Analysis of Impact / Covid-19

Covid-19 in China: From ‘Chernobyl Moment’ to Impetus for Nationalism

Chenchen Zhang
Lecturer in Politics and International Relations

Note: this piece first appeared as an op-ed in the Made in China journal.

When Dr Li Wenliang died from Covid-19 on 7 February, the Chinese Internet saw an unprecedented outpouring of grief and anger. The universal mourning for the reprimanded doctor, who had warned his colleagues about a potentially infectious coronavirus in late December and had been silenced by authorities, was also an expression of the public anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses that had accumulated over the few weeks since the outbreak began. The missteps and failures that had triggered widespread outrage ranged from the official downplaying of the risk of human-to-human transmission in the earliest days, to the shortage of PPE for medical workers; from the scandal of the Wuhan Red Cross in mismanaging the distribution of donated medical supplies, to the skyrocketing numbers of new cases and victims.

The situation was so grim and criticism from ordinary citizens so prevalent that some observers dubbed the crisis China’s ‘Chernobyl moment’. However, as the epidemic has—at least for now—been brought under control, critical voices also seem to be fading away, even though anger lingers in Wuhan, where some dissidents are still fighting to resist the official victorious narrative. To be sure, it is difficult to know if and how the pandemic has influenced regime support in a country that regularly censors criticism, but discontent with epidemic responses has been largely subdued and nationalist sentiments have become more prominent. This holds true especially in those parts of China that have been much less impacted by the coronavirus—97 percent of all Covid-19 deaths in China occurred in Hubei province, where the epidemic started, while the rest of the country, with a population of over 1.3 billion, has recorded 121 deaths as of 30 April.

The relatively successful and prompt flattening of the curve, however, is not the only factor that contributed to the transformation of public sentiment. As in past crises that also evoked mounting criticism by exposing structural problems in the political system, the Chinese Party-state employs a set of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ tools to suppress dissent and overcome the trust crisis. These include censorship, crackdowns on dissidents, bureaucratic and technocratic adjustment, and a tried-and-tested propaganda formula that I would call ‘disaster nationalism’. Yet unlike past disasters, such as the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the global development of the pandemic and international power dynamics have also played a significant role in how Covid-19 has become an impetus for nationalism.

Authoritarian Resilience and Disaster Nationalism

Political scientists use the concepts of authoritarian resilience or responsive authoritarianism to describe the ways in which the Chinese regime allows a certain degree of participation and responsiveness without democratisation. In times of crisis, this responsiveness could mean rapid personnel changes to shift blame from the political system itself to individual local officials, technocratic improvement such as the reform of the epidemic control system following SARS, and strategies of political communication that respond to and incorporate public sentiments.

The Party-state, for example, wasted no time in joining the public to pay tribute to Dr Li Wenliang, going as far as to officially recognise him as a ‘martyr’ (烈士). Right after his death, a technology company based in Beijing submitted a public sentiment analysis report to the government and offered recommendations on how to respond to the online outrage. The National Supervisory Committee sent a special team to Wuhan to investigate the matters related to Dr Li, and they unsurprisingly made the decision to revoke the reprimand and hold the relevant police officers accountable. The pattern of punishing individual and local actors to ease anger and distract attention from structural problems within the system itself persists. Top Hubei and Wuhan officials were replaced in mid-February. After a prison in Shandong province was found to have covered up an outbreak, several figures—from the prison warden to responsible officials in the provincial government—were removed from office.

In terms of technocratic adjustment, there has been an ongoing debate on improving the epidemic response system and the management of public health crises, which has mostly focussed on legislation. The National Expert Panel on Covid-19 at the National Health Commission recruited two legal scholars in February. In addition to calls for amending the existing Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, 17 other legal instruments in the field of public health will be amended or adopted.

The particular mode of messaging and emotional mobilisation that the propaganda machine deploys in times of crises is one of disaster nationalism. It is epitomised by a phrase former premier Wen Jiabao famously wrote on a school blackboard in Beichuan, the epicentre of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake: ‘Disasters regenerate a nation’ (多难兴邦). Narratives of disaster nationalism focus on heroic sacrifices of individuals as well as the cohesion of the national community. State media also celebrates the contribution of ordinary citizens more than usual, indicating a more human-centred and participatory approach that scholars have termed ‘authoritarian participatory persuasion’People’s Daily, for example, launched a series called ‘Thank You, Every Ordinary Chinese Citizen’ (谢谢每一个平凡的中国人) on its social media channel, which quickly became a trending hashtag on Weibo, with over 570 million views at the end of April.

