top of page

Quadruple Fears: In the Perfect Global Storm

Statute of Liberty Night, New York City. Photo by Ming Xia

Preface: On the Human Condition

I HAVE READ RICHARD HOFSTADTER and understand the root of anti-intellectualism in this country’s history, but its abysmally low point still surprises and saddens me. Almost thirty years ago, after witnessing the lights at Tiananmen Square go out and a massacre carried out in the dark, I looked at the New Continent to see the shining torch of liberty and enlightenment. Living under the torch for more than two decades, I have noticed it dimming, but this time I have no place to turn to. Strangely such a desperation in the darkest moment in my life forced me to face fear straight on. I have to pull myself up by the bootstraps. “Shelter in place” gave me a luxurious opportunity to try on a variety of more leisure activities: Cooking Indian food: Curry kills germs! Drinking vodka: Alcohol kills virus! Reading Decameron: books kill time! Listening to Shostakovich: Leningrad Symphony kills depression! Tweeting follies of officials of major powers: Hubris, corruption and narcissism high in power kill people!

To transcend the daily routine, I voraciously read thinkers who searched and survived in dark times: Pitirim Sorokin, Hannah Arendt, Viktor Frankl, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, Erich Fromm, Madeline Albright, and others. Surprisingly, Albright had the foresight to give a forewarning to Americans on Fascism in 2018, but among her listed almost a dozen leaders and countries, China is conspicuously absent. Xi Jinping was mentioned once, in a positive light. From such a cozy spot for the most threatening totalitarianism in the 21st century, we can sense the Achilles’ heel in long-term American foreign policy that failed to understand and tear down the Bamboo Curtain that China is behind. President Trump’s questionable flirtation with Xi (pronounced as She) is more understandable in this bigger context.

Through reading as Frankl’s “autobibliotherapy”, I had the luck to find intellectual companions to bewail together for the current human condition. I have used Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, The Hunger Games, for teaching Introduction to Political Science. Twelve years ago, she intended to give the American youth a collective vaccination against the virus of Panem Dystopia under President Snow, who replaced “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with “Bread and Circus.” Six years ago, in a little book entitled The Collapse of Western Civilization, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway pretended to stand at the year of 2393, reminiscing how neo-communism under the Second People’s Republic of China triumphed over the liberal democracy in the West. They wrote these words regarding the Great Collapse of the West: “As food shortages and disease outbreaks spread and sea level rose, these governments found themselves without the infrastructure and organizational ability to quarantine and relocate people.”1 After the “period of the penumbra” in the last half of 20th century, “the second Dark Age” had befallen upon the West. These two authors pinpointed an epistemological trap that the Western establishments fell into a Type II Error: “The conceptual mistake of rejecting as false something that is true.”2 The current unfolding pandemic is not “unprecedented,” or something that “nobody could have foreseen” as insisted by Trump.3 As a matter of fact, from the 14th Century’s Black Death to 1918’s Spanish flu, from 1980’s HIV/AIDs to SARS, H1N1 (Bird Flu and Swine Flu), MERS, Ebola and Zika, we can easily understand Jared Diamond’s message in his Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) that germs change human fates. From the G.W. Bush Administration to the Obama Administration, these two presidents had warned Americans of global pandemics, and their efforts are reflected in all the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends” reports. Unfortunately, these warnings, including those from the Crimson Contagion drill in 2019, were brushed aside by the Trump Administration.4

In search of light, I had an unexpected realization: during the darkest years from 1940 to 1945 in U.S., a quiet renaissance happened. Great thinkers, many of them refugees who fled Europe, envisioned and constructed a new future for America and the world. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt seized the historical moment and pledged to the U.S. and the entire world “four freedoms” in 1941. He not only systematically proclaimed the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want at the U.S. Capitol, but more importantly, after each freedom, he emphasized “everywhere in the world” and “anywhere in the world,” pledging a commitment to all humanity. That historical episode demonstrates clearly that U.S. and its radical progress are often driven by crisis. Sorokin then corroborated this historical pattern: “[C]alamities are not an unmixed evil: side by side with their destructive and pernicious functions they play also a constructive and positive role in the history of culture and man’s creative activities. With human beings as they are, catastrophes are great educators of mankind.”5

