When SARS dotted headlines across the world in 2003, editors at news publications possessed more concentrated power over what stories would be published in the following day’s paper. Armed with their phones and followers, reporters nowadays make more of those decisions on the spot, minute by minute. In the decentralized media environment of our current moment, readers of the news become a part of the conversation in a far more publicized way. Our newsfeeds provide us with access to other people’s opinions, and the ability to share our own, to an extent that at times does more harm than good.

Less and less do we see a distinction between the coverage of news and reactions to it. To stay informed, users of Twitter, Facebook, and even Instagram no longer have to actively pursue the news. Besides, the line between reporter and reader has become blurred. Although reporters associated with corporate media continue to hold significant sway over news coverage, Twitter makes it possible for anyone with a phone to share information and input on viral stories. Due to social media, people feel a growing compulsion to engage with what is going on in the world through short and punchy commentary. While this kind of news-sharing allows for a communal experience of significant events, tweets and memes often veer in the direction of making light of news that deserves sober respect.

There are things to be said for the benefits of social media on the dissemination of news. For one, the power that small groups of editors once had over reporting has been somewhat dismantled. Moreover, tweets from events like protests can inform and impact what is written after the fact. TV has less of a monopoly on live coverage, as stories that unfold in the moment become more accessible through avenues like Facebook Live. The public serves as witness, reporter, and consumer all at once, giving people not associated with mainstream media influence over what becomes news.

On the flip side, our new relationship with news is not all beneficial, evident in the sense of crisis that has developed around the coronavirus outside of China. It is natural that the idea of contagion makes people alarmed. Nevertheless, social media platforms and their constant live updates have made the virus feel unrealistically proximate to people in the US. When most of us learn of the latest news through the reactions of others—when memes occupy the same space as reporting—representations of an event encroach on its reality.

After a coronavirus scare at USC, students posted memes about the disease online. As a friend from my high school in Beijing told me, “It’s funny to them cause it’s not concerning them right now. It’s even more frustrating when I hear people say ‘I’m scared I wanna go home’ when I can’t go home.” Although the coronavirus is serious and deserves our attention, its coverage has developed an unnecessary atmosphere of fear in places where people are not at risk. The increasingly intertwined relationship between news and social media invites people to insert themselves into current events. This epidemic is overwhelmingly affecting Chinese people and has so far only claimed Chinese lives. That fact should certainly bring about strong emotions—though hopefully not panic of contracting the virus oneself. Even if people infected with the virus have made their way to this country, there is for the time being no reason for anyone in Rhode Island to believe they are at risk.

News is news for a reason. It is far better to discuss it than to leave it ignored. But the way we engage with news matters; not all attention is good attention. At the time of writing, the virus has taken more than 560 lives. Over 28,000 people are confirmed sick worldwide, but more infections are likely unreported. Needless to say, each of those individuals has a web of friends and family mourning their deaths or invested in their recovery. Health personnel from across China have mobilized, left their loved ones, and travelled to Wuhan to attend to the sick—fully aware that their government is likely withholding vital information from them. Tens of millions of people living in Hubei province in China are living in quarantine. Not allowed out of the cities they were in at the time of lockdown, these people are trapped in their own homes. The elderly especially suffer from this sudden imposed isolation. And at the backdrop of all of this is the Spring Festival, China’s happiest and most carefree time of year. The outbreak has brought a fierce halt to public and family celebrations of the holiday throughout the country.

In stark contrast, US discourse surrounding the virus has been ridden with a disappointing level of ignorance and hysteria. Disease is not romantic. Lockdowns are not exciting. Extremes should not be fetishized. The hysteria surrounding the virus in the media has perpetuated the damage caused by the disease.   

An effective way of countering these alarmist narratives is to humanize those experiencing the coronavirus on the ground. For example, Sixth Tone has published several articles over the last few weeks that have shed light on the experiences of people affected by the virus in Wuhan and China. James Palmer, senior editor at Foreign Policy has authored a number of thoughtful pieces on the outbreak. For CNN, Nectar Gan wrote an article about how the coronavirus outbreak has made the people of Wuhan outcasts in their own country. Elisabeth Rosenthal, who covered the SARS epidemic in 2003, wrote a levelheaded New York Times op-ed entitled “How to Avoid the Coronavirus? Wash Your Hands.” To shield yourself from the mostly China-based epidemic that mainly endangers the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, staying calm and following Rosenthal’s titular advice goes a long way.