The idea of ‘being together in this’—shared feelings of pain, sadness, love, and inspiration—can be channelled towards reinforcing the sense of belonging to the imagined community (Anderson 2006). In his study of the responses to the Sichuan earthquake, Bin Xu notes how the event became a ‘televised spectacle of distant suffering’. With Covid-19 being the first pandemic in the age of social media, the spectacle of suffering, compassion, solidarity, and even boredom is mass produced in a much more personal, decentralised, and spontaneous way. While some videos get censored, there are many others that can serve the purpose of promoting national solidarity, which are quickly picked up by the propaganda apparatus—from moving love stories of dispatched medical workers to the beautiful moment where an elderly patient and a young doctor watch the sunset together. By curating social media content it is possible to add a humane touch to the grand narrative of the ‘war’ against the epidemic. Through the daily (re)telling of heroic and compassionate stories, and the constant chanting of the slogan ‘China, add oil!’ (中国加油!), dissatisfaction with the government can become subordinate to pride for the nation, of which the Party monopolises the representation.

The staging of a national mourning day on 4 April was a crystallisation of disaster nationalism. Having momentarily witnessed the power of mourning after the death of Dr Li Wenliang, what better way to tame this power than by turning it into an official ritual with members of the Politburo joining the rest of the country in mourning together at a designated time of a designated day? At that moment, mourning was no longer destabilising, but patriotic. Meanwhile, other subversive forms of remembering, such as the creation of digital archives of censored articles, continue to be suppressed.

The Perils of Binary Thinking

The relative success of the Chinese authorities in containing the outbreak in China and the mishandling of the pandemic in other countries, especially in Western democracies, has created an opportunity for the Chinese Party-state to change the narrative both domestically and globally—achieving more success with the former than the latter. In fact, when the Chinese government’s efforts to sell its preferred story on the international stage backfired, suspicion and hostility from the West further enhanced nationalism at home.

It comes as no surprise that a hostile international environment boosts nationalism. The Chinese public often assumes that accusations from Western governments are in bad faith, especially when such international actors were silent while many in China were themselves furiously criticising the government for cover-ups and incompetence in late January and early February. The online backlash against the scheduled publication of Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary in English and German is a perfect example of how the debate quickly became distorted by binary thinking, i.e. the assumption of a binary opposition between a homogeneous China and a homogeneous ‘West’. Netizens who attack her ruthlessly claim that even though some part of the diary might be true and fair, the translation of her work for a Western audience means betrayal and cozying up to ‘foreign hostile forces’ (境外敌对势力)—a term frequently used by both state media and the general public in China to delegitimise local social movements and grassroots activism as stemming from foreign influence.

My previous research on right-wing populist discourse on Chinese social media also highlights this strategy of ‘externalising the domestic and internalising the international’ in official and popular communications. When binary thinking dominates the discussion, any criticisms of the government can be dismissed as intentionally or unintentionally ‘helping the enemy’.

The nationalist right in Western societies are informed by the same binary thinking that views the pandemic as a power game of winners and losers. Some resort to xenophobia and racism, which not only hurt Asian communities in those societies, but also helps the Chinese government and ‘wolf warrior’ nationalists to perpetuate the narrative of foreign hostile forces. While hawks on both sides feed into each other by scapegoating the foreign other for domestic failures, progressive politics everywhere must resist subjecting democratic struggles against inequality, injustice, and state violence to the logics of right-wing nationalism and geopolitical competition.

Lastly, although nationalistic sentiments now appear to be prevalent in discussions about Covid-19 in China, the diversity of opinions and the creative expression of criticism despite strict censorship should never be underestimated. Representing the country as a monolithic whole and disregarding the agency of its citizens is a key component of the binary thinking critiqued above.

About the author: Chenchen Zhang is a lecturer in politics and international relations at HAPP. Her work on the politics and international relations of China is focused on identity and discourse. She has also published on the politics of citizenship, migration, and borders. Find more about her research here.

Analysis of Impact / Covid-19

Contesting lockdown: Backlash to globalisation and right-wing movements

Marta Kempny
PhD in Anthropology

It’s been more than two months since the lockdown in Northern Ireland was imposed on March 23rd 2020. The pandemic has demonstrated that we live in a globalised world and the fact that parts of world are interconnected due to the mobility of people (Held and McGrew 2002). This has accelerated a quick spread of the disease. In the context of global pandemic, the World Health Organisation emphasises it is important that the countries unite together in the fight against Covid 19.

