I used to read the business section of the China Daily as if it were a window into the unconscious mind of PRC entrepreneurs. Since the coronavirus outbreak, however, their reporting seems to offer a sneak peek into something more: maybe we are seeing a new turn of the screw, a post-COVID-19 economy. From the beginning of this crisis, we have been told how robots, drones, and AI are being deployed to contain the spread of the virus. While not all that surprising, this trend has become strikingly blunt. It is not overly shocking to read things like “Big data plays major role in epidemic control,”but the boosting of big-tech solutions in the China Daily has become more pervasive and overwhelming in the face of the epidemic: “Blockchain technology improves coronavirus response,” “Robots help enforce health safety in Shenzhen,” “Internet TV sector buoyant as online demand surges,” etc. The most revealing statement appeared on China Daily’s online site on February 20, 2020 under the title “Virus could hasten digital currency launch.“
Until just now mobile payments in mainland China––one of the recently dubbed “four new inventions”—were on course to render cash obsolete. I had grown used to being teased because I felt uncomfortable with the accelerated transition to moneyless payment methods. Last year, for instance, 82 percent of Chinese citizens used cashless payment methods (72 percent in rural areas). Even so, the last few weeks have seen an astounding further development: Alipay or WeChat Pay—the most popular third-party mobile and online payment methods in mainland China—are now being presented as the safest payment method—safest, that is, to bodily health. Fear of COVID-19 has led some to wonder whether it could be spread through bank notes (something that has not been proven). In this way, money itself has become contagious. In response, the government took a two-pronged approach. First, the central government sent 4 billion in newly minted renminbi to Wuhan, both symbolically and somewhat literally “laundering” money to prevent an actual or imaginary viral contagion. Second, and more significantly, the government is working on a potential early launch of the much-awaited state-backed digital currency. China’s digital currency might be precisely what a twenty-first-century digital economy demands, but the fact that such an important step—a long-term solution—could take place under the current circumstances of chaos and anxiety might be precisely what Agamben meant when he warned of the dangers during this state of exception.
Beyond reports on the hasty construction of a make-shift hospital and endless controversies over the numbers of reported cases in the PRC, the reality of China’s political-economic reality has received little international media attention. This is astonishing given the global economic context. China’s emergency measures are already being studied by the WHO (among others) and will become a hot topic for historians and policy-makers ex post facto. That said, emerging reporting is already pinpointing some socio-political trends. The biggest players—tech companies and the CCP are amongst them—are taking actions directly out of the shock doctrine playbook: they are stepping on the throttle and exploiting moments of crisis to advance agendas that could otherwise face pushback. The justification relies on common-sense claims about how, naturally, contagion must be fought and the lives of those who are infected need to be preserved, and thus any strategy or technology that serves those goals should be on the table. Or, in other words, desperate times call for desperate measures. Responses to Agamben’s piece criticized his downplaying of the actual viral threat. But even if we agree with the state that this emergency might call for exceptional measures, we must still take seriously the possibility that government and big tech can and do take advantage of the state of exception in order to roll out new technologies, with associated policies, whose potential impact will be difficult to roll back after the epidemic is controlled. The implications for the global economy and individual liberty have not even been considered, and that makes articles like “China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom are playing an active part in mining data insights,” or “Police remind you to scan the QR codes and register your information for quick passage” extremely puzzling. They might offer comfort to the terrified but their implications will far outlast this epidemic.
“Europe is not ready for the coronavirus,” my friend says. She’s from China’s mainland, but has permanent residency in Hong Kong.
“Neither was China. No one was, for that matter,” I respond. This line bothers me because it highlights a new and ongoing trend in which state rhetoric and popular discourse use COVID-19 as a tool to foster nationalist unity among Chinese citizens. I had just been reading about this new narrative and was disturbed to see that it had already found its way into my daily conversations. Among other problems, the narrative is too symmetrical. On one side, we have a racialized “yellow peril” discourse, which accuses China of generating and spreading a devastating corona virus and on the other side, we have a patriotic discourse about how the Chinese nation united with the Communist Party state to contain that virus. The latter is used to demonstrate the superiority of the Chinese people and their state, by suggesting that their successful containment effort cannot be replicated elsewhere. Until very, very recently China’s coronavirus situation looked quite dire, goes the official narrative, but now (so soon!) China is back on track. Meanwhile ignorant, unprepared masses in Europe and elsewhere, with their weak governments, appear to be no match the threat that China has vanquished—unless they follow the Chinese model. This narrative celebrates the Chinese state and externalizes the virus as a foreign problem. The propaganda machine is no longer in defense mode. In fact, it seems to have become positively aggressive. In a matter of days, China began using the outbreak to bolster its image as the “responsible stakeholder,” who sacrificed to produce the knowledge that will save the world.
The Chinese propaganda effort is understandable, to a certain degree. During the outbreak the Chinese government faced a massive amount of criticism, some but not all of it deserved. We should not understate how difficult it is to respond to a crisis in a timely way. The Chinese government did not have the headstart that Europe and the US have had. But China’s successes under those circumstances notwithstanding, the Chinese model is but one model.
I have seen many models recently. When Ieft Hong Kong for Northern Italy and then Barcelona, the coronavirus appears to have followed me. As the number of cases in Europe multiplies, I am back in Hong Kong, undergoing my own personal, semi-isolation regime.
“Things get even weirder,” I say to my friend in Hong Kong. “I feel relatively safe here.” Since I came back from Europe, I have a (probably exaggerated) sense of security, which feels strange, given that I know mine feelings run counter to those of most people in Hong Kong right now.
“Why don’t they wear masks in Europe?” my friend asks, “How silly is that?” It seems a non sequitur, but I gamely think it over. In light of Asian health experts claims to the contrary, what are we to make of European and US health authorities arguing against mask-wearing for healthy people?
“I think many factors are at play there. Peer pressure, masculinity issues… When we were getting ready to go to the airport in Barcelona, last week, my partner asked me if we should put our masks on before getting into the taxi or once at the airport. My guess was that, with our masks on, no taxi drivers would have taken us. The opposite of what would happen in Hong Kong,” I added. “Once we were in our taxi, of course, the driver started talking about the virus, as pretty much everyone else was doing last week in Barcelona. We then learned he believed that the virus was manmade. None of my efforts to refute such conspiracy theories worked. He had decided to not wear a mask, he confided, because, otherwise, he would have no clients.”
A few weeks ago, before I left for Europe, I had had a conversation with a friend from Inner-Mongolia who lives in Tokyo. She said she was very worried about her grandparents: “The elderly, the ones suffering the worst consequences of the virus, don’t want to wear masks,” she told me, noting she’d had had to fight hard to convince them. Now, when I talk to friends back in Europe, I see a similar resistance.
Last week, on a plane, I was wearing a mask. I overheard two men in their late twenties talking about taking advantage of the fact that there were empty seats at the back of the cabin. “To be honest,” one of them said, “I want to move. I am not really looking forward to sitting next to those people.” He gestured toward a couple of Asian-looking passengers. When his friend responded, with a smile, that they “looked prepared,” a reference to their masks, the first man concluded dismissively: “Bah!, alarmists!” The brief conversation broke off there, but it captured the social response to the virus I had come across in Europe.
In a few sentences these men blamed Asians for being scary, potential vectors of disease and then, without missing a beat, accused those same people of being “alarmists” for doing what they have been told is the responsible thing to do. I could not but wonder what they might be thinking about me, a Caucasian-looking man wearing a mask. I saw one of them look at me a couple of times, as if trying to guess my motivations, which made me think about how I would react if I hadn’t been living abroad, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, for so many years. Funnily enough, I think their reaction mirrored mine when, a few weeks ago on my way to Europe, I came across an Italian family—a mother and her two daughters— who appeared to be fleeing Hong Kong, all geared up with what looked like WWII anti-gas masks and lab glasses.
These days, no matter where I travel, the China Daily’s steady diet of stories about how the new wave of techno-capitalism will save the day feels too convenient to me. We do not yet know if inequality at the global level is a root cause of the COVID 19 outbreak. There’s little denying, though, that the dynamics Aminda Smith highlighted were at play. The vaunted achievements of neoliberal global capital, specifically time-space compression, helped spread the virus, and maybe more importantly, helped spread the panic and the alarm. It is also clear that—in Europe or Asia—globalized capital will exploit all of its capacities in an effort to halt this dangerous virus, but I suspect that this will happen at our expense, as global capital protects itself by leaping forward. The big players in AI, blockchain, robotics, fintech, face-recognition software or drone industries––the usual suspects of the so-called fourth industrial revolution—are using Wuhan/mainland China as ground zero to upgrade their system to its next level: the perfectly-digital economy over which they will reign supreme.