Along with a suppressed discourse in China and hysteria in the US, the coronavirus outbreak has also spurred a worldwide normalization of sinophobia. In mid-January, when the international spotlight became directed at the outbreak, publications placed an emphasis on a Wuhan wet market claimed to be the origin of the virus. Getting most of its demand from practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, the country’s wildlife trade became the focus of discussions that swiftly broadened into a scapegoating of Chinese people and their cultural practices.

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market consisted of stalls selling meat, poultry, fish, as well as more ‘exotic’ animals like rats, snakes, wolves, and bats. Although the role of the market in the outbreak has since come into question, non-Chinese people unquestioningly revived the far-too-common narrative about Asians and their supposedly ‘savage’ eating habits. And while experts have not unanimously agreed on what animal was the source of the virus, a viral video of a woman eating a bat convinced thousands of social media users that Chinese bat-eating was the source of the outbreak.

Chinese people were quick to point out that bats are not a delicacy in Wuhan, nor was the video even taken in China. As Twitter user @rzhong notes,“People are really just telling anyone Asian to stop eating bats like I have a bat granola bar in my purse next to my keys or something.” Wang Mengyun is a travel show host and the video is from her trip to the island country Palau a few years ago. In his article “Don’t Blame Bat Soup for the Wuhan Virus,” James Palmer points out the hypocrisy of this finger-pointing: “Sampling the bat was simply an addition to the well-trodden cannon of adventurism and enthusiasm for unusual foods that numerous American chefs and travel hosts have shown in the past.”

Xenophobic attitudes are based in ignorance and fear. As the coronavirus has made its way to other parts of the world, Chinese people have increasingly been scapegoated for its spread. As Palmer explains in the article, it is not uncommon for images and videos of Chinese people eating insects, snakes, or mice to circulate online. People’s sinophobic comments became all the more acute in the context of the coronavirus, when this scrutiny of perceived culinary practices is “mixed with another old racist idea: that the ‘dirty’ Chinese are carriers of disease.”

Across the world, Chinese and Asian residents and tourists have reported an increase in sinophobic outbursts. For example, customers from the Chinese mainland have been refused entry at restaurants in places like Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Two weeks ago, in the Indonesian tourist city Bukittinggi, hundreds of people marched outside a hotel where Chinese people were staying, protesting against their presence in Indonesia. Similarly, on January 29, protesters organized a rally in Seoul calling for a ban on the entry of Chinese people into South Korea. The same day, a man in Australia died of a heart attack after bystanders reportedly refused to give him CPR in fear of getting sick.

On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency. At the same time, the international body stated that measures interfering with trade and transportation have the potential to impede efforts to address the epidemic. In the week that followed, several countries—including the US, Singapore, and Australia—imposed restrictions and bans on noncitizens who have recently visited China. This disregard for expert advice sheds further light on the ignorance inherent in all the Trump administration’s travel bans. Although WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared on February 4 that such measures could “have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit,” the US stands its ground.




Although the ramifications of the epidemic—and the discourses surrounding it—can be felt on a global scale, it is the people of Wuhan and Hubei province who get the short end of the stick. Even within China, they are shunned—their birthplace has become synonymous with disease. To their government, their health and safety was worth less than saving face. The blame placed on the people of Wuhan and Hubei has resulted in the scapegoating of complete strangers located far away from them. The sensitive nature of all things political in China makes it difficult for medical personnel working at Hubei’s overcrowded hospitals to do their jobs. This epidemic has and will continue to render the province’s poor people and migrant workers most vulnerable. In some tragic cases, the government’s handling of the virus has proved fatal: in a town near Wuhan, a disabled teenager was found dead after his father was placed in quarantine and no one came to take care of him.

These kinds of outbreaks will persist if the structure and governance of the CCP does not change. Perhaps this one will serve as a rude awakening for Xi Jinping that even microscopic particles have the power to mobilize against the thickest hubris. After the outbreak reaches its peak and the epidemic is stopped, one can only hope that the party will tackle the structural central-local disconnect that they failed to get rid of after SARS.

Besides his photo of the banner, some of Chris Buckley’s other tweets emphasize the “unearthly quiet” of Wuhan. As online discourse about the virus amplifies day by day, the people of Wuhan continue to hold their breath. The only sound to be heard in the deserted streets is the barking of dogs, at times in chorus. In Buckley’s speculations about these dogs—"perhaps stressed at being locked inside, perhaps their humans aren’t around”—we are given a small glimpse into the grim silence of the usually bustling city. Soon, the internet will move onto new fixations. By then, maybe Wuhan’s soundtrack will feature something more than stillness, as the city comes to figure out a new normal.


EMILY RUST B’22 prefers this political slogan: 武汉加油,中国加油