Harmoniously Denied: The Wider Implications of China’s Censorship on COVID-19

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Yves here. This discussion of Chinese censorship about Covid-19, including the author’s own experience, is useful not simply for the insights into the workings of the Chinese system, but also for the similarities and differences to censorship in the West. Specifically, the author observes that formerly top-down censorship has become part of the “collective mentality”.

By Joy Yueyue Zhang, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Kent. Her research investigates the transnational governance of scientific uncertainty. She is the author of two books: The Cosmopolitanization of Science: Stem Cell Governance in China (Palgrave, 2012) and Green Politics in China: Environmental Governance and State-Society Relations (Pluto, 2013). Originally published at openDemocracy

China’s initial denials of a new SARS-like flu at the end of 2019 has been widely criticised as a significant factor that allowed the early spread of the coronavirus. For people who are familiar with Chinese politics, few would be surprised by the authorities’ attempted cover up. Censorship in the name of preserving a ‘harmonious society’ has been an overriding socio-political priority in China since 2004. In the advent of Western and Chinese New Year celebrations and with municipal and provincial congresses underway, it seemed only ‘logical’ that the local health authority decided to ignore the national direct-reporting system which China invested 1.1 billion RMBin after the SARS epidemic in 2003. Instead, authorities focused on suppressing whistle blowers such as Dr Wenliang Li, accusing them of ‘disrupting social order’.

Yet the impact of government censorship would be hugely understated (if not misunderstood) if one only sees its damage in terms of political transparency. In so doing we miss how China, or other societies with similar censorship practices, could enhance social resilience for the next public crisis.

What the COVID-19 pandemic made visible is a much more sinister side of censorship. That is, once top-down censorship has been progressively normalized in a society (as in the case of China over the past 16 years), it is no longer just a facet of the political culture, but also seeps into the collective mentality that, in Foucauldian terms, ’conducts the conduct’. As my observations of COVID-19 demonstrate, chronic censorship bends the society into acquiescing to a harmonious denial of individual, social and scientific prospects.

Living with Censorship

At the end of December 2019 my husband and I flew to Beijing to conduct fieldwork. On our fifth day in Beijing, we both developed symptoms of catarrh followed by a fever. Such respiratory reactions were common for non-locals when adapting to Beijing’s dry winter and air pollution. At the time, a number of our Chinese friends working in the health system were already aware of a rumour that a mysterious pneumonia was spreading in Wuhan. They bantered about how ‘trendy’ we were as what we had could be part of the latest health mystery. But of course, we only had normal cold, and we recuperated quickly.

It is almost unimaginable now, merely 100 days onwards, for anyone to joke about having COVID-19, and this is precisely what make this lighthearted tease from our friends extremely illustrative of the general sentiment at the beginning of the outbreak in China. Our friends were acutely aware of censorship, and that the truth of the (then) speculated epidemic may be whitewashed. However they calculated that the worst case scenario would be another SARS, which China has repeatedly proven its capacity to handle.

It is difficult to say if it was our friends that miscalculated the scope of the censorship, or if it was the Chinese government that miscalculated the scope of the new epidemic. For the reality quickly got lost, perhaps to everyone, under close surveillance of domestic reporting of the virus. After returning to the UK in January, a large part of my daily routine has been saving Chinese news reports and key commentaries on the virus through clusters of screenshots rather than simply saving the links. This was because ‘disharmonious’ web content would be soon deleted without a trace and during January articles related to the epidemic were censorship targets. In fact, due to the 8 hour time difference between China and the UK, it was not uncommon for me to wake up in the morning, only to find that half of the articles passed on by friends had already been removed or their access denied. To be sure, some of the censored content may have been fake news, but it was also evident that what remained in circulation adhered to the party-line.

More importantly, COVID-19 exposed an often-ignored character of how censorship works when it is effectively ‘constitutionalised’ in the political system. Its ubiquity in governing rationales means that censorship is not necessarily centrally coordinated but is a layered practice. That is, censorship becomes a tool wielded at the discretion of multiple authorities and can be discriminately applied in accordance to local needs. For example, compared to many other less affected cities, in the early phase, Wuhan’s local media was subject to stringent censorship. According to a corpus study of Chinese official newspapers carried out by a media studies’ scholar at Hong Kong University, between 1 January and 20 January 2020, coronavirus was only reported four times by Wuhan local newspaper Chutian Dushi Bao, of which two were rebuking ‘rumours’ and two were news releases by the local health bureau. On 20 January, the day before President Xi Jinping publicly acknowledged the seriousness of the outbreak and 3 days before the Wuhan lockdown, local news was still celebrating that 20,000 free tickets to key tourist sites been handed out to the public with the expectation of a tourist surge during the Spring Festival holiday.