However, as time goes on the global outbreak has actually fuelled a backlash to globalisation. Governments are closing borders and more often Covid-19 is feeding into nationalist narratives. For example, Donald Trump repeatedly stated that Covid-19 is a `Chinese virus’. Conspiracy theories are circulating that the virus is a bioweapon that leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. There has also been a spike of racist incidents worldwide.

In the early days of the pandemic my friend confessed to me that her partner, a Black American living in London was avoiding the Chinese people on the subway. The fear of coronavirus has strengthened the fear of the other. Paradoxically, in this context, a member of BME ostracized another BME person. Even before the lockdown started, I heard of people avoiding Chinese restaurants in Belfast.

The lockdown itself and the new culture of containment in this context feeds into the Western rhetoric about health and safety/risk. It fits very well with socio-spatial practices of immobilizing humans in camps, behind security walls or in ‘gated’ communities (Bauman 2000). This puts forward an idea of the sterile as an image of order and enact the politics of difference and separateness that define contemporary Europe’s relationship to the ‘other’ (e.g. Diken 2004).

Another arena where coronavirus shows fragility of the global lies in the protests against the lockdown by right-wing groups. As time ensued, these have emerged as a result of social fatigue with the lockdown, and fed very well into the anti-globalisation narrative. Serendipity plays a great role in social scientific research and my interest in the topic emerged as a result of following carefully discourse on one of facebook forums for Polish migrants in Northern Ireland.

Nolens volens, I embarked on cyberethnographic endeavours (Hine 2015). I felt it was important to follow social media during lockdown as it facilitates civic engagement in the context of social isolation and confinement. I first had received a shared link from a colleague of mine strongly involved in anti-far right movements in Ireland about the unified mass gatherings to take place at Ormeau Park and Millenium Park on Sunday 16th May.  That protest was organised by the Britain First movement, whose leader Jayda Fransen from had been convicted of stirring up hatred during a speech about Islam in Belfast at a rally in August 2017. Not long after that I have noticed the same invite on a Polish community Facebook forum.  That post has sparked arduous public debate on the internet where members of the Polish diaspora were sharing their comments. The group had divisive opinions on the topic.

Whilst I don’t want to quote specific exchanges because of ethical considerationsI think what was interesting here, was a debate on globalism – that it’s not the British or Polish governments that imposed the lockdown but the global superstructure. Furthermore, the same people followed events in Poland, and exactly the same weekend, protesters in Poland were assaulted with pepper gas by the police. The far right group was reflecting on these ‘injustices’ and ‘oppressive regimes’, saying that the problem exists everywhere, and their aim is to undertake a struggle against the governments, who want to exert their power over citizens by ‘scaremongering’.

Furthermore, this group clearly sees the imposition of containment, social distancing and hygiene rules as a way of exerting power over people. As one of my interlocutors commented, ‘The best way to exert political power is to instil fear among people’. They have protested against public broadcasting and ‘moral panic’ induced by media. As the fact that media construct, shape and influence the public opinion (Habermas 2014), the right-wing group aimed at opposing the mainstream media discourses (Foucault 1979) through  acts of sharing content on Facebook (Castells 2012). It’s important to highlight that these acts are performative and migrants are active agents, choosing what to share and how to share it. Following this protest, there were a series of initiatives directed against the lockdown: an online petition to the UK government, and a ‘hug me’ action to name a few.  

What transpires from this is that covid 19 on one hand triggered off backclash to the globalisation, with a spike of racial attacks and fear of the ‘Other’ following the outbreak. On the other hand though it is worth noting that in a paradoxical twist the Polish community in Belfast became actively and politically engaged in the Britain First movement. Despite the fact that the Britain First movement in itself is a right-wing movement that goes against any categories of ‘Otherness’, the fact that the Polish community got actively involved in the protests, questions its mere foundation. It seems that we cannot escape globalisation forces after all, and mass media communication is at the centre of processes of cultural convergence in the context of the global pandemic.


Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Castells, M (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Cambridge: Polity.

Diken, B. (2004). “From Refugees Camps to Gated Communities: Biopolitics and the End of the City.” Citizenship Studies 8(1): 83-106.