Quadruple Fears

Indeed, I have quadruple fears:

  1. First about my physical existence in face of a global pandemic;

  2. Second about the global assault orchestrated by the Chinese government against overseas Chinese, especially political dissidents;

  3. Third, about political repercussions upon myself due to my critical viewpoints on an opportunistic, populist demagogue;

  4. And, finally about a worldwide racial backlash against the Chinese.

I might have forgotten the teaching from FDR: “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We have no reason to doubt that a thunderous voice will echo again in the chamber of the Capitol four score years later for a “New New Deal”, not only for Americans, but “far beyond our borders.” FDR taught us: “Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change — in a perpetual peaceful revolution — a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions — without the concentration camp or the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.”

Baxter Street, Manhattan Chinatown (April 10, 2020) Photo by Antony Wong

1. Naming the Pandemic

A pestilence, a plague, or a global pandemic evolving into a threat to humanity is never a purely natural process. The necessary natural cause is always complemented and catalyzed by socioeconomic and juridical-political factors, creating a perfect storm. The global coronavirus pandemic is the latest example of this point. First, the naming of the disease itself has become a highly charged political battle with both international and global dimensions. Due to its initial outbreak in Wuhan, a metropolis in the Hubei province of central China, in December 2019, the name Wuhan virus or Wuhan Pneumonia was conveniently chosen, of course, by the Chinese government itself. On February 11, 2020, WHO changed the name to COVID-19 (“Co” stands for corona, “Vi” is for virus and “D” is for disease) to avoid stigmatizing a geographic location or group of people.

2. Clash of Titans

Second, as the monster was released out of Frankenstein’s lab, a killer virus became a contagion, then a global pandemic. This out-of-control escalation started to rip off the façade of global and national governance and generate momentum among people to hold politicians and IGO public employees accountable. These politicians, from the Wuhan mayor, Hubei party secretary, China’s CDC chief, General Secretary Xi Jinping, to the U.S. President and WHO general secretary, shared the same tendency to pass the buck but claimed their responses were to the crisis impeccable. Since failures abound and successes are in short supply, these politicians had conflicts among themselves, with three top leaders still remaining, in a clash of titans. For example, Trump and Xi have already been at loggerheads due to the trade war. In fifty days since the first death in U.S., its total deaths passed more than 40,000, more than a dozen times that of the shocking September 11th attack. In New York and America’s heartland, daily ravaging death tolls have been heightening the animosity of U.S. toward China. Trump’s withholding of aid to WHO and his criticism under the pretext of its “China-centric” position and its chief, Dr. Tedros’s failure in sending out an earlier alarm would further wreak havoc to the global fight against the pandemic in poor countries. The global pandemic, which already infected almost every country in the world, has been politicized to the equivalent of World War Three: China against a probable coalition of one hundred nations, of course depending on whether the U.S. could offer leadership to the Allied Forces.

A pathogen for sure is a common threat to all humanity. The key factor in my ability to perceive this threat in advance is that as a China specialist, I have been working on a project entitled “China at the Epicenter: Calamity, Protest and the Sadistic State” for the past decade. Since I have already noticed a pattern in China’s handling of calamities, natural, manmade or a mixture of both, my knowledge of the nature of the pandemic and its prairie-fire-like spread is a mixed blessing. As James Bryce said, s/he who is forewarned is forearmed.6 However, when you try to cry wolf to your community (a college, a city or a country), you might be treated as Chicken Little. As a part of this somnolent community facing a public health crisis, you would rather remain a slumber than an anxious night-watchman to be consciously swallowed by the catastrophe.

