Ai Weiwei is a Chinese contemporary artist who splits his time between Cambridge, U.K., and Berlin. This text was written in Chinese and translated to English by Perry Link.
I was living in Beijing in 2003 when SARS struck, and I can remember how that felt. It descended as an entirely new thing – a new concept, an unwelcome intruder, an ominous threat. It galvanized a new mindset in society and led the government to impose unprecedented defences. Some of those defences have been used again to combat the coronavirus, but to citizens, the two campaigns have felt different. SARS felt like a battle; coronavirus feels like a war.
With SARS, the government’s first response was to seal off all reports and to deny that a problem existed. The truth only emerged when an elderly military doctor, who had seen the government’s Minister of Public Health lie broadly to the Chinese people on television, wrote a letter to Chinese media that was leaked to the foreign press.
The government then drew on techniques used in the military and in prisons to suppress the outbreak. Ordinary folk, lacking better medical advice, resorted to herbal medicines, antibiotics, or hormones, which were either useless or harmful, and when they were harmful, they added to the death toll.
Sadly, the same thing has happened again. When the coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan last November, doctors who noticed it began passing along the news in text messages – only to be summoned by police, reprimanded and ordered to remain silent.
It took until Jan. 11 for Wuhan’s health commission to report the city’s first known death from this new kind of coronavirus, along with dozens of cases. At the same time, the commission insisted that the virus could not spread from person to person, which we now know to be false. Its purported origin was from a live animal market, but not long after that announcement, alternative theories began to circulate, given oxygen by a lack of transparency on the part of a Chinese government that has a poor record around trust. And just this Wednesday, a U.S. intelligence report declared that Beijing has been intentionally under-reporting the total numbers of cases and deaths there.
With the virus racing and information suppressed, the government eventually decided to abruptly seal off Wuhan and place its more than 11 million citizens under mandatory quarantine. There were strict rules and police enforced them. People could not enter or exit quarantine zones at will, and some people were not allowed to leave home. Some doors were even welded shut. Between mid-January and mid-March, quarantine and detention tactics were deployed across China. The country was in shock.
By late March, the number of new cases in China had slowed. But in the meantime, the virus had spread to more than a hundred other countries, where the total numbers of confirmed cases and deaths have now exceeded China’s. And where once there was only criticism for China’s unique station and particular response, other countries – democratic or otherwise – are now panicking through their own preparations and plans.
What the world needs now – in China, and in the world at large – is sober reflection on what it means to cherish life.
What, exactly, is a virus? About one-thousandth the size of a bacterium, a virus cannot survive or reproduce on its own. To live, it must enter, attach to and parasitize a living cell. Viruses have been doing this for tens of thousands of years – entering living bodies and dying when the host body either kills them with its immune system, or when the body dies itself. This happens because the immune system’s battle with viruses also kills normal cells, and if too much of that happens, the host body can perish, taking the virus with it. In this fight to the death, both sides can lose.
It’s a useful metaphor when considering how various countries have responded to their given outbreaks. The Chinese government is authoritarian, but that gives it huge advantages in combating the virus; it can set aside considerations of human rights and individual freedom, to say nothing of “cherishing life.” Virus control in democratic countries such as Italy, Britain and the United States, where the freedom of individuals is respected, is clearly more difficult and complex.
But there, too, cherishing life can feel impossible. The U.S. does not have a public medical system or universal guarantees of health. Its hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies are private, and they operate on the principle of capitalism in the service of individual patients. And the full terror of such a health-care system has been put on display with this latest outbreak, exposing the fantasy of “the land of equal opportunity” for what it really is: a place where those with means are taken care of, while the rest are left to fend for themselves.
The only conclusion a reasonable person can derive from the semi-coherent ramblings of U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when they answer questions about the coronavirus, is that neither man is focused on cherishing life, but only on how well bureaucratic capitalism is operating. One’s only source of cheer in observing the tiny coronavirus is to note its spirit of egalitarianism: You are a religious leader? A famous actor or high official? A politician who either does or does not think I am causing a crisis? Fine – I treat you all the same.
What are we learning from the disaster? Can we learn something about, as former Chinese Communist Party general secretary Hu Jintao once declared, a “community of shared destiny”? If such a phrase were to come from today’s Chinese leaders, who pursue crony capitalism while speaking of Marxism, it could seem like self-satire. In Karl Marx’s original vision, communism is the model of humanity’s ultimate ideals: a community of equals that accords with the basic characteristics of human life. China’s constitution and the charter of the Chinese Communist Party, however, both cite communism as the glorious endpoint of political “struggle.” Also by contrast, the Western capitalist world prioritizes commercial competition while taking democracy and human rights as its ethical base (even though, it must be said, that base has been regularly defiled and now is only a weak answer to the challenges of authoritarianism). With such divergent expressions of ideals in the world, how can we talk about a “community of shared destiny”?
The actual fate of the world today is a freakish amalgam of different systems. For Western capitalism to continue expanding, it has had no choice but to partner with exploitative, authoritarian states such as China, to profit in ways that the West cannot at home. By doing so, despite the seemingly deep ideological differences, Western capitalism has allowed Chinese communism into its structure, virus-like, and the two now share a fate. Indeed, just as how former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s guideline to “let some of the people get rich first” became the only fate that mattered to many Chinese people from the 1990s on, this viral hybrid system that resulted has continued to grow. It now threatens civilization’s immune system – just wait and see.
The insertion of an external element into an organism can demonstrate life’s uniformity, but also its fragility. The same key fits into all locks, be they black or white, Christian or Muslim, or a fearless atheist. Can humanity respond? Whether or not wisdom, science, medical expertise and the protection of various gods will be enough to see fragile humanity through this moment – we do not clearly know. At a minimum, a question will remain: If a similar disaster comes in five years, or two, or less, what will happen? Will humanity’s spiritual values and material wealth be able to hold up?
In the interim, we should be thinking about the true value of our fragile little bundle of life, and how it can live in harmony with nature at large. If we can do this, then no sort of political opinion, religion, war, or any other of the various concerns of mankind should be able to block our quest for survival. This is a question of philosophy that goes well beyond medical science or the arguments of politicians. A philosophy is realized only in the details of the joys and pains of human experience.
After death, a corpse cools and interment may follow, regardless of what has died – virus, human being, all of humanity, or all of life. Let’s hope that humanity begins understanding that there are no differences in the end.
When information is hard to access and people are prevented from drawing informed conclusions, hatred, bias, prejudice and violence come rolling out. A shared understanding of life is nearly impossible. The most fundamental humanist understanding is that life and death co-exist, and the attitudes necessary to reach such an understanding are tolerance, empathy, recognition of suffering and willingness to help others. This is so because other people are a part of oneself; protection of oneself calls for protection of human society. To see this point is to identify with the value of common existence, which is the reliable basis for all of our pleasures and happiness. Otherwise we live with nothing but empty illusions that a whiff of breeze can blow away.
To stand in awe of life itself is the best way to see the connections between an individual body and the rest of life. We despise war, we despise the barriers that separate people and we despise the political schemes that divide people into irreconcilable groups. The compensation that the coronavirus affords us is that we can view the world with a bit more wisdom.
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