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books

Habermas, J. (2014). The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, UK: Polity

Held, D., & McGrew, A. (2002). Globalization/anti-globalization. Cambridge: Polity.

Hine, Ch. (2015). Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing 

Analysis of Impact / Covid-19

Article (excerpt) : ‘It’s going to be anarchy’

Jim Donaghey
Research Fellow

This article critiques a selection of the wide range of anarchist responses to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic so far,[1] and discusses the currency of anarchist ideas in this profound crisis.[2] Different variants of anarchism hold to specific (though largely overlapping) political priorities, and these characteristics have been emphasised in the analyses of the pandemic crisis from across the anarchist spectrum. This could be interpreted as a kind of sectarian confirmation bias as people cling to their favoured ideologies like self-affirming life rafts, but anarchist ideas have, once again, gained some traction in the wider popular imagination. Anarchists of all stripes can, and should, contribute to this popularisation from their own specific perspectives, but we cannot remain confined within our comfortable echo chambers. Anarchist ideas are crucial at this moment as a bulwark against the ‘nightmare’ re-installation of ‘a savage neo-liberal system’ imposed by ‘powerful state violence’[3] – the ‘neo-liberal plague’[4] as Chomsky has recently termed it – and, as such, we must do everything we can to sustain and deepen the proliferation of anarchist thinking and organising in this moment.

Is it going to be anarchy?

In the midst of any crisis or disaster, swarms of commentators shrilly warn of the ‘anarchy’ that is about to befall us (unless we follow the specific course of action exhorted by that particular commentator, naturally). But, in the context of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic crisis, we can identify numerous manifestations of the kinds of ‘anarchy’ we, as anarchists, would applaud. I don’t want to be glib – the reported death toll is already approaching 120,000 [5] globally, thousands upon thousands more people are going to die as a result of this pandemic, and millions upon millions will see their livelihoods upended by the economic recession and depression that is taking hold. Those apparently hyperbolic voices that cry, ‘it’s going to be anarchy’[6] aren’t entirely wrong – as Proudhon put it in his own adoption of the ‘anarchist’ nomenclature in 1840: ‘[t]he ordinary meaning attributed to the word “anarchy” is … as a synonym of “disorder”’.[7] But it is the ‘positive anarchy’ of a much more hopeful bent that has been a key trope of people’s response to the crisis. We should push this popularisation of anarchist ideas and anarchistic forms of organisation as far as possible against the oppressive trends of increased police powers and state surveillance. The pandemic crisis has called to a halt the political circus that Frank Zappa described as ‘the entertainment branch of industry’.[8] In place of ‘Politics’, more fundamental social issues have come to the fore, and anarchist ideas are resonating around those conversations.

In recent weeks, anarchistic language has become commonplace even beyond the plethora of anarchist media platforms, blogs, listservs and message boards. For example, mainstream/right-wing journalists have discussed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘libertarian mind’[9] struggling to come to terms with the huge state interventions that have been undertaken to try to tackle the pandemic. Jon Bigger, writing for Freedom News, has skewered that bogus application of anarcho-terminology, reminding us that the word has been ‘bastardised’ and that ‘to be really clear … Boris Johnson is not a libertarian’.[10]  Whatever shade of Tory Johnson was supposed to be prior to the crisis, he seems to have undergone a Damascene conversion, as evidenced by his statement on 29th March that ‘there really is such a thing as society’[11] (contra Thatcher – though he was already on his way to full communism with his ‘fuck business!’ blurt in June 2018[12]). The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, also struck a ‘libertarian’ pose, telling journalists while playing in an ice hockey match on 28th March that ‘it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees’.[13] In Ireland, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, announced a tightening of ‘lockdown’ measures on 27th March with a paean to the virtues of freedom:

Freedom was hard won in our country, and it jars with us to restrict and limit individual liberties, even temporarily. But freedom is not an abstract concept. We give it meaning every single day – in the way we live our lives – and in the decisions we take willingly to protect our loved ones.[14]

Varadkar may have been attempting to deflect from the uncomfortable gaffe of paraphrasing Winston Churchill during his St. Patrick’s Day speech ten days prior,[15] but in any case, this extraordinary language from state ‘leaders’ would have been a ludicrous prospect just a few short weeks ago. We are a far cry from Politics-as-usual.