3. Message from the Frontline

My winter break started right on Christmas Eve, through the New Year and ended on the Chinese lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, which this year fell on January 25th. Under normal circumstances, this is supposed to be my busiest time for receiving guests or visiting friends. My increasing concern over the unknown virus emerging out of Wuhan convinced me to take precaution and cancel several appointments and arrangements, such as a Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner at home with my niece who came from California with her husband and several old friends from China. The real alarm regarding the Wuhan virus came from a virologist working in Wuhan on January 24 through Messenger as we exchanged New Year greetings. This scientist received the best training at Wuhan University, finished a Ph.D. and then worked as a post-doc for years at American universities, and less than two years ago returned to Wuhan to continue research on virology. As a layman of science whose knowledge of biology comes mainly from Stephen Nowicki’s Great Courses and is barely good enough for Mukherjee’s and Christakis’s best-sellers, I have never tried to pretend to have credibility and authority on the scientific nature of COVID-19; I restrict my interest purely to the political aspect, especially its crisis management. However, my friend wanted me to be aware that contrary to the conventional wisdom then, the Wuhan virus was way more contagious and fatal than SARs, a difference similar to that between conventional and thermonuclear explosions. I was also informed that the Chinese authorities had underreported the number of infections and deaths; worst of all, despite the millions of residents who left Wuhan for ancestral homes or other cities for the Spring Festival, the Wuhan municipal government delayed alerting the public for two weeks, and the WTO became a conniving collaborator by refusing to upgrade their alert level to global pandemic. This scientist basically ended the message with a S.O.S., not only for the city of Wuhan, but for China and the world: Global awareness and international assistance are urgently needed! Otherwise, the consequences are beyond our imagination!

The City of Wuhan. Photo by Ming Xia.

4. New York City: Pandemic Gateway

Upon receiving this trustworthy and authoritative message from the frontline, I went into action. I called my friend at Voice of America and worked out a report on January 25th, warning that the City of New York could be the next gateway for Wuhan pneumonia. I called my other friend who is a regular commentator for Fox News and shared with him my received message. He did raise this issue on TV and Twitter. Meanwhile, I wrote to the secretary of my spiritual teacher the Dalai Lama twice, urging for extreme precaution. I alerted my friend who has access to the Presidential Office of Taiwan. I made multiple phone calls to friends and family relatives. I also spread words out on my social media, TV interviews, and written publications. I did a simple tally: Since January 25th until mid-April as I am finishing this essay, I had 14 radio interviews, 26 TV interviews with one having the highest hits of more than 2000,000, and nine publications. One paper published under the title, “From Wuhan Virus to Chinazi Virus” on January 30, had a total of 9,312 Chinese characters.

I purchased masks of all sorts and began to prepare food and other necessities for possible lockdown. On February 26th, less than a month into the spring semester, I started preparing my two classes for possible on-line/remote teaching/learning by devoting one session to talk about the coronavirus. I knew that none of my two classes (An Introduction to Political Science and International Political Economy) had a legitimate section on this topic; however, my responsibility for my community as a China watcher urged me to teach such a special session. I even told my students to share the information from this session with their families. On January 28th, The New York Times reported an interview with Dr. Osiris Barbot, the NYC Health Commissioner, saying about Wuhan virus, “all indications are that it’s not nearly as deadly as SARs.” This prompted me to tweet that Dr. Barbot was mistaken and misleading; her judgment could be fatal. As a parent myself, I did one more effort to talk my independent-minded daughter living in another city out of her long planned, self-financed spring-break trip to Denmark on March 6th.

I did what I could, except having not sought self-immolation in front of the White House to shock the president, therefore the general public, in the face of ignorance and arrogance towards a menacing virus. In hindsight, I still believe that even had I set myself on fire with a shouting message that “We are facing a life-or-death attack from coronavirus!”, it is unlikely that my expiration would contribute more response than merely comments about a lunatic or fanatic college professor.

5. Staten Island to 5th Avenue

My peculiar sense of resignation and vulnerability during my third existential crisis in New York after the September 11th attack and the 2008 Financial Meltdown is due to a series of racial, ideological, political and geostrategic, and even civilizational factors.

Staten Island Ferry. Photo by Ming Xia.

My college is unique within the CUNY system due to the demographic character of Staten Island. In 2016 this outer borough voted a Republican into the Congress, gave 57 percent of the vote to Trump in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s 40 percent. I remember that exactly one week after the presidential election, my college sponsored a symposium on the new Trump presidency, hosted by my college’s vice-president/provost who happened to be a political scientist. At this venue, I warned a crowd of two hundred faculty, staff and students that Trump would had a high aptitude for bringing trouble to his presidency and the country. My Cassandra’s analysis was based upon both Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil (the ideas of empathy, narcissism, psychopath, sociopath, cruelty, etc.) and James Barber’s The Presidential Character (the Nixon-type combination of active plus negative on the matrix of energy and attitude). I could feel the atmosphere of unease, if not open hostility towards my talk.

