Tag Archives: China-Bashing

Swine Flu and Why China Can’t Win in the West

In the past few days, the Chinese government has been taking a bit of a beating in the international press for its response to the Swine Flu outbreak, which has been to quarantine anyone who has recently come from Mexico — regardless of whether or not they’re showing symptoms — and treat foreigners from other countries with suspicion. Twenty Canadian students coming to Changchun to study Mandarin were recently quarantined, prompting further criticism and claims of unfair treatment. The general theme seems to be that these measures are overly aggressive.

Yet six years ago, when the SARS virus was spreading through China, the government’s response was widely criticized as not aggressive enough: it was “evasive and tardy“. Many interpreted this as par for the course from communists, and the lesson the Weekly Standard took away, for example, was: “Democratic, accountable, transparent governments do a lot better at dealing with a health crisis than a Communist one.”

Although the Chinese government is perhaps more resilient than most when it comes to ignoring international ignominy, they certainly didn’t look good, and of course, they also had their citizens to answer to.

When the swine flu stories broke, China was ready. Armed with experience from the SARS epidemic, the government acted swiftly and aggressively, issuing a notice requiring people with flu symptoms who were flying into China from affected areas to report to quarantine authorities. They issued notices on prevention, stocked drugs and researched quick and accurate tests. They even donated aid to help Mexico, despite unsubstantiated reports from that country and others claiming that the origin of the swine flu virus was China.

Of course, when the first actual case of swine flu arrived in Hong Kong (from Mexico, via Shanghai), preventative efforts and quarantines were stepped up. That’s totally understandable, given fears that this could become a ‘new SARS’ and given that people were already blaming China for this epidemic too, somehow. But acting swiftly and aggressively has also brought criticism from abroad by those claiming China is discriminating against Mexicans and foreigners generally.

As of now, it looks like the Canadians will stay quarantined — China Daily says they consented to these measures anyway — and the Mexicans will be sent home via chartered flights, so the government certainly isn’t backing down from their aggressive policies. They must be scratching their heads as to what, exactly, the West wants from them in terms of disease control, though.

Clearly, the response to SARS was slow and not nearly transparent enough. The response to swine flu couldn’t be characterized with either of those words, to be sure, and while it might be overly aggressive, it seems ridiculous that it is being so widely criticized when the alternative approach was also widely criticized in 2003.

For example, let’s take the recently-arrived Canadian Mandarin students as an example. As I see it, the government has several options, which I’ve listed below along with best and worst-case scenarios.

  1. Ignore the students, let them enter China unhindered.
    • Best case: Nothing happens.
    • Worst case: They infect Chinese people and the disease begins to spread through the Mainland.
  2. Test the students as they arrive, then let them into China.
    • Best case: Nothing happens.
    • Worst case: One or more students was a carrier too early to show symptoms or return a positive test; they infect Chinese people and the disease begins to spread through the Mainland.
  3. Quarantine the students for a week in a nice hotel.
    • Best case: Nothing happens.
    • Worst case: The government takes some flak from the international press and some Canadian students learn that TV in China is generally awful.

Given these options, the right choice seems fairly obvious. Furthermore, it’s not that far from the choices many Western countries made during the SARS outbreak. For example, the US gave customs inspectors the power to detain anyone from anywhere if they were showing symptoms, and some people were calling for much, much more. According to this article (their link is broken), the Wall Street Journal and other Western media sources were calling for closing the US border completely to people from China.

Given all this, the current outcry strikes us as a teensy bit hypocritical. One wonders how, exactly, the Chinese government could respond to disease in a way that doesn’t draw criticism from the West, although in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Regardless of what the Western media says, as of now, there are no cases of swine flu in Mainland China. Really, shouldn’t that be the indicator of how good a job the government is doing controlling the spread of disease?

UPDATE: The WSJ has a decent story about the quarantine, and Imagethief has checked in with some humor and a good point: American criticism of the policy seems a bit ridiculous given that the US “was only recently contemplating the building of a border wall specifically designed to keep Mexicans out even before the flu.”

UPDATE 2: The Peking Duck responds to this post:

Okay. I’m all for screening and acting aggressively – if you also act intelligently and rationally. And I’m always in favor of donations for worthy causes. But this is a pretty flawed argument.

The response to SARS by the CCP cannot simply be described as “evasive and tardy,“ although it was each of those things. More importantly, however, is that it was criminal, it was consciously and inexcusably irresponsible, it led to unnecessary deaths and hysteria, it was a shining example of the party holding the idiotic spectacle of its annual rubber-stamp National Party Congress above the health and well being of its citizens. It was a cover-up that so shocked the world that the government is still struggling to recover its tarnished image.

So it’s little surprise that now they would rush to show the world how zealous and diligent they are. But I see this as akin to George W. Bush ignoring documented terrorist threats that were thrust in front of his nose weeks before 19 jihadists brought America to its knees, and then using the occasion to launch an irrational and ineffective war on terror showcasing the torture of anybody rounded up by bounty hunters in Pakistan and Afghanistan and then wasting America’s resources invading a country that had nothing to do with the attack.

Not an exact parallel (the Hu administration is smarter than Bush’s) but the basic point remains: Jumping into action and “doing something” without rhyme or reason does not show aggressive leadership. To me, it’s just the opposite.