This localised disinformation has led to a seemingly paradoxical public reaction: Towards the end of January, when most major cities around China started to get anxious about the virus, Wuhan residents were generally still relaxed. During a late January online meeting with a UK-trained professor in Wuhan, he dismissed my concern over the epidemic as an over-reaction due to media speculations. A classic example of ‘risk amplification’, he exclaimed on the other side of the screen. Sure Wuhan had most of the 200 confirmed cases, but that was out of 11 million people in the city. He assured me that the ‘actual situation’ was really not that serious. This professor’s reaction echoes a doggerel widely circulated on WeChat, China’s leading social media app, just days preceding the lockdown: ‘People in Hankou (the district where COVID-19 was first found) are happily doing their Spring Festival shopping, rushing to dinners and parties…The whole world knows that Wuhan is cordoned off, only Wuhan doesn’t know it yet’. In fact, it was a Beijing newspaper rather than Wuhan media, that first questioned Wuhan authorities’ insistence on ‘social harmony’ at the cost of public ignorance. With the headline, ‘Wuhan’s calmness makes it impossible for the rest to remain calm’, the article compared the authorities’ attempts of harmonising a virus into political compliance to the absurdity of ‘running naked’ amid dangers. A couple of days after I spoke with the aforementioned professor, Wuhan went into lockdown.

I wonder in retrospect how many ordinary citizens in Wuhan felt they were misled into ‘running naked’ before the lockdown when they went about the town with their daily routines. I also wonder, for those Wuhan bureaucrats, did they also feel they were ‘running naked’ when they knew the data reported to them by hospitals and health authorities were airbrushed under their acquiescence if not direct support? When censorship is institutionalised, or rather effectively ‘constitutionalised’ in a governing system, facts quickly become artefacts when passed on through multiple layers of censoring and self-censoring.

Censorship and Societal Resilience

A key difference between democratic and non-democratic states in the response to COVID-19 does not hinge on lockdowns, but on what has been discussed and done to mitigate the various knock-on effects of lockdowns. For example, in the days following the UK’s lockdown in late March, discussion, and sometimes protests, on the welfare of different social groups filled mainstream news outlets: the impact of children with special needs, individuals in care homes, domestic violence, mental health and concerns for safety-nets for the self-employed. Of course many of these issues remain unresolved or only partially resolved, but this ‘explosion’ of public expression of concerns made many underlying social issues visible from the start.

In contrast, few such (pre-emptive) discussions on the social consequences of lockdown could be found in Chinese media. If one types in ‘domestic violence’ (家庭暴力) and ‘coronavirus pneumonia’ (新冠肺炎, the common way for Chinese media to refer to the COVID-19 pandemic) onto China’s search engine Baidu, the results are predominately news reports on the increase of domestic violence in the UK, US, Japan and other countries. Reports on domestic violence in China in the context of the pandemic were scarce. Of course, Baidu as the main Chinese search engine has long been criticised for manipulating research results, bowing to political and commercial pressure. Thus this might not be a fair representation of what has been discussed or done about domestic violence in China during the lockdown. But this perhaps further underlines my point. That is, social controversies within China are censored out of public sight, and thus out of public mind.

The true danger of political censorship, however, lies not simply in the absence of certain discussions, but in the nurturing of social acquiescence to this silence. For example, similar to other countries, medical staff were soon heralded as the contemporary ‘heroes’ in China. Images of the medical profession on posters paying tribute to them were predominantly male, yet published lists of medical staff volunteering to join the front line were largely female. I wrote a post on Chinese social media questioning this aspect of gender inequality. The response was mixed. While some commented that this was an ‘interesting point’, others disapproved of my ‘making a fuss’. One such criticism came from my own cousin, who, along with his wife, were front-line doctors. He believed that everyone was or should be preoccupied with fighting the disease. So why should I ‘distract’ this concentration with ‘the trivial matter of gender equality’? My cousin’s rationale echoes China’s development strategy over the last 40 years. That is, China has been exceptionally good at identifying one goal (e.g. fighting coronavirus) and concentrating the whole nation’s resources into achieving that goal (e.g. speedy reallocation of financial and human resources into the health system). Wider social discussions are considered as but a distraction. In fact, there is almost a ‘pragmatic’ argument for no discussion: even if issues were raised, given limited government resource and under-developed societal services, there is no capacity to address these problems anyway. So what’s the point of discussion?

When censorship starts to impact scientists’ decisions on what types of questions could be asked, when they could be asked and what should be avoided, the resulting scientific compliance may be at the cost of a lost realm of knowledge.

But how can a civil society grow if the social issues it may address are not allowed to be made visible or to be articulated in public in the first place? Among the COVID-19 tragedies that made world news from China were a 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who died at home when he was left without a career after his relatives were put under quarantine and a 6-year-old boy who was locked in with his deceased grandfather for several days due to a gap in community support. If the disabled are no longer living as the ‘invisible millions’ in China, and if civil society is free to examine and critique the shortfall of social support to left-behind children and the elderly, could things have resulted differently?

What COVID-19 exposed is not so much the weakness of China’s civil society, but rather how important it is for China to encourage a strong civil society and public reflection so as to recognise and address its diverse needs. But when a society gets used to a norm in which certain facts mustn’t be true, and certain discussions shouldn’t be permitted, then silence may turn into indifference. The sinister side of censorship is that this shrinks social recognition of which community interests requires respect and which values are worth protecting. As such, it precludes a society’s civil potential through a ‘harmonious denial’ of community needs and their importance.