From the day when presidential candidate Trump boasted that his soaring popularity would not be effected even if he fired a gun into the crowds on the 5th Avenue, I knew there was a white privilege not available to black and brown people. I had not thought about my personal safety despite my workplace CUNY Graduate Center is located at the 5th Avenue. Indeed, I had thought about what would happen if I or an African-American or Latino male colleague had said what Trump said. We would not be allowed to go home with impunity. I had also reflected that my dear colleagues, for example, Frances Piven (I call her “the Godmother of Social Protest”) and our Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, have made far more contribution to U.S. and the humanity than an egomaniac narcissist, and they do not deserve such a threat. Anyway, I know as an “outsider” that to bump into American politics with a critical view of the sitting president is not a breeze, especially when this president does not hesitate to stir up racial suspicion and xenophobia to fire up his base. In the first year of Trump’s presidency, one white female student would walk out of my classroom protesting my “white hate” for criticizing the President, who dubbed the media “an enemy of American people.”

6. Citizen Entanglements

But I cannot escape my entanglement with controversial American politics as a citizen and political scientist. Based upon my observation, Chinese CCP Secretary General Xi Jinping had concealed truths early on concerning the coronavirus. Around the turn of the year Chinese authorities clamped down doctors who blew the whistle. For example, Dr. Li Wenliang and the Group of Eight medical doctors were reprimanded or summoned by the police, publicly humiliated and condemned by the CCTV—the leading mouthpiece of CCP propaganda. Under his self-proclaimed “personal leadership and management,” he created a leading group in response to coronavirus filled with ideologues and propagandists, lacking a single scientist, not even the minister of health. Nevertheless, for Trump, Xi was his “good friend,” and on January 24th, Trump tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

As I was trying to share my concerns with people around me and on the media, to urge people to take precaution, on January 31, the CDC director Redfield insisted: “The risk at this time to the American public is low.” The next day, Surgeon General Adams tweeted a limerick ended with “Risk is low for #coronarvirus.” From February 29, he was advising Americans with this message: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” On March 31st, he said on “Fox & Friends” that “the data doesn’t show” that wearing mask in public would help people during the coronavirus pandemic.

7. Xenophobia, Unmasked

As a scholar who has lived, worked, and frequently traveled in the Monsoon Asian region, I know one simple fact: all countries that have dealt with COVID-19 crisis more successfully require the public wear mask, for example, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and certainly Taiwan. To meet this need, Taiwan increased its daily production of surgical masks from a little bit more than one million pieces in January to 17 million in April. So far Taiwan has already donated 16 million pieces to the West and its allies (the U.S. received 2 million from the first batch of 10 million).

For decades, in the circle of Asian studies, scholars have voiced their concerns about the U.S. lagging behind East Asian countries in many categories, not only manufacturing, but also in infrastructure, city management, education, and social service. In 2011, after U.S. problems were further exposed during the Great 2008 Financial Meltdown, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and the Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum published their best-seller, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We can Come Back. I thought then that if American elites had realized this urgency for catch-up, there was a glimmer of hope. Instead, five years later a “MAGA” president exploited this embarrassment and prescribed a “make you feel good” steroid to the angry crowds. A sudden surge of faux self-confidence and real xenophobia swept away serious attempts for self-reflection and self-rejuvenation, especially in manufacturing.