My response in the comments there:

For the record, “evasive and tardy” is a direct quote from the source I was talking about, not my own characterization of the events. Hence the quotation marks.

Nor was my point that the Chinese response to the situation has been perfect. My point was mostly that (1) their overzealousness is understandable and (2) that the worst thing I know of that’s happened as a result of it is a little bit of inconvenience for a small group of people. Honestly, so what? Yes, it’s a pain to be kept in a hotel or whatever, and I think those people should be tested and released soon, but its understandable. You said some of those people hadn’t been in Mexico recently but as I understand it (and I may be wrong), all of them had been in North America recently, and since the other two North American countries are the other two biggest sources of infection, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be quarantined, too.

I’m not saying everything they’ve done is OK, but it does bother me there’s a giant media frenzy about this, yet there are much more important things to be talking about. Every other day it seems like I’m translating some story about how the government is harassing and deleting Ai Weiwei’s noble Sichuan Earthquake Victims Project, or rural townspeople are being beaten, kidnapped, and even killed by crooked cops while their superiors stand around watching them die. Yet the story that the international media picks up is about how some Mexicans are locked in a crappy Beijing hotel, and stories about real oppression are lucky to get linked in the China Digital Times or a nod on ESWN.

Perhaps I’ve lost my perspective here, but it seems…off.

The “50 Cents Party” and Fearmongering

The “50 Cents Party” (五毛党) an informal nickname given to the “army” of web users who defend the Chinese government in blog posts and BBS forums online (The name comes from what these people are supposedly paid by the government, 50 cents per post). Western discussions of this phenomenon tend to venture into hyperbolic territory; “Orwellian” is a word frequently used to describe the propaganda endeavor. “Mind Control”, “Big Brother 2.0”, and now, potentially, the “Grim Reaper”. Yes, Datamation‘s Mike Elgan thinks the 50 Cent Party can destroy Web 2.0.

Elgan, who has taken the top-end estimate that the 50 Cents Party consists of some 300,000+ people as fact, fears that its members could use their power to destroy user-feedback based websites like Youtube and Digg:

With 300,000 people, you can see how the CCP could easily determine what makes it onto the front page of Digg, and what gets shouted down. They could use Wikipedia, YouTube and Slashdot as their most powerful tools of global propaganda. It would be trivial for China to determine Yahoo’s “Most Popular” news items (“Most E-Mailed,” “Most Viewed” and “Most Recommended”).

Over the long term, the existence of China’s 50 Cent Army [Elgan uses the term “army” even though the Chinese term is literally “Party”] erodes the value of the Web 2.0, which is based entirely on the actions of users. If half those users are working for the CCP, then the results of user actions are compromised. Nobody can trust it.

Forgetting for a moment the ludicrous assumption that the “50 Cent Party” are the only people on the internet with an agenda beyond pure truth and thus the only people capable of making user feedback-based web portals untrustworthy, Elgan is dramatically overstating the numerical power the 50 Cents Party really holds. Conservative estimates indicate there are at least 200 million internet users in China currently, making the “50 Cents Party” a whopping 0.15% of Chinese internet users. Worldwide, some 1.4 billion people use the internet, and the percentage of 50 Cents Party members plummets into true insignificance. Given that the vast majority of these “Party members” are actually volunteers and likely speak little to no English, Web 2.0 being destroyed by a massive influx of Chinese propaganda seems, at best, extremely unlikely. Elgan then continues,

Ultimately, China’s 50 Cent Army threatens free speech. And although new threats to free speech are constantly being invented – the 50 Cent Army being one of the most recent innovations – the defense of free speech is always the same: More free speech.

The 50 Cents Party doesn’t actually threaten much more than the ability to have an interesting discussion about controversial topics online in Chinese without being interrupted by crazy nationalists. China has no shortage of nationalists and no shortage of critics, a potent mixture that is quite sure to brew all kinds of propaganda on its own. Furthermore, are governments not also theoretically entitled to freedom of speech? Granted, the method of hiring people to spread party-line opinions may be a bit heavy handed, but it’s also not particularly dishonest. The existence of these people is no secret, and their arrival on Chinese BBS forums is generally greeted with groans of recognition. They don’t delete other people’s posts (there are other civil servants who do that, and that practice is significantly more difficult to defend on moral grounds), they simply express an opinion. Quite frankly, those opinions are sometimes the sort of thing Westerners could use more exposure to.

Of course, to say that the 50 Centers have a right to do what they do is not to say that anyone has to like it. Recently, some Chinese netizens set up an official website for the 50 Cents Party at 5maodang.com. It reads, quite simply, “Hello, 50 Cents [members], please give my regards to your mother.” (h/t to ESWN on the link). For the curious, that sentence has the same connotations in Chinese as it does in English.

The 50 Cents Party, like most government propaganda, are an annoyance. Are they a threat to internet users outside China, or a threat to the entire Web 2.0 concept? Almost certainly not. The idea that they could be sure sounds scary, and Elgan’s urging to “be on the lookout for the CCP’s paid posters, and oppose them at every opportunity” gives Western internet users another reason to discount any China-related opinions that don’t match with their own preconceived notions, but the fact is there’s no real evidence of danger here.