Chinese Capitalism and COVID-19

Yan ZheCovid-19

As the origin point of COVID-19, Wuhan became the stage of many tragedies. In a country where all college students are still required to take a course based on a textbook called Introduction to the Basic Principles of Marxism, the government’s response has exposed the hypocrisy of the phrase often used to describe the system as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

The people’s understanding of COVID-19 as a human-made disaster began with the death of Dr. Li Wenliang on February 7. When Dr. Li first learned of the virus on December 30, a month before authorities officially acknowledged its existence, he immediately informed his family and medical colleagues. Because of this, he was called into a police station on January 3 and forced to sign a letter of admonition admitting to “behavior [that] severely disrupts social order.” His subsequent death after contracting the virus from one of his patients fueled widespread grief and antigovernment outrage.

It is perhaps understandable that the local government would regard the disclosure of such information as socially disruptive: the sudden revelation of the virus would lead to great panic; society would become “unstable,” and local production would be interrupted. That was exactly what had happened. As the situation in Wuhan worsened, the government imposed a lockdown to suppress the spread of the virus. Judging by the larger infection statistics of other countries, this proved an effective measure.

China’s relatively efficient crisis management might be attributed to its authoritarian government. But Britain and the U.S. have also shown “the extraordinary measures capitalist states can take to deal with a crisis.” The virus has shown that as long as a state depends on capital accumulation for its own existence, it may not greatly matter whether the government is “despotic, constitutional, or republican” in form.1 In a capitalist state, “whenever the conditions of capital accumulation are threatened, we should expect the … state to act for the sake of securing those conditions, however irrational or superstitious its strategy may be.”2 From this perspective, China’s “efficient” response to the virus was a means “not just to preserve the political legitimacy of the Communist Party” in the eyes of the people, “but to restart industrial production” as soon as possible.

China’s response has highlighted the injustice and contradictions of capitalism. To host more infected patients and isolate them from the public, the Chinese state built thirteen makeshift hospitals and two hospitals dedicated to coronavirus patients in Wuhan. The latter two, Leishenshan and Huoshenshan Hospitals, were completed in only ten days. To accomplish this feat, forty thousand construction workers and engineers were marshalled from across the country and made to work day and night without interruption.

Beneath the surface appearance of efficiency, there was chaos, exploitation, and suffering. In one official Chinese news report, a worker named Xiao Jian said he had not slept in forty hours. Some construction workers became infected since they were provided with only one thin, poor-quality mask per day. In a subsequently deleted report that appeared in South Reviews, many of the temporary workers’ wages were heavily garnished by a coyote agency collecting high brokerage fees. After the two hospitals were completed, the quarantine that was suddenly imposed prevented many of the temporary workers by from returning home, trapping them in the city. With the whole place in lockdown and commodity prices skyrocketing, many had no choice but to go out repeatedly in search of temporary jobs simply to survive. The only jobs available were related to corpse removal or backup hospital work.

Meanwhile, medical workers were dying of infection and exhaustion. Hospitals were at full capacity. The state constantly compared COVID-19 to a wartime enemy. Female nurses were ordered to shave their heads for safety reasons, sometimes in tears. Medical workers limited their meals or water consumption, and even used adult diapers to extend the lifespan of protective suits. With a shortage of PPE, hospitals appealed to the masses for help. People all around the country donated a huge amount of medical supplies to Wuhan through the Red Cross. However, when doctors went to the Red Cross warehouse to pick up medical supplies, which were withheld. On one occasion captured on camera, healthcare workers could be seen waiting in front of the Red Cross warehouse while a man lifted a box of 3M masks into the trunk of a black government vehicle. On another occasion, Red Cross officials were revealed to have sent sixteen thousand masks to private clinics that were not treating coronavirus patients; meanwhile a coronavirus hospital had only received three thousand masks.

