Amassive pool party was held recently in Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic, with thousands of people piling into the water without wearing masks or practising social distancing. This outraged many people on Twitter, who didn’t know that there have been no new cases of Covid-19 in Wuhan for months. For local people, who experienced the chaotic early weeks of the virus in late January and early February, the respite must seem long overdue.
Restrictions are diminishing everywhere in China. International flights are resuming, and friends who were marooned while visiting the US and Europe are flying back one by one. Plane tickets cost three to five times more than usual for an economy seat, and passengers have to comply with quarantine regulations on arrival: 14 days in a designated hotel, couples in separate rooms, no visitors allowed. They are tested almost every day, and have to put up with the not very desirable food provided – food delivery is out of the question. Afterwards, we throw a nice dinner party to celebrate their return to normal life. It’s the most we can hope for in 2020: a normal life. Other friends who are still stuck abroad (unable to get a flight or a visa) are missing a succession of delicacies: the crayfish season, the lychee season, the waxberry season, the durian season, the gordon euryale seed season, the sugar fried chestnut season, the pork mooncake season have all gone by. Will they catch the end of the mitten crab season, or will they have to wait another year?
At first the Covid situation in the West was roughly two months behind China. But, as the Wuhan pool party shows, the Chinese experience has now diverged from that of Western countries. China began lifting lockdown in April. Cinemas were among the last public spaces to reopen, after museums, theatres, even Disneyland. After much complaining by the public (one executive from a big movie company jumped out of a window and killed himself), the government finally allowed them to reopen with strict social distancing rules. The first time I used my health code (a barcode that can be downloaded on your smartphone: ‘green’ means Covid-free, ‘red’ means immediate hospitalisation, ‘yellow’ means self-quarantine at home) was when I went to see Tenet at the cinema. I’d managed to dodge using this code for a long time, even when visiting hospitals (ID required) or checking in to hotels (ID and facial scan required). At the cinema, the seats around me were taped so no one could sit down, and masks had to be worn during the whole movie, which meant no popcorn or chicken wings. I’d think twice before going again.
Before the summer rain season in Shanghai, I tried to hire someone to fix the damp patch on my ceiling, where mushrooms have been growing upside-down for years. I called several people who’d done work for me in the past, but no one had the time. It took me two weeks to find two rookies to do the job, poorly and for three times the usual cost. They said the renovation business was booming because so many small shops and restaurants closed down during the pandemic (most small businesses only have the cash flow for three months), and newcomers were now starting up businesses. I thought about the changes in the shops near where I live: all the nail and hair salons remain, a few cafés have started to sell bubble tea, and one clothes shop has become a posh cat café – before that, it was a ‘happy massage’ salon (once I saw an old gentleman coming out with two girls, one on each arm), but it got busted in the last national police campaign against organised crime.
Other shops face different challenges. I passed a shop that sells luxury watches in a Shanghai mall recently and noticed that there were no watches in the display case, only the cushions on which they used to be displayed. The sales clerk told me all the watches the shop had in stock had been sold. Swiss watchmakers haven’t fully resumed work yet, so there is a shortage. I thought people might have spent their time in quarantine contemplating the things that matter most in life. But apparently Chinese consumers had a different idea: they call it ‘revenge consumption’. In April, the Hermès flagship store at the Taikoo Hui mall in Guangzhou reopened, achieving a new sales record: 19 million RMB in one day. In August, the Louis Vuitton shop in Shanghai made 150 million RMB, almost double the amount it usually takes in a month. After a rumour spread that several luxury brands were planning to raise their prices, millennials started to queue outside the shops. Middle-class Chinese usually go abroad on holiday and to do their luxury shopping, but this year, thanks to Covid-19, the estimated $300 billion spent on overseas consumption is staying at home. This is good news for the government: boosting domestic demand is central to its latest economic strategy. Luxury goods are only part of it. Seven million couriers deliver food in China every day. An algorithm sets fixed delivery times, encouraging the couriers to ignore traffic laws to get to their customers in time, and avoid suffering a penalty. If they make the journey on time the algorithm closes in, making the time allowance shorter and shorter. We enjoy food from our favourite restaurants, fresh and hot, for a tiny delivery fee (5-8 RMB), and never think of the human costs behind it.