The atmosphere for public discourse on what U.S. could learn from other countries was further poisoned by racialized polarization attributable to a populist president who utilizes anger as political fuel and scapegoating as a political cudgel in governing. When people like me are juxtaposed with “our American professors,” our authority and credibility are further undercut in classroom. Understandably, a partisan split over the coronavirus threat existed: in February, 40% of surveyed Republicans were “not concerned at all,” in contrast to only about 6% of Democrats. Although the Republicans kept losing their self-confidence in March, dropping to 23% after mid-March, there still existed a 20 percentage point difference from Democrats.7 On the one hand, among non-Chinese communities there were rumors that the coronavirus was only afflicting Asians, but sparing Whites, Blacks, and Latinos. The worst part is that some good-hearted Americans friendly to the Chinese did not want to talk about this “Asian disease” either, in order not to deepen racial stereotype about Asian-Americans. At the global level, Aso Taro, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, suggested in late February at a G-7 conference that the crisis of coronavirus should be brought to the table. He was told off by a present Italian official that coronavirus is “a disease for the yellow people, not for us.”8 Any Asian specialist would be able to tell you that Japan has surpassed Italy by at least 10 steps in science, industry, service and medicine: Basically we are comparing the Fiat with the Lexus. Ironically, one week later, Italy was upended by “a disease for the yellow people,” quickly surpassing China as the country with the highest death toll, only to be replaced later by the U.S. If Aso had to swallow this kind of insult, I had no quixotic spirit to pick up a fight.

8. Discordant Chinese American Communities

As a student intellectually baptized by a leading political philosopher on generalized agnosticism, I have developed a moderate skepticism in politics. However, among the Chinese American community, there have been a small but vocal number of zealous Trumpians. Strangely enough, among them are many anti-communist professionals, religious activists, democracy advocates, and devoted Falun Gong practitioners. At the intellectual level, some neo- or ultra-rightists have targeted their so-called “White Lefties” (白左) and held political loyalty to President Trump as a litmus test of Chinese American new citizenship in their chosen home. So, the saying goes, “My President, right or wrong.” We know this is chauvinism. Or, “My Country, Right or Wrong.” We know this is ultra-nationalism and super-patriotism. This evangelical zeal inspired strong passion among Chinese American Trumpians, who created a hostile public space for any dissenting voice toward Trump, his behavior, and his policies on social media. The Chinese-American community has been further torn apart and atomized by anti-Trump and pro-Trump camps in addition to the old cleavages created by emigration before or after the Communist take-over, from Taiwan/Hong Kong/Southeast Asia or the Mainland China, pro-KMT/pro-DPP or pro-Communist, pro-Unification or pro-independence for all ethnic groups (Tibet, Uyghurs, etc.) and regions (Taiwan, Sichuan, Henan, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and even Shanghai). Since the Chinese government and its omnipresent Foreign Propaganda and United Front Work strategically strike new wedges into complex cleavages and manipulate them for their purpose, bullying, intimidation and threats to report critics of Trump to the FBI or Homeland Security can easily silence many politically unsavvy new citizens. Open calls for forced conversion to Christianity, white supremacy (some Chinese-Americans hold the delusion that they are a superior race and a natural ally to the “Aryan race” or “Anglo-Saxon nation”), social Darwinism, McCarthyism and internment policy can be heard on social media in Chinese (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and of course WeChat).

As a China researcher I was increasing convinced by mounting evidence from both China and some other scientists in the world that the virus itself probably had a connection with the Virology Institute of China’s Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, the only P-4 level bio-hazardous lab in association with China’s biochemical weapon research in the military. Because of my strong suspicion of this military connection, on February 1 at the interview by Voice of America, I gave my conjecture that the coronavirus had a composite feature of SARs virus in combination with HIV virus, and a possible escape of the virus through the unregulated management of lab animals and resale to the food market might be the cause of the virus breakout.9 Entering February, President Trump continued to praise his good “friend,” President Xi, for his competent work in China. After more than two weeks of city-wide lockdown in Wuhan, the Chinese law enforcement treated their patients as criminals; the Party-state, already a “perfect dictatorship” dubbed by Oxford political scientist Stein Ringen, expanded its capillary power through the medical health institutions upon the Chinese population. Oblivious to all these brutalities, on February 7 President Trump tweeted these words: “Just had a long and very good conversation by phone with President Xi of China. He is strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus…. He will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone. Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation. We are working closely with China to help!”

9. Parade of Political Elephants

At a February 28th rally Trump claimed criticism of his sloppy coronavirus response was nonsense. Like the Mueller investigation and impeachment, “This is their new hoax.” A fatal virus that would soon infect more than 700,000 and kill more than 40,000 (these numbers rising exponentially for a while) was politicized as a new “hoax” from the Democrats. Unfortunately, I happened to be a democrat in both the capital and lower-case forms. For a while, I had a feeling that a parade of elephants kept marching on, ignoring yells from onlookers. Even someone tried to stop the pachyderms, their thick skins made transmitting message impossible. But I do not think the failure to foresee the coming tempest solely fell upon the Republicans. As I have already criticized Dr. Barbot before, I must point out that on March 2, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who went away as a show horse at his failed presidential bid, tweeted encouragement to New Yorkers to “get out on the town.”