Censorship and (Global) Science

Global concerns over China’s censorship of the pandemic have largely focused on its scientific consequences and can be grouped into two categories. They seem to be ‘schizophrenic’ but are related: On the one hand, there is skepticism over accepting China’s COVID-19 statistics for concerns that they are doctored to ‘save face’. On the other hand, the international community is simultaneously agonizing over the missed opportunities of engaging with Chinese data. That is, there are concerns that in a time when global research collaborationis most needed, China, the country that accounts for 36% of the world’s scientific papers in the life sciences, and has the largest volume of data on COVID-19, would turn into a secretive operation. This later worry seemed to be further confirmed by a 13 April CNN report, which exposed that China has tightened its censorship over the publication of coronavirus research. In short, these two seemingly paradoxical concerns can be summarized in one sentence: Do we really know what China knows?

These are legitimate concerns, although I have discussed elsewhere why, despite the perceived secrecy, the mainstream of China’s scientific community are advocates of transparency and openness. This is also reflected by the fact that during the first 2 months of the outbreak, more than 60% of the research papers were contributed by Chinese labs. But there is a need to highlight another commonly overlooked but equally important question on the relationship between China’s censorship and science: Does China really know what it needs to know?

Wuhan authorities’ initial decision to bypass the national reporting system, cited at the beginning of this piece, for fear of political admonishment on bringing up ‘bad news’ is just one example of how China may be the primary victim of its censorship. Censorship’s potential curtailing effect on its research capacity can be seen in the afore-mentioned tightening of governmental scrutiny of COVID-related research. This new Ministry of Education directive reported by CNN includes three items which can be summarized as follows: 1) Any paper that traces the origin of the virus are subject to extra stringent regulation and can only be submitted to journals after acquiring approval from the Ministry; 2) Any other academic research related to the virus can be submitted for publication after its academic value, timing of the publication, and appropriateness for domestic or foreign journals have been agreed on by respective university academic committees; and 3) Research should adhere to biosecurity regulations and publication on vaccine research should be avoid exaggeration.

The nationalist considerations are blatant in this censorship directive. Amid the ongoing blame game between US and China on who should be ‘responsible’ for the virus, the first item of the directive sends a strong signal to discourage the scientific community in China on conducting origin research. While there is an evident intention of ‘quality control’ so as to avoid national embarrassment of the recent faulty mask and test-kit scandals, this directive also imposes political oversight which ensures scientific projects are in harmony with government narratives. But it is not far-fetched to say it has implications for domestic scientific trajectories. Given the necessity for ministerial level approval, to what extent will this divert competent researchers into politically less sensitive topics or at least ask politically less sensitive questions? To what extent will the additional bureaucracy and institutional responsibilities discourage provincial, municipal and university level support for COVID-19 research?

When censorship starts to impact scientists’ decisions on what types of questions could be asked, when they could be asked and what should be avoided, the resulting scientific compliance may be at the cost of a lost realm of knowledge.

Concluding Words

Censorship plays a key role in the development of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the more profound damage of censorship perhaps lie not so much in what has been altered or removed, but what has been ‘harmoniously denied’ of existence in the first place. That is, facts not acknowledged, risks not calculated, problems not discussed and questions not asked. By the term ‘harmonious’, I refer both to the original censorship incentive of managing a ‘harmonious society’ and to more sinister effects of the collective mentality and the unconscious societal acquiescence to an authoritarian agenda.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Censorship in China goes well beyond simply stopping things being said – there is an enormous level of news management at a intensity that goes beyond even anything Chomsky has written about on the West’s management of the Overton Window. I’m only on the periphery – as a non Mandarin speaker and watching passively what is exchanged on social media among Chinese friends – but it is astonishing just how quickly and effectively Beijing can manage information. In January there was widespread anger and horror among Chinese people about what was happening in Wuhan, in particular the censorship of doctors there who were desperately trying to get the message out. Within a matter of weeks, this had turned into a fairly passive acceptance that somehow this was all the US’s fault, and the virus really came from the US (a lab in Virginia, as it happens, brought via a female athlete doing the Wuhan Games). You can often follow the censorship live by seeing what links and words ‘disappear’ when using WeChat – I’ve had simultaneous conversations with Chinese people using WeChat and WhatsApp, and you can see what does and does not make it past Wechats servers. Its an odd experience to witness censorship live, but its possible to do it with Chinese information. Its much more subtle than just blanking out links or stories they don’t like – they boost stories (especially foreign ones), that can be seen as reinforcing a narrative, while suppressing others.

    There is little doubt I think but that government secrecy has begun to backfire on the Chinese. Its been theorised that one of the reasons the old Soviet Union started to decay internally from the 1960’s onwards was that too much secrecy meant that accurate information just stopped flowing from the ground to senior decision makers, meaning the illusion of targets being hit became more important than actually doing anything. Increasingly China is becoming a hall of mirrors, where it is becoming harder and harder to assess what is actually happening. Even once reliable proxies, like energy use, are being manipulated (according to official Chinese figures electricity use is higher now than this time last year – this seems impossible). Smog has become the only reliable measure of economic progress.

    Incidentally, Peak Prosperities channel on the virus spends time on quite an interesting conspiracy theory (currently I’m neutral as to whether its tin hat stuff or not, but I’m increasingly thinking that something weird did go on in those Wuhan labs, and that the US did have an indirect hand in it). Its worth the time to follow it. Its not, in my opinion, beyond possibilities that the initial release of the virus was caused by quite a mundane accident in a lab without thinking that there was some sort of horror story military involvement. It would be quite ironic given the mud slinging between the US and China that it turned out that both are right and wrong simultaneously, China and the US are both responsible.

