by Bodhi Bronson
We are now over a month into the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak and we still largely have no idea what is happening. The numbers coming out of China are probably not correct, either because the authorities there are willfully covering up the scale of the problem, or simply because they are overwhelmed by the number of cases and are unable to assess the full extent of it. More importantly, it seems that we don’t know just what this illness is—whether it was created by nature, having jumped from bats or snakes or pangolins to humans, or whether it was created by scientists, either Chinese, American, or other. Finally, we don’t know how bad it’s going to get.
From the beginning, China seemed quick to promote the idea that the virus jumped species due to the trade in exotic animals in Chinese wet markets, as well as the unsanitary conditions therein. This is the same causal chain posited for the SARS outbreak, which raises the question of why the Chinese did nothing to curb these dangerous practices in their country. Considering the Chinese aversion to losing face in any way, shape or form, one wonders why they were so quick to point to an explanation that causes them considerable embarrassment, essentially painting mainland Chinese as uncivilized peasants lacking dietary and hygienic discernment.
And make no mistake, that characterization of mainland Chinese is largely true. While it may not apply to the newly educated nouveau riche in the big cities, who drink Starbucks lattes and eat Western style cuisine at trendy restaurants, it does apply to the masses of poor, working and even middle-class Chinese who make up the majority population of every Chinese city and the surrounding countryside.
Americans are familiar with the phenomenon of the ghetto lottery winner who hits the jackpot, only to blow it all in a short amount of time and wind up right back where he started. A related phenomenon is the ghetto dweller who gets money, perhaps from less-than-legal means, and buys a Mercedes Benz and some expensive jewelry, while still living in the same awful environment. They call it “ghetto fabulous”.
The Chinese term for nouveau riche is 土豪, tǔháo, which comes from an older word meaning “land baron.” Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have become instantly wealthy in recent decades, as the Chinese government has acquired land “owned” (in reality all land in China is owned by the government and is only leased to citizens) by peasants, who are then compensated very handsomely for the loss. For such peasants, it’s like winning the lottery. Chairman Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping famously declared that “To get rich is glorious”, and so the Chinese policy has been to create a class of millionaires almost overnight with money created by China’s central bank. Glory for China!
The tuhao class is the butt of many jokes, because they are crass and uneducated, obnoxious and ostentatious. But I suspect that most of the resentment against them by other Chinese merely reflects envy on the part of those unlucky enough to still be poor in the new, rich China, which might be the most materialistic, spiritually impoverished nation on earth. In reality, the tuhao is the perfect symbol for this new China, which began with Deng in the 1970s and continues today. The entire economy, the entire nation, is ghetto fabulous, is tuhao. It has massive wealth, but no mass education—only mass indoctrination. It has luxury cars galore, but no clean cities. It has modern technology, but it doesn’t understand how it works. I’m not referring to smart phones and computers, which Chinese experts understand very well and which even most peasants have integrated into their lives now. I’m referring to indoor plumbing and central heating and a basic understanding of sanitation and hygiene. In its effort to modernize as quickly as possible and catch up to the West, China forsook educating its people on the basics of civilization and opted instead to cover over its primitivism with a thin veneer of tech and finance. It is in many ways an example of what happens when you try to transform the third world into the first world by merely giving it lots and lots of money.
The coronavirus either came out of China’s filth, or it came out of a lab—neither option is very good for China. If it’s the latter, it’s likely that no one will ever admit to it. There is a great deal of speculation online in the West about the Wuhan BSL-4 lab, and about arrests of various individuals in America and Canada related to it. Certainly there is a plausible case to be made that the coronavirus is some sort of bioweapon or vaccine-gone-wrong that leaked out. However, Chinese social media is rife with speculation (not being censored by the state) that the virus was created by the Americans and was released when a group of American military personnel were in Wuhan for some sort of training exercise only weeks before the outbreak. What this means is that, regardless of the truth of the matter, if either side declares that the virus was engineered in a lab, each side is poised and ready to blame the other.
“You made this in that Wuhan lab and it leaked out, you have a bioweapons program even though you say you don’t!”
“No, you made this and released it on purpose to kill our people and devastate our economy because you can’t stand to see us succeed!”
So I suspect that both sides will stick to the pangolin-in-the-wet-market story, unless they really want to escalate the conflict between them.
Even if the virus came from the Wuhan lab, which I think is the most likely explanation at this point (with the caveat that there are way too many unknowns to reach any definitive conclusion yet), China is going to have to face the fact that this veneer of civilization which they hastily pasted over their country has cracked, and something of the dirty reality underneath has shown through. China is more than capable of putting on a good show for the rest of the world, as they did during the 2008 Olympics. What they need to prove, first and foremost to themselves, is that they can build a civilization with a solid foundation—not one built on sand.
I’m very aware that for every criticism of China, the Chinese and/or their Sinophile defenders can play but-what-about and tu quoque and point to the sins and shortcomings of America and the West. We’re decadent and obese, we’re warmongers, we consume resources all out of proportion to our size, and we’re the headquarters of the globohomo cultural conspiracy that is polluting the hearts and minds of people all across the planet. None of that has anything to do with why China doesn’t have clean public bathrooms; why many Chinese people compulsively spit in public places, including indoors; why they allow their children to piss and shit wherever and whenever they please; or why they’re far too comfortable with the presence of rats and cockroaches in their daily life, including in their kitchens and restaurants.
At the risk of mansplaining or whitesplaining or civilizationsplaining, let me say that what China needs more than anything else at this point in its “5,000 year” history is an epic Great Leap Forward 2.0. You industrialized—good on you. You got 5G and a surveillance state that is the envy of spooks everywhere—bravo! But the great masses of your people don’t understand basic hygiene and sanitation. And now you have a viral epidemic which transmits through body fluids, and millions of your people are still spitting and pissing in public, blowing snot rockets instead of using tissue, and not washing their hands because they think that illness comes from “wind.” Maybe “patriotic education” ought to have a little more Pasteur and a little less Marx.
The Chinese approach to governance has always preferred to keep the masses of people stupid. This goes back at least as far as the Dao De Jing, which famously counsels leaders to keep the people full in their bellies and empty in their heads. The Chinese are hardly alone in this approach, and contemporary Western leadership seems to fully share this philosophy of “feed them shit and keep them in the dark.” In times like this, the shortcomings of this approach, and the fragility of the society it engenders, become apparent.