Nevertheless, the tornadoes surrounding me on the social media intensified their vengeance. Someone openly called for my “expulsion” from CUNY and New York due to my tweets contradicting the rhetoric from Trump! As a Chinese-American, I really had felt this: When you get credit in your American identity, you get blame in the identity of Chinese. Before the disaster materializes, your forewarning could be easily regarded as part of conspiracy; after the disaster has devastated a multitude of people, your failure to convince the complacent as well as cynical populace is to be blamed by those you tried to forewarn. I here noticed a small difference: My spiritual leader the Dalai Lama was mindful of an imminent danger but sent a calming message to his followers worldwide as people started panicking before the plague, comforting everyone that nothing, including the coronavirus, is permanent, so we can face it with confidence and calm. In contrast, the political leader of my country was mindless of the danger in its early stage but boasted his prescience after the disaster became full-blown and scapegoated everyone from the media to Democratic leaders, from China to the WHO. If people follow the latter sort of leadership in coping with a calamity, you can expect failure, frustration and finger-pointing from this crowd.

10. Backlash against the Chinese

In full anticipation of widespread fury, I could do nothing to stop a big backlash against the Chinese first in Milan, London, and New York City; later in Moscow, Tokyo, and Lagos. Nobody would know that I tried my best to inform. No stranger would pardon me from the sin committed by the Chinese, although that country has banned me from entry for twelve years. During the most tranquil time I could personally feel that my presence, even the presence of my family (my wife and daughter could not soften my image enough), could be perceived as an intrusion into the reserved space of some Americans. On March 20th, President started calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus.” Negative sentiment against Chinese-Americans was further encouraged with a license from the country’s highest office. As the worst moment I could imagine has already befallen upon me, I have heard or read of an increasing number of racial attacks, both verbal and physical, against Asian-Americans, including some of my friends or acquaintances. Lockdown, for me and my family, is not an inconvenience, but more a refuge to hide at home. We Chinese have joked that this is the year of the mouse, so we have to be hiding deep in burrows and nervously watching the outside. However, I have thought beyond the year of mouse. I have a feeling that in the coming many years, if I want to continue to follow my wanderlust, I may have to tell everyone I am Taiwanese.

Talleyrand of France once said this infamous quote: “This is a blunder, even worse than a crime.” A blunder hurts yourself. Unfortunately, blunders abound in most major powers, major IGOs, and major public institutions in this global pandemic. It revealed a systemic failure of governance at both national and global levels. The corona of all blunders should be presented to the leaders and leading public health experts in the West for their pseudo-science, and even anti-commonsensical comments on a no-brainer topic: the utility of wearing a mask. The WHO, the White House, CDC and Surgeon General in U.S., British Health Minister and Minister of Transport, England’s chief medical officer, the Canadian Chief Public Health Officer and more, all had denied the protective function of surgical masks for the public. But at the same time, they were calling on the public not to compete for masks against the frontline health workers. Even after Canada had to require its citizens to put on masks in public, its Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam still insisted: “Recognizing that actually the evidence is not quite there but it’s an added layer of prevention and protection against the spread to others.”10 After the White House finally recommended on April 3 that Americans should wear mask, President Trump said bluntly that he would not wear one.11 I am not sure which makes him look sillier: wearing a mask or denying its protective utility. Still I can understand the logic behind his behavior. Imagine that four years ago presidential candidate Trump could confidently shout to his fans: “Make America Great Again!” Four years later as more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs in less than a month, and thousands and thousands wait in line to receive free groceries, how could he bellow out his message through a surgical mask (for him, a symbol of sickness and the image of a loser): “Keep America Great Forever!” ? MAGA for MASK? Forever?

