The spread of COVID-19 has caused a public health catastrophe and an economic downturn on a global scale. To date, the death toll exceeds 50,000 people. As the coronavirus allegedly originated in an exotic wildlife market in Wuhan, some blame Chinese culture for the crisis. In February, for example, a New York Times opinion piece attributed the initial outbreak to “fundamentally Chinese cultural practices.” On March 18, U.S. Senator John Cornyn claimed that the virus spread because of a “culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”
Yet, a multitude of empirical evidence demonstrates why we should reject the claim that Chinese culture is responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. First, according to experts, the sale and consumption of exotic wildlife are not unique to Chinese eating practices. The vast majority of people in China, just like in other countries, do not eat exotic meats. Unhygienic food markets also do not reflect inherent values in Chinese culture.
The claim is also problematic. It carries negative consequences for ethnic Chinese living abroad. In the United States, labeling the disease as “Chinese” has alienated Chinese-Americans from their local communities. It has fueled anti-Chinese xenophobia and violence.
On the contrary, Chinese culture, in fact, resulted in a swifter response to the crisis. Here are three aspects of mainstream Chinese culture that increased the effectiveness of China’s response to COVID-19:
1 A tradition of mass mobilization
The mass mobilization of citizens has been an integral part of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) political culture since its inception in 1949. Composed of five million members in 1950 and over 90 million today, the Chinese Communist Party has fostered a strong sense of national purpose and discipline with mass mobilization tactics, such as the collectivization movement, the Hundred Flowers Campaign, and the Great Leap Forward during the fifties and early sixties. These experiences allowed China to deliver a whole-of-society response to the outbreak of COVID-19 and implement drastic measures to combat the outbreak. A report by the World Health Organization released in February remarked that “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen,” which included a lockdown of hundreds of millions of people, “has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic.”
2 Experience dealing with major disasters
Natural disasters, such as floods, droughts, and earthquakes, have plagued Chinese society throughout its history and even contributed to the downfall of imperial dynasties. Droughts exacerbated the widespread famine that occurred during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), resulting in upwards of 45 million deaths. In 2008, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan Province, injuring hundreds of thousands of people. One might argue that due to these experiences, disaster readiness and response are elevated in China’s public consciousness, causing people to take coronavirus prevention measures more seriously.
By limiting contact with infected individuals and surfaces with coronavirus deposits, the widespread use of cashless payment methods and e-commerce platforms in China reduced the risk of coronavirus transmission. Tencent Holdings’s WeChat Pay, for example, boasts over 900 million monthly active users. Additionally, the popularity of meal delivery services also allowed for a more seamless transition to life during lockdown than might have otherwise occurred and decreased the number of incentives to break quarantine regulations.
Despite its origins in Wuhan, there is nothing “Chinese” about COVID-19. Furthermore, the international community should not pin the blame for the coronavirus pandemic on Chinese culture. While much of the world is in turmoil, China has largely suppressed the virus and is preparing to move forward.