    1. J.k.

      “…but I’m increasingly thinking that something weird did go on in those Wuhan labs, and that the US did have an indirect hand in it)”

      I think it interesting that the program was halted when the funding was cut off by the NIH in 2014 due to pressure from Obama admin. It was supposedly decided it was too dangerous to fund this kind of research? Yet in 2017, the moratorium was lifted. The funding flowed and the research began again? It almost reads as if the project hinged on the funding from the NIH. What was the involvement of the NIH in the project in addition to funding?
      This is the article referenced in the peak prosperity video.

      1. The Rev Kev

        I am fairly agnostic as to whether it was a naturally evolved virus or one that escaped out of a bio lab funded by the US in Wuhan, China but let us go with the later for the sake of argument. If I was considering playing around with a potentially deadly virus and was planning to have the research done, I would consider two locations-

        1) One of the two thousand odd islands in the world so that it could be naturally isolated.

        2) In the middle of a desert so that if it got out, the heat would kill it.

        What I would never do is locate it in the middle of the most populated country in the world. That would be reckless beyond belief that.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          The last time (that we know of) that this happened was in Birmingham, UK in 1978, when smallpox escaped a university lab. And yes, Birmingham University is in the leafy southern suburbs of the second biggest city in the UK.

          It’s generally accepted that the main structural cause, was senior decision makers not really understanding what they were permitting, and a bunch of scientists thinking ‘wow! smallpox! this is cool!’

        2. MLTPB

          Was the Wuhan lab location selected by Beijing?

          Was its construction funded by China?

          Is the cost of running of the lab also budgeted the same way?

          Did it accept funding for specific research projectes, partly or wholly, from outside, say international or foreign organizations? How prevalent has this been for other labs in the world?

          Is it simply ‘a bio lab funded by the US in Wuhan, China?’

          Back to location – how many universities around the world are located in dense, expensive neighborhoods? Should they not be in more remote areas?

          Shouldnt the CERN collidor or the one in New York also be on an island somewhere, or perhaps on the Moon?

        3. ambrit

          I’ll chime in and suggest that this is an artifact of the worship of Science today, our modern True Religion Unifying Edition (TRUE). For purposes of argument, I will use Science to describe the entire edifice of actual laboratories, administration cadres, oversight bodies, and State Policy directives.
          The Worship of Science is firmly based upon a misunderstanding of how science works. the popular vision of Science that I see all around in our society, is one of monolithic competence and magisterial knowledge. If something is Science oriented or based, then it must be not only right, but also good. Therein lies the religious component of the social construct known as Science.
          With this in mind, the placement and management of “dangerous” substances in laboratories is considered as being independent from physical location. A bio-research laboratory, or any laboratory, for that matter, must be safe, wherever it is situated because Scientists are in charge. As commented above, University research facilities are often in or adjacent to large population areas for simple reasons of access, workforce availability, and prestige value of having something ‘noteworthy’ in one’s neighborhood.
          As a consequence of the above, anyone who raises the issue of ‘safety’ or ‘appropriateness of location’ of a facility is generally excoriated and ridiculed for not “following the ‘official’ version of reality.”
          Thus, the real question here is not whether or not some siting committee was “reckless,’ but how they defined risk in the first place.

        4. Pym of Nantucket

          The remote locations would be too expensive and disjointed from medical equipment supply chains. Wuhan is the epicenter of the Chinese bio-pharma industry.

      2. Poppajee

        I’ve been following assertions about this possibility for awhile now since first coming across it, (see link 1. below). However the Newsweek article you link to is one of two by Fred Guterl et al last week that are to my knowledge the only ones in msm publications to treat this with anything less than the knee jerk derision normally accorded Trumpian assertions that would otherwise be wisely ignored. Unfortunately in this particular case such derision has not been limited to the aforementioned legacy opinionators. Would that expressions – whether they be of the political “left” or “right” – engendered by the aptly titled, “Trump Derangement Syndrome” be put aside. To that end, the ideas exhaustively outlined in link 1. have also been thoroughly and perhaps more neutrally covered in links 2. and 3. below. Finally link 4. is an even handed, and to the best of my knowledge, expertly informed assessment by Drs. Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein (of Evergreen infamy a couple years ago) on their YouTube podcast (“Darkhorse”) about all things coronavirus and more.

        1. https://harvardtothebighouse.com/2020/01/31/logistical-and-technical-analysis-of-the-origins-of-the-wuhan-coronavirus-2019-ncov/
        2. https://project-evidence.github.io/
        3. https://medium.com/@yurideigin/lab-made-cov2-genealogy-through-the-lens-of-gain-of-function-research-f96dd7413748
        4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKtsx0fZzzQ&feature=em-uploademail (15:00-41:00 and 47:30-57:20)

        1. Monty

          Thanks for this. That medium article is mind boggling!

          It wouldn’t suprise me if this frankenvirus work was outsourced to China because it was too dangerous, and perhaps illegal to do it in commercial labs in the US. Perhaps they have better labs and experts over there.