Analysis of Impact / Covid-19

The short term impact of Coronavirus in two NI sectors: Social Housing and University Education

Edward Cooke
PhD Candidate in Anthropology

If later this year the coronavirus pandemic can be managed (prior to the current projections of a second wave arriving), different economic and social sectors within NI will be negatively impacted by the potential threat of further viral outbreaks. As the medical experts continually remind us that second and third viral outbreaks will arise, economic investment will halt and individuals and corporations will remove themselves from certain at-risk sectors to concentrate their investments in other sectors that are mores immune to the virus.

Take two specific NI sectors for study:

The social housing sector within which I include care homes, nursing homes and sheltered schemes, is likely to take a large economic hit. Over four decades sheltered housing (in all its different forms) moved from being seen as a form of prison accommodation for OAPs to becoming a lifestyle choice for people who were in their 50s+ Housing associations have invested heavily in sheltered housing, but the pandemic has shown that sheltered housing with all its lifestyle freedoms in ‘normal’ times becomes the gulags and the gas chambers in viral pandemics. Who today would in their right mind take up a tenancy in a sheltered housing scheme, or which daughter would now place her mother in a nursing or care home unless there were no other options? Which person living in solidary confinement in a sheltered scheme for the last month is not thinking of giving up their tenancy to return to living with a greater degree of freedom if the experts are correct and further viral lockdowns can be expected.

The housing associations will start to lose high levels of income from these valuable cash cows within the near future as void levels increase. The community based housing associations and those housing associations that have a high ratio of communal properties will suffer worst. One of the impacts of this drop in income will be the inability to borrow to build other new-build social housing and hence the management of coronavirus may impact upon future social housing programs giving rise to increased levels of homelessness? Government cannot be expected to bail out the third sector housing providers faced with decreased tax revenues, increased welfare payments and higher national debt interest payments. The management of the coronavirus in the last month will cause massive economic and social problems for the Ni social housing sector in the years to come.

A second sector that will face an immediate negative impact from the virus is the NI university sector. This sector is more dependent upon government funding that the sector within England and Wales. The Scottish university sector will face monumental problems arising from coronavirus as the Scottish government faces astronomical demands upon its welfare subsidies across many different policy areas. Quite simply two things have happened in the university sector. Third level learning has gone live, it is now on-stream and the energy provided for distance learning by the virus will mean the creation of more competitor on-line university providers such as the Open University and the University of Reading’s College of Estate Management. The NI universities will increase their on-line learning provision, but students will also be aware how unsatisfactory this type of learning is when engaged with for 3-4-5 years.

There are other massive challenges facing the NI university sector. the numbers of university students from the Far East will greatly reduce and this will impact on certain academic disciplines, post-graduate programs and student housing provision. The loss in student income will be substantial and the NI universities may come to regret having marginalised some sections of the NI population. The Ulster University which has invested heavily in China will take a huge economic hit. The UU has already heavily over-invested in the York Street campus and has had to go cap in hand for an additional £130 million bail out (this year) to the NI Assembly. The universities and private market housing providers have invested massive sums of money providing large numbers of ‘student halls’ in the north side of Belfast. These investment and development companies could face financial ruin if the NI student foreign population falls by 10 -15% as a result of the continuation of the virus. In addition, those UU and QUB university students who could not terminate their rental agreements with the private landlords in the Holyland will be less likely to want to return to the poorly regulated HMO sector around Queen’s University.

At the same time that university students question living in cheap HMOs, the private sector HMO landlords in the Holyland looking for security of income will most likely look to income stability and rent to the growing Romanian community. The Romanian community in the Holyland, increasing in size and confidence will not be inclined to tolerate the sort of anti-social, criminal behavior associated with QUB and UU students over the last decade. If university students look for alternative forms of accommodation, this will come at a substantial price and will greatly increase the individual cost of gaining a degree in NI. With unemployment levels bound to increase, students will start to question the value of a social sciences degree? Reduced student numbers, changing pedagogic delivery, reduced student housing provision and collapsed student housing developers will collectively put pressure on the NI Assembly to bail out the NI university sector. Alas, the increased funding demands on the NI Assembly by all sectors; including policing, health, welfare, housing, education, etc., means that there will be a significant reduction in the size of NI university sector to match that within the NI social housing sector. if this is so, increased homelessness, increased academic redundancies and reduced foreign investment from university students will be just a few of the problems facing NI (and the UK) in the next few years. And this is just a brief synopsis of the impact of coronavirus within two sectors within NI?!