The situation in Wuhan during COVID-19 reminds us of what Marx depicted two centuries ago in Capital Volume 1. The Red Cross Society of China is officially an international NGO. At least one official report, though, implies that it effectively functions as a state organ (中央和国家机关单位) run by Party members. Thus in the episode involving the redirection of medical supplies, the state might be described, in Marx’s words, as having “carried out…an act of usurpation without [the need for] any legal formality.”3 Are we not seeing a vivid example of capitalist “primitive accumulation” wherein “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part”?4 The use of force is all more heartbreaking when the state justifies its acts in the name of the people or nation. The title “martyr” cannot wash away the fact that workers have been underpaid, disposed of, and robbed by the capitalists and the state. 

Through a combination of the lockdown policy and a higher rate of worker exploitation, China did manage to suppress the infection effectively. As the situation in other countries began to worsen, news about foreign countries’ responses flooded the Chinese internet. Most of the coverage focused on how Italy, Britain, the United States, and even Korea were responding poorly to the virus. The tragedy of Dr. Li seemed to be forgotten. Byung-Chul Han was right to predict that “China will show off the superiority of its system with even more pride.” The state not only boasted about its own successful model but also magnified the inefficiency of other countries.

As Robert Kurz writes, all modern ideologies involve “the aggressive defense of the respective capitalist existence of social strata engaged in a violent competition.”5 We see this in the surge of Chinese nationalism since the beginning of the most recent round of the ongoing trade war. Today’s nationalist discourse repeats certain narratives dating from Mao’s era, which described the U.S. as an imperialist country. According to this obsolete narrative, an oppressive U.S. is what hinders Chinese people from achieving happiness, and China is a nation that supposedly hews to a principle of socialist egalitarianism (as well as to a newly rediscovered principle of Confucian benevolence). One reads in the news about the high price of test kits as evidence that capitalists in the U.S. only care about money, not about people’s lives. While the image of American capitalists suggests that they are brutal, the image of American proletarians suggests that they are stupid. Whether in China or in the U.S., we see people seeking solace in nationalism when they cannot find another way to justify their suffering.

Nationalism as an ideology hinders Chinese solidarity with U.S. workers but also mutes social criticism of Chinese society. In April 2020, the author Fang Fang published a book called Wuhan Diary. In it are collected different stories about her neighbors, friends, and relatives and their sufferings during the lockdown. After Fang Fang’s book appeared in English, Chinese nationalists questioned the supposedly abnormal efficiency of the publisher as well as the author’s opportunistic intentions in writing this book.

As a Chinese national studying at UC Berkeley, I too am easily suspected of being unpatriotic. When I and other international students returned to China starting in March, when COVID-19 started breaking out in Western countries, we were greeted with the common saying, “while you were reluctant to construct your hometown/motherland, you are extremely active in poisoning it.” There is a critical truth in this saying that speaks to the class privilege of students whose families can afford to pay for education overseas. And there is an ideological deflection that would characterize me as the bearer of both a biological virus and an intellectual virus.

Thiti Bhattacharya warns that “After the COVID-19 crisis, capitalism will try to get back to business as usual. … Our job is not to let the system forget.” In the case of China, it has been business-as-usual during the crisis. In a way, nothing much has changed. The neutralization of Fang Fang, which occurred in a later phase of the virus, seems to illustrate the message left by Dr. Li in the first phase that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” The crisis will eventually end. The state will hope that people forget their sufferings and take glory in their sacrifice. We will still need criticism to remind people of what took place in the city of Wuhan.

About the Author

Yan Zhe

Yan Zhe is a Chinese international student at UC Berkeley. Her intended majors are in Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies.

  1. Karl Marx, Capital, vol.1, translated by Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 919. []
  2. William Clare Roberts, “What Was Primitive Accumulation? Reconstructing The Origin of a Critical Concept,” European Journal of Political Theory (2017): 13. []
  3. Marx, Capital, 883. []
  4. Marx, Capital, 874. []
  5. Robert Kurtz, “On the Current Global Economic Crisis: Questions And Answers,” in Marxism and the Critique Of Value, edited by Neil Larsen et al. (Chicago: MCM’ Publishing, 2014), 348. []

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