          Even if it’s just an amazing coincidence, but it didn’t escape from the lab, what “gain of function” actually means needs to be widely broadcast and understood.
          What the hell are they playing at!

        2. PlutoniumKun

          Thank you for those links, especially no.3. Its beyond my pay grade to be able to critically assess them, I’d love to hear comments from those of our commentators here with a biochemistry/virology background.

          1. emmajane

            I’ve been working back through the medium article after it skimming through it a few days ago. I sent it to a family member who does medical research, will check back for her opinions after she’s had it for awhile.

            Its hard to find a place where you can dare to bring up the possibility that gain of function studies being done in Wuhan could have been the source of CoV-2 without being labeled a conspiracy theorist.

            Its much like being called a Putin stooge for doubting Russiagate. I often find myself shamed into staying silent.

            1. MLTPB

              If you doubt everyone, thus also doubting Putin, being called anti-Russia can shame you into silence as well.

            2. PlutoniumKun

              Yes indeed, its a problem – mainly of course because a much of the noise around this subject are indeed, easily dismissible conspiracy theories. But as the article says, it seems to be at the very least one hell of a coincidence that the disease got loose just a very short walk from a lab known to be researching those viruses.

        3. KM

          Project-evidence source: Everyone is fixated on absence of bats in market, but coronavirus usually (or historically) jump to an intermediate mammal before infecting humans like with MERS.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      My comment is slightly off-topic — the words in your comment:
      “… too much secrecy meant that accurate information just stopped flowing from the ground to senior decision makers, meaning the illusion of targets being hit became more important than actually doing anything” — caught my eye. Within US business and government bureaucracy there are many pressures on middle management to always bear good news to those above, and those pressures flow down to the rank-and-file reporting on their ‘progress’ to middle managers. Not reporting the truth and not valuing truth is not unlike secrecy.

      1. JBird4049

        Modern American society in all areas (Government, media, science, business and perhaps even art) as well as the Soviet Union from the Great Purge of 1936-38 and in Communist China with Mao’s Famine being the example of, often massive, society wide censorship and lying. The Soviet Union’s massive casualties from Operation Barbarossa and the Chinese famine were results of such distortions. The people who knew how to do things were dead, in prison, or manipulated the reports either to stay alive or to give a good impression for mundane things like promotions. That meant that their subordinates as well as the leadership were blinded.

        I really do not know enough about European society to give an honest critique, but looking at the British government’s Carnival of Follies with Brexit and COVID19, somehow I think that it is pan-European now. The cause might start from the top but eventually it is done by everyone while it spreads throughout everything.

        One of the reasons, I believe, that too many Americans refuse to believe that racism is a very real thing that has had a devastating impact on our society is because of the silence of previous generations of people, some still alive or only just died, about Jim Crow, racial cleansing, and lynching, which really existed throughout the United States, but was more formalized in the South. It only ended to an extent in the 1970s. This means that people who are still alive that participated in lynchings or who had to not drink at the No Blacks Allowed marked water fountain.

        When I was a child, I played with toy guns and air rifles all the time with absolutely no fear from anyone. I use to go to the Courthouse without seeing a single cop or going through a single metal detector. Just as I use to board airplanes with only seeing a single “guard” and going through one metal detector.

        We are safer than ever from violence with violent crime declining for decades aside from 9/11. Yet, our society tells itself the lie that we are in greater and greater danger with more people dying every day than the last. Fear everything. Lie about everything that is not dangerous while lying about things that are. It rather explains why society feels, and is increasingly becoming, an open air prison, and entire countries are laid waste, their populations slaughtered, all to “protect” us from the omnipresent baddies.

        As others have said, if you cannot mean what you say, how can you say what you mean? How can you not be living a lie?

    3. Kurtismayfield

      There is little doubt I think but that government secrecy has begun to backfire on the Chinese. Its been theorised that one of the reasons the old Soviet Union started to decay internally from the 1960’s onwards was that too much secrecy meant that accurate information just stopped flowing from the ground to senior decision makers,

      That will never happen in the US.. the corporate surveillance state has guaranteed the people that need to know (The ones who control the financial and security apparatus) will always have better information than the average person. We enable it every day with the devices we purchase, and our behaviors. At this point its so asymmetrically against the common person that they have no idea its happening. I bet the Chinese think that they have it under control as well.

    4. ewmayer

      Re. the accidental-lab-release/gain-of-function-research possibility, I’ve been studying the official denails of same by various “experts”. For example:


      In a statement to the Guardian, James Le Duc, the head of the Galveston National Laboratory in the US, the biggest active biocontainment facility on a US academic campus, also poured cold water on the suggestion.

      “There is convincing evidence that the new virus was not the result of intentional genetic engineering and that it almost certainly originated from nature, given its high similarity to other known bat-associated coronaviruses,” he said.

