When I learned that the 34-year-old ophthalmologist and whistleblower Li Wenliang had died, I felt a surge of grief and then a deep sense of dread. These emotions surprised me. I did not know Dr. Li, though I had followed his story with great interest, as he faced official censure for warning his colleagues, and then the public, about a virulent strain of pneumonia, which seemed poised to have a significant mortality rate. Even after CCP authorities admitted that a novel Coronavirus was indeed sickening and killing people, there were still attempts to silence Li, as he and seven others were arrested and ordered to stop “spreading rumors.” Li became a hero to a terrified, quarantined populace; someone who dared to stand up to the state and tell the truth. When the virus he’d tried to stop killed him, it was more than tragic because it was chillingly consistent with the logics of both the state and its resisters. The battle against the state-abetted Coronavirus had a martyr.
Since the emergence of the Coronavirus, many have made comparisons to the SARS outbreak that began in 2002. But tales of heroic doctors, narratives of truth-concealing politicians, and racialized tropes of “Chinese diseases” also made me think of the San Francisco Plague outbreak in 1900. There too a recently identified pathogen with a terrifying history served as a vector for racist fears of the “other,” critiques of official corruption, and the valorization of resistance.
At the turn of the 20th century, China (or at least Chinese people) were, as now, increasingly imagined as a threat — to American jobs, to an American way of life, and after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, even to American lives. Something reminiscent of the 21st century trade war also raged — the 1882 Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the U.S, was met with boycotts of U.S. goods in Guangzhou, Shanghai and beyond. In that context, an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague spread across Southern China. By 1894, it had killed more than 100,000 people in Guangzhou alone. Five years later, when a Chinese-American man died of the plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown, few questioned the claim that the disease had come via ships from the West.
The Chinatown outbreak, which killed 119 (out of 121 cases) between 1900 and 1904, also had a heroic doctor, who spoke truth to power. Dr. Joseph Kinyoun, a rising star who had worked with Louis Pasteur and received his M.D. at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, diagnosed and confirmed the presence of plague in San Francisco. Like Dr. Li Wenliang, Dr. Kinyoun wanted to sound the alarm, but city officials suppressed the news and lifted the brief quarantine they had instituted—a quarantine that had only applied to Asian residents. California governor Henry Gage argued publically that the plague was a hoax and that Kinyoun had injected plague bacillus into Chinese corpses. While officials denied the existence of the outbreak, they stopped Chinese people from entering California and strong armed Chinatown residents, searching their homes and businesses and confiscating and/or burning anything “dirty.” When the Chinese Six Companies sued the city over its treatment of its Chinese residents, they too suggested that Dr. Kinyoun was a quack looking to stir up trouble. Even after Californian authorities admitted there was indeed an outbreak of the Bubonic plague in San Francisco, they continued to cast Kinyoun as a troublemaker and eventually exiled him from the state.
It feels like justice, like vindication, to venerate the truth-tellers. It feels like a triumph of right over wrong to commemorate the heroism of Drs. Li and Kinyoun, whom the powerful sought to silence and scapegoat in the service of dark aims. Yet scapegoats and martyrs are but opposite manifestations of the same impulse—an urge to locate a terror, a despair, a sense of dread, which all arise from our awareness that we are often powerless against that interlocking web of social, political, and biological pathogens (forces that appear natural but may be human-made and that are difficult to fathom, let alone theorize). If we can simplify these seemingly insurmountable exploitations of biopower, render them stories about the power of truth over lies, we have someone to blame and someone to grieve.
But as much as I share the feeling of horror at the all-too-logical death of Li Wenliang, I am troubled by the way its narrativization fits all too nicely with neoliberal logics of truth, choice, and the autonomy of the individual. On February 7, the New York Times ran an opinion piece titled “Chairman Mao and the Coronavirus: China turns away from seeking truth from facts.” The author, David Leonhardt, referenced the 1978 “truth criterion” debate, which is often seen as a watershed marking the triumph of Deng Xiaoping era “empiricism” and openness to truth over the ideological lies and obedience that supposedly characterized the Mao Years. “It’s no coincidence,” continued Leonhardt, “that China since 1978 has enjoyed one of the most phenomenal economic booms on record.” The Times columnist apparently “thought of this history when reading the heart-rending story of Li Wenliang,” and this led him to muse that “Under China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, the government has moved away from Deng’s empirical approach and back toward Mao’s rigid ideology. The coronavirus crisis is an example of the damage that approach can do.” While Leonhardt expresses sympathy for the individual, Li Wenliang, his concluding remark suggests that his primary concern is not for the Chinese: “And unlike a half-century ago, China is a powerful, globally integrated country, which means that its tragedies can more easily become global tragedies.”
Leonhardt’s celebration of an earlier, more “pragmatic,” yet no less neoliberal China — especially when juxtaposed with his fear of the globalized, powerful China of today — highlights that crucial contradiction, which the Coronavirus crisis has further rendered visible. That is, the tension between a neoliberal insistence on individual autonomy and the free circulation of capital, on the one hand, and collective good and global welfare, on the other. Reports from inside and outside of China hold the CCP and the PRC state responsible for a dangerous, even diabolical silencing of truth, which may have contributed to the death of a man who tried to stop them. More quietly, and with much performative handwringing over the government’s surveillance capacities, those same media celebrate that same Party-state for its ability to very pragmatically impose quarantines over millions of people. A global media discourse that forefronts oppositions between honest and corrupt, scapegoat and martyr, truth and lies, seems almost purposely crafted to obscure another truth — that the globalizing imperatives and climate devastation of neoliberal capitalism spur a race for limited resources that pits “us” against “the other.” The alienation, the dread, and the horror of that spectacle can easily be shifted from commercial markets to environments of viral contagion. The dehumanization and disempowerment that these processes produce help to explain my, and our, overpowering visceral and affective responses to the briefly empowered, if ultimately doomed, and thus very human, figure of the martyr.