11. Betrayal of Western Elites

As the elites in the West have been sending out uncertain bugle regarding a simple mask, why are they unable to acknowledge their lack of preparation for such a global pandemic? For a great country like the U.S., as authorities have been advising people to use their imagination and creativity to create makeshift masks, many look ridiculous and some surely are a shame on face of the greatest industrial society on the earth. Why has it taken so long for the country to follow in the footsteps of places like Taiwan and produce masks? (The good news is that finally on April 17, Honeywell’s factory in Smithfield, Rhode Island started producing N95 masks, “a total of 20 million masks per month”) .12

The failure is not merely lying in the use of obscurantism by public officials for their un-reasoning. A deeper failure is that public officials have completely forgotten the foundational principle of modern capitalism: enlightened self-interest. If after decades of neoliberalism, the public health, public education and other public infrastructure were neglected and destroyed under the “shock doctrine” and “disaster capitalism” (Naomi Klein) and the margin of error for our society was drastically narrowed as a real process of “Third Worldization in U.S.” (not in Samuel Huntington’s original use for racial interpretation), it is quite understandable that we are caught off guard. If the state has failed its citizens in offering the public good, why should public figures continue to give out false information and distort the market signal for more masks and PPEs? If both the state and market have failed, why should both the public authorities and health system not directly call for people’s good genes and altruistic sacrifice to donate their PPEs in storage? Instead, they have been calling heroic citizens to stay home, even many have infected with COVID-19 and are dying, in order to protect the health system. This is sick, a malaise in the political governance diagnosed by Max Weber as “institutionalization”: an agency has lost its purpose except preserving its own existence.

I have never seen such a big failure on both sides: On the one hand, the citizens have completely forgotten that the state is a “necessary evil” even after so long an indoctrination of neoliberalism. I read a report in which a LGBTQ activist went to Miami Beach’s Winter Party Festival in early March and said: “I was thinking, ‘OK, well, hold on, the government did not cancel it, so it should be fine.’”13 As an educator on political science in higher education, I have to take a part of the collective blame for our civic education. Honestly speaking, I would not advise members of the LGBTQ community to trust the Trump administration and Florida’s Republican governor to prioritize their interests. On the other hand, the public authorities have underestimated the intelligence and morality of average Americans. If I look at the issue under my discussion from a simplistic, binary ideological spectrum, I would say that the simple legacy of Adam Smith and the Western Enlightenment has been betrayed by the two extremes. Or put in another way, from the Talmudic saying, some remembered the first part: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Some only remembered the second part: “If I am for myself only, what am I?” It is a pity that many people standing on the extreme right have lost their reason/rationality and become anti-intellectual, anti-science and extreme faith-based believers. The “regressive left” (to borrow from Richard Dawkins) turned into “The Good Person of Szechwan” under Brecht who could not reconciliate the tension between being good in an evil society or the carefree “Little Red Riding Hood,” oblivious of a big grey wolf hiding in the forest.

* * * History will proceed as a resultant of reinforcing and conflicting forces, despite any individual’s wish. Understanding this point, I can with ease go back to Boccaccio, who closed the door of the first Dark Age after the Black Death and ushered Europe into the corridor leading to the Renaissance. “Let the bigot tend his idols, let the trader buy and sell.” “The deceiver is struck down at the foot of the deceived.” Boccaccio wrote.14 Notes [1] Columbia University Press, 2016, p. 51. [2] Ibid, p. 62. [3] [4] [5] Pitirim A. Sorokin, Man and Society in Calamity, Transaction Publishers, 2010 [1942], p. 10. [6] James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 1, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959, p. 8. [7] [8]; [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, a new English version by Cormac ó Culleanáin based on John Payne’s 1886 translation, Wordsworth Classics, 2004, p. lXIII.

Author Bio

Ming Xia is a Professor of Political Science at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, and a doctoral faculty member at the CUNY Graduate Center. Dr. Xia previously taught at Fudan University (1988-1991) and served as a residential research fellow at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University (2003), and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2004). At the National University of Singapore, he worked as a visiting research fellow (2004) and a senior visiting research fellow (2011) at the East Asian Institute, and a visiting senior research fellow (2012) at the Asian Research Institute. Dr. Xia’s research interests include political governance and transition in China, organized crime, international political economy, globalization, Asian women in politics, and a comparison of China and India.

Originally published:


You Might Also Like:
bottom of page