      So if gather several different kinds of wild-animal hosts of various strains of Coronavirus in a lab setting, with the intent of cross-infecting some test animals with 2 or more of the distinct strains in order to create genetic viral hybrids – which is precisely the aim of the “gain of function” research covered by the grant monies in question and being performed at the Wuhan lab – the resulting hybrids indeed “originated from nature” – the researchers simply did an accelerated, targeted form of what happens in nature. The phrase “intentional genetic engineering” is a deflection because that can mean many things – in this case, an engineered meet-up of wild viral substrains. As it happens, there is a recent paper in the prestigious journal PLoS Biology featuring an example of what appears to have been such an accident. That paper also describes the kinds of clues which can be used to fingerprint such viral hybrids – in this case, the original strains which were hybridized were natural, but the hybrid appears to show a anomalous “freeze” in the expected subsequent mutation-driven drift of its genome (I provide the title of the ScienceDaily article which summarizes ad links to the research paper, because whenever I try to post a comment with more than 1 live link I get asked to donate my time to help add to the reference dataset used by Google train its self-driving AI):

      Virus genomes help to explain why a major livestock disease has re-emerged in Europe — ScienceDaily

      Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic virus, the natural mutation rate appears rather lower than for Bluetongue virus, so the same kind of genomic-mutation-rate analysis may not be possible for the short timeframe in question. But it is a useful example by way of establishing that there is a precedent.

      1. MLTPB

        With respect to the many things meant by ‘intentional genetic enginnering,’ is it similar to the question people have regarding how traditional plant breeding differs from genetic engineering?

        1. ambrit

          To your point, the monk Mendel, back in the 1800’s worked out the rules of genetics by experimenting with plants and variations within a species of plant in his garden. I would agree with you that plant breeding, indeed, any ‘directed’ breeding program, is genetic engineering. Take that out further and we come to the great breeding program of the Bene Gesserit from the book series “Dune.”

          1. The Rev Kev

            Ever heard of Robert Heinlein’s Howard Families? It was done through a Foundation that was an openly chartered non-profit corporation-


            And here is a quote for how it worked out in practice-

            On March 17, 1874, Ira Johnson, medical student, sat in the law offices of Deems, Wingate, Alden, & Deems and listened to an unusual proposition. At last he interrupted the senior partner. “Just a moment! Do I understand that you are trying to hire me to marry one of these women?”
            The lawyer looked shocked. “Please, Mr. Johnson. Not at all”
            “Well, it certainly sounded like it.”
            “No, no, such a contract would be void, against public policy. We are simply informing you, as administrators of a trust, that should it come about that you do marry one of the young ladies on this list it would then be our pleasant duty to endow each child of such a union according to the scale here set forth. But there would be no Contract with us involved, nor is there any ‘proposition’ being made to youand we certainly do not urge any course of action on you. We are simply informing you of certain facts.”
            Ira Johnson scowled and shuffled his feet. “What’s it all about? Why?”
            “That is the business of the Foundation. One might put it that we approve of your grandparents.”
            “Have you discussed me with them?” Johnson said sharply.
            He felt no affection for his grandparents. A tight-fisted foursome-if any one of them had had the grace to die at a reasonable age he would not now be worried about money enough to finish medical school.
            “We have talked with them, yes. But not about you.”
            The lawyer shut off further discussion and young Johnson accepted gracelessly a list of young women, all strangers, with the intention of tearing it up the moment he was outside the office. Instead, that night he wrote seven drafts before he found the right words in which to start cooling off the relation between himself and his girl back home. He was glad that he had never actually popped the question to her-it would have been deucedly awkward.
            When he did marry (from the list) it seemed a curious but not too remarkable coincidence that his wife as well as himself had four living, healthy, active grandparents.

            From “Methuselah’s Children” by Robert Heinlein.

    5. Pym of Nantucket

      I was deathly ill in Beijing in early December 2019 too. Probably caught the same thing as the author from the airport.

      As for the mystery about the virus origin: Trying to figure out what happened by reading information on the internet is like trying to understand the Higgs Boson by reading The Bible. Good luck to you.

      Similarly, a while back I gave up trying to sift through the absurd, impossible, coincidental and contradictory threads in the mainstream consensus narrative of 9/11. I concluded there were simply too many obstacles to being lucky enough to land on the “truth” about that. Gaslighters 1, me 0.

  2. laodan

    Zhang YueYue’s conclusion begs a more fundamental question about science as the practice of forming “knowings” during the era of Modernity. Such knowings are bits and pieces, of a non existing narrative, about what reality is all about which radically contrasts with what was the practice during the non-power era of Animism when the narrative, about what reality is all about, was considered to be “knowledge”.

    Modernity rests on the axiom of capital or more precisely on “the reason that is at work within capital”. Over the centuries that reason has shaped very peculiar societal ways that by Late-Modernity have been internalized by nearly all citizens on this earth. It is in this particular context that Zhang YueYue’s conclusion gains its full significance : “Some of the more profound damage of censorship perhaps lie not so much in what has been altered or removed, but what has been ‘harmoniously denied’ of existence in the first place. That is, facts not acknowledged, risks not calculated, problems not discussed and questions not asked”.

    But as Jean-Francois Lyotard observed in “The Postmodern Condition” the bits and pieces that science addresses are being forced on the scientific community by the investments financing their activities. So from the get-go the foundation of the whole scientific edifice was not based on the idea of freedom, nor on the idea of knowledge creation, but on the idea of satisfying the needs of capital. What this really means is that the subject, or the substance, of scientific studies is being imposed by capital and capital does not care about the form taken by scientific activities. Having stated this premise I’m afraid that YueYue conflates the form of scientific freedom with its substance.