Since China tamed the virus and normal life resumed, the CCP has bestowed its highest honours on key scientists and doctors. Political commentators, like middle-class consumers, are in high spirits. The ‘keyboard warriors’ or ‘keyboard heroes’ active on various social media platforms and forums argue that, since our government takes care of almost everything, there’s no reason to bother with a democratic electoral system that could produce Trump or Brexit.
Their latest idea is known as ruguan xue, ‘the barbarians at the gate’. This narrative compares the current Sino-US confrontation with the overthrow of the Ming dynasty that ended in Manchu rule. During Ming rule the country grew immensely rich, thanks to the trade carried by Manila galleons, and the life enjoyed by the aristocracy reached new heights of sophistication. Ming civilisation, so the narrative goes, was the centre of the world, economically and culturally. Meanwhile, the Jianzhou branch of the Jurchens (later known as the Manchus) were leading an unenviable life on the far side of the Great Wall, surviving by catching fish and digging ginseng. No matter how much they hunkered down, the Jurchens were targeted by the hegemon, enduring repeated military repression (sometimes involving mass slaughter) and economic exploitation. The only way they could save themselves was to conquer the Ming Empire and create a new imperial order.
In the ruguan xue allegory, the United States resembles the Ming dynasty of the early 17th century: it’s the paramount power and dictates the rules, but is rotting within. China takes the place of the barbarians: hard-working, paying due tribute, but never respected, constantly smeared and demonised. ‘Catching fish’ refers to risky, low prestige work, while ‘digging ginseng’ is high-tech work that brings greater profit but also exploitation. Russia is the equivalent of the Jianzhou Jurchens’ ally (and one-time foe), Mongolia, which was also under constant attack from the Ming. Japan and South Korea map onto the Ming’s stooge Joseon dynasty in Korea. Covid-19 is the great disruptor, the peasant rebel leader Li Zicheng, who conquered Beijing and overthrew Ming rule, but lost to the Manchu in the end. In short, US hegemony has to be challenged and the barbarians have to enter the gate if we are to enjoy peaceful progress.
It’s a shame this grand scheme is only an internet fantasy. So far ruguan xue warriors haven’t developed any concrete battle plans. As experts could tell them, China’s huge military capabilities are largely defensive. Besides, as Marxist historians used to say, ‘the barbarian conquerors, by an eternal law of history, were themselves conquered by the superior civilisation of their subjects.’ Manchus acculturated to the Han bureaucratic culture they inherited, and ruled for almost three hundred years (the not-so-well-acculturated Mongolians managed only 67 years). Are China’s ‘humble barbarians’ willing to be absorbed by America’s ‘superior civilisation’ once they enter the gate?
Ruguan xue’s weak allegory raises more questions than originally intended. Shan Gao Xian, who initiated the discussion on Zhihu, a question-and-answer website, was banned from the forum, and the topic isn’t mentioned there any more. No need to inflame the already tense stand-off between the US and China. Before ruguan xue grabbed our attention, gongye dang (‘the technology party’ or ‘the industrial party’) was trending. We have a popular saying: America is run by lawyers; China is run by engineers. Engineers are pragmatic. Their key text is the science fiction writer Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, in which, as in most of his books, survival is everything, and scientists make tough choices, with no room for sentiment or useless humanists. When a New Yorker journalist asked Liu about the state of human rights in China, he replied: ‘That’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of healthcare, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.’ And: ‘Here’s the truth: if you were to become the president of China tomorrow, you would find that you had no other choice than to do exactly as [Xi] has done.’
An unwavering belief in perpetual technological progress, a lack of complacency and a readiness to face the next catastrophe (whether alien invasion, climate doomsday or a new world war) are the key sentiments of gongye dang. From the engineer’s point of view, the Belt and Road Initiative isn’t an example of new colonialism or a debt trap or a propaganda programme or a sinister scheme to take over the world, but simply normal barbarian behaviour when confronted with an ageing Western market whose buying power is dwindling. The Chinese industries that used to supply this market now have excess capacity. The new markets in Africa and elsewhere have plenty of youthful consumers but not enough buying power yet, and need to be built up. Infrastructure investment (roads, ports) is always the first step towards economic connectivity: when people in Pakistan, Nigeria or Indonesia start to get better off, they will buy Chinese-made goods – smartphones, household items, clothes and so on. If the push to use RMB as the regional settlement currency goes smoothly, it could undermine the dollar’s monopoly and avoid the financial ‘chokeholds’ the US has used so effectively.
At the other end of the political spectrum, young liberals quickly descend into a kind of accelerationism. The trade war with America, deteriorating relationships with many other countries, increasing nationalism, the South China Sea dispute, the Hong Kong National Security Law, and, especially, the global pandemic have shown everyone in China just how volatile history can be. President Xi has gained another nickname: ‘chief accelerationist’. For liberal optimists, things need to get worse before they can get better and acceleration looks like the quickest route to reconstruction. They invoke a Chinese proverb that says pain is easier to endure than an itch. But this optimism isn’t shared by most people, who feel only exhaustion and helplessness. When the US and China began closing consulates and recalling diplomats, some netizens cried: ‘Accelerate, accelerate! Sever diplomatic relations!’ Several books about the Hong Kong National Security Law were given a one-star rating by users of Douban (a major site where people review books, movies and music) as a way of expressing dissent, causing it to shut down its book-rating function for more than a month. The accounts of the ‘troublemakers’ were disabled, and people began to notice that quite a few books no longer allowed any ratings or comments, among them, all of President Xi’s books.
For the older generation of Chinese liberals, who saw the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 protests and other social movements and upheavals, accelerationism takes a different form. They see the West through rose-tinted glasses. Many think Trump is the ultimate rival of the CCP and the saviour of the Chinese people, because unlike the ‘wuss’ leftie Democrats, he doesn’t mind using tactics from the Chinese playbook (banning this and that) and is willing to go lower – the only way, in their minds, to outmanoeuvre the CCP. It doesn’t matter to them if democratic values are damaged along the way. In a zero-sum game, you just need to win. Chinese liberal Trumpists celebrate whenever he targets a big Chinese enterprise – Huawei or TikTok or WeChat – just as they approve ‘herd immunity’ as ‘the ultimate humanity’. Like Trump, they think the cure can’t be worse than the disease. When Xi calls for people not to waste food (the pandemic and flooding have led to a shortage of grain), they immediately spread alarm by warning that the great famine is coming. Lin Yao, a PhD student at Yale, saw his discussion of Chinese liberal Trumpism cut from an article for Business Insider because the editors thought it would be too far-fetched for Western readers. Radical Chinese nationalists may also be happy to see Trump re-elected. They have nicknamed him ‘the nation-builder’, because he has improved Chinese understanding of American hypocrisy and rallied people round the flag.
Claims of double standards, Western hypocrisy and whataboutism are gaining ground online. We used to be told that whataboutism wasn’t a valid argument: another person’s wrongdoing doesn’t justify yours. But now it’s more like, what about whataboutism? The argument races to the bottom, or somewhere close to the bottom. We can always claim that we prefer our competent dictator to the wannabe incompetent dictator in the US. China’s promotion of order, stability, meritocracy, competence, efficiency and convenience looks increasingly superior to the Western package. Elections, free markets, the judicial system, medical care and education are contested on all fronts and have begun to lose their sheen. China has a peculiar sense of history, a cycle in which empires and dynasties divide and fall before reuniting. The wind has been blowing from the West, now it’s time for the wind from the East.
Confucians have been quiet in recent discussions. Perhaps ruguan xue doesn’t fit with their high-minded notion of civilisation in which Han culture is the orthodoxy and far superior to all barbarians. Gongye dang doesn’t seem to have much moral purchase either. Neither ruguan xue nor gongye dang represent serious ideological debate with the West, since their proponents consider the terms to have been set by the West. Confucians used to aspire to universalism, preaching benevolence, integrity, loyalty, natural order and the concept of zhongyong – moderation, the middle way, no extremes. Unfortunately, in an era of social media and keyboard politics, the middle ground is the least attractive; you have to be QAnon-crazy to get an audience. But Confucianism has survived for thousands of years and survived the iconoclastic May Fourth Movement and the Cultural Revolution. Maybe it’s time to dust off some of its ideas, ‘benign monarchy’ perhaps, or ‘enlightened despotism’? Since representative democracy is no longer on the table, can we hope for a monarch who claims to have the best interests of his subjects at heart? If we’re lucky?