    China is owned by the CCP and its decision making is not in the hands of capital nor any interest group. The decisions of the CCP are founded in a philosophical understanding of the working of society derived from Traditional Chinese Culture and Marxism as long as it fits in the picture of TCC. All specific decisions are then based on the methodology of science. Decision making in China centers first and foremost on the well-being of the people. In the case of Covod-19 the well being of the people was immediately and squarely at the center of the extreme decisions that, as would be observed later, were acting against the economy…

    The West is owned by its biggest capital holders who literally own the political decision making process. So the initial reaction against Covid-19 was to let the sickness burn down. This had been the policy in the West against all pandemics in the past… But soon it appeared that Western citizens started to compare the outcome of China’s policies versus the outcome in their own countries. This is when the West felt compelled to follow China. But being too late at the game the outcome soon appeared far worse than the outcome in China. That’s when propaganda was let loose…

    The fact of the matter is that power societies impose their ideology on their citizens. And propaganda – censorship are part of the game to control the collective thinking. This is true both in the West and in China. Having said that I personally feel that what really matters societally is the life condition of the citizens. And Covid-19 in this regard has been an object lesson in comparative applied-politics that does not bode well for the future of the West…

    1. MLTPB

      Li Dan, also know as Laozi, along with others and their ideas from Traditional Chinese Culture, mostly the Han culture, were denounced during the Cultural Revolution by the CCP.

      1. laodan

        Yes that’s right.

        The rejection of TCC during the cultural revolution helped the social absorption of the reforms in the eighties. Traditions are braking down changes. What is happening in India today illustrates the point.

    2. mpalomar

      “China is owned by the CCP and its decision making is not in the hands of capital nor any interest group. The decisions of the CCP are founded in a philosophical understanding of the working of society derived from Traditional Chinese Culture and Marxism as long as it fits in the picture of TCC. All specific decisions are then based on the methodology of science. Decision making in China centers first and foremost on the well-being of the people.”

      Interesting take and agree that information in the West and to a degree western science suffers from the manipulation of what is presumed to be unbiased, ontological certainties.

      I am merely a casual observer of the administration of China but I would question these premises. In China decision making may not be in the hands of capital however as China’s economy has evolved over the decades since 1949, can capital be excluded from the decision making process?
      Can it reasonably be assumed, with the emergence of a billionaire class that, “decision making centers first and foremost on the well-being of the people?”

      1. laodan

        Well the billionaire class is not getting a pass in China. The CCP favors State owned enterprises in all sectors considered as strategic. And when a private enterprise wins in a new sector, like recently in web related activities, that enterprise has to let the state take a capital participation… which is welcomed by the private owners because that ensures the enterprise will get easier access to state banks… Jack Ma is a good example of a billionaire who the political center thought was no longer of any help to the company he created. In other words he had to leave the place for managers that the political center thought were better equipped to manage the company.

        Decision making in China centers first and foremost on the well-being of the people for the simple reason that as Confucius wrote in the Analects 2500 years ago the people have the moral right to dismiss the team in power if they are not giving satisfaction to the people in 2 areas : protection from trouble originating outside the country and ensuring that the internal conditions are favorable to peoples’ economic endeavors.
        In other words China is not an autocracy as the concept is understood in the West.

    3. Dirk77

      It’s hard to say whose approach is better at this point. From my understanding of the US, the response to a crisis seems to always involve chaos initially, such as the Great Depression. As has been noted on this blog by others, the US gets around to a good approach only when it has exhausted every other. It is only recently, this century, that any “solution” settled on seems to make things worse. Perhaps that is the hallmark of a dying society, one getting more under the thumb of capital as you say. Yet, that doesn’t indict a democratic approach by itself. Looking back these 100 days, how many readers of this blog would argue that if they were in charge, in their country they would have sealed the borders and instituted a total lockdown until the virus had burnt itself out. Then with borders sealed the lockdown is lifted and people go about their business, repairing the damage in this new normal. Waiting years perhaps for the rest of the world to catch up. I think if it were even 50 years ago, this would have been what everyone in the democratic West would have converged upon, a cure not cutting things short. But this appears to not be how things are now. (Which is why I argue for the Swedish approach, though I hope I’m wrong.) What I’m trying to say that being safe in China has its downside and being at risk in the old West has its plusses, and I wouldn’t exchange one for the other – if I were still living in the old West. Societies always involve compromises and where one settles on is never perfect, so perhaps I’m in agreement with after all. But it’s always a question of degree. Hopefully this is the longest post I will ever make!

      1. laodan

        I appreciate the honesty of your comments. I’m a European and I lived in the States for 10 years but I finally decided to live in China because it is the place where I feel the freest. But as you say no place is perfect. It is just that some places feel better or more free than other.

    4. Fergus Hashimoto

      I take issue with your pompous claim that “Modernity rests on the axiom of capital or more precisely on ‘the reason that is at work within capital’”. Modernity arose in Europe between the 16th and the 18th centuries, when capital played a very subsidiary role and the landed aristocracy was running the show.

      1. Pym of Nantucket

        Another development in modernity is that science now relies heavily on the agreed consensus of scientific literature and an extreme specialization and division of labour among scientists. Many of the early developments of classical science were simple enough that empiricism was available to curious individuals who could satisfy themselves as to the relatively reliable predictability of emerging theories compared to theories derived from belief. The principles of operations of devices and tools of daily life were within reach.

        Most modern technology is so complex now that lay people more or less have to treat it with mystical faith. It is becoming more like religion as we “progress”

        1. laodan

          Yes early science was empirical and it was not the domain of specialists. When you look at the 17th century and the progression of the textile technology you have basically the early scientist in action. The British state was promoting protectionist policies in order to discourage the import of Indian cotton textiles. And some guys who had accumulated some capital during commercial ventures experimented with mechanical spinning and weaving methods in order to localize the productions in Britain. And when technologies started to mature the East India Company decided that Indians could no longer spin and weave their cotton. They had to sell their raw cotton to the Company which then sold it to the Early industrialists in Britain and the Indians became the largest importer of British cotton textiles…

          Your following statement is right to the point “Most modern technology is so complex now that lay people more or less have to treat it with mystical faith. It is becoming more like religion as we “progress”.

          But there is a caveat. Nor Modernity nor science ever succeeded to supply a narrative about the working of reality as religions had done over the past millennia. Science remains the study of bits and pieces of reality because the scientists are paid to study what capital holders want them to study. And what capital wants are “tricks” that allow to produce cheaper existing goods or to produce new goods…

      2. laodan

        I respectfully disagree with your statement.

        Modernity can’t be confused with the industrial revolution.

        Modernity starts in Europe with an early phase that in economic History is called commercial capitalism. Long distance trade was the reason why capital emerged originally as the transformation of money into an investment. The higher risks coming with long distance trade imposed the acceptance and then the recognition and later the religious devotion to ‘the reason that is at work within capital’. That era started sometimes between the 12th and 14th century and is called Early-Modernity.

        The second phase of Modernity arose in Europe between the 17th and the 18th centuries. It was the start of an emerging industrial capitalism that was financed with the profits realized during the earlier phase of commercial capitalism. That means that Europe realized its primitive capital accumulation during the phase of commercial capitalism. This second phase is also called High-Modernity and ‘the reason that is at work within capital’ expanded into the philosophic realm with rationalism.

        Then sometime after the 2nd World War emerged the 3rd era of Modernity that I personally call Late-Modernity or the era during which Modernity dies…

  3. The Rev Kev

    There are 1,393,000,000 people in China and I am sure that they will handle their own problems with their own propaganda. As PK pointed out, countries that ignore important information sooner or later have it blow up in their faces. And China has been there before. I have to say though that they can have a wicked wit sometimes-


    What does get me going is western propaganda though. The latest example is Tara Reade whose charges were ignored by the main stream media for so long. Were they doing the DNC a favour or were favours called in by them? Inquiring minds wish to know. But then it went further. Google yanked from their store the episode of Larry King where Tara’s mother rang in about this assault. And in an attempt to hide it, they renumbered the episodes on their site. Did Google do this on their own? And why are so many media sources so respectful of Joe Biden when it is blatantly obvious that he is not in a fit state to be the President? The self censorship is amazing. Nancy Pelosi is asked about the difference between the treatment of Reade and Kavanagh and she replies that she does not need a lecture – and the reporters takes it. In the 70s a reporter would have torn her a new one.

    The point is that whereas China’s censorship seems to be top-down here in the west it is more insidious. It is decentralized which is easy as the US, for example, has most of its media owned by only six corporations. It has gotten to the point that stories are self censored and so never appear. One guy working at the New York Times was saying in a conference that as they were reviewing what stories to publish, one came up for Israel that was pretty bad. The people looked at each other and without a word being said, the story was deep-sixed. No orders, no directives, just a general consensus among reporters what could and could not be published. Think about how many stories there are about our political leaders but because the media reporters are now gate keepers of stories and not reporters anymore, we are getting a very distorted picture about people in power.

    1. MLTPB

      Generally, freedom of the press, best places to live, openness, healthcare, etc are looked at on a scale or a spectrum.

      So, it’s not ‘this or that event, at one time, or several times, also happens in Australia, Italy, Japan, etc.’

      Maybe Indian readers are interested in this, and in that case, they may not be interested in comparing it to the US or the West. They may ask, is it that bad up north?

      And for people in China who expect a lot of Beijing, their standard may not be ‘they also do it, worse or otherwise.’

      The same people above also may not be interested in China being used by people in the West to address problems there, nor in being used by Moscow to possibly take on jobs not in Beijing’s best interest.

  4. rd

    There are a handful of crises that I can remember where entities were very transparent and forthcoming. The two key ones that stand out to me are the Apollo 13 explosion, the Challenger investigation, and the J&J Tylenol poisoning crisis.

    The thing that stands out to me are how few and far between these are. In general, I go under the working assumption that there is a serious amount of obfuscation and cover-up in pretty much everything. You have to do a lot of reading and sifting to come up with enough info to have a reasonable plan of action.

    However, Hanlon’s Razor is generally the driver for the obfuscation and cover-ups: “Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to stupidity or incompetence.” The cover-ups are to hide the WTF nature of the events that unfolded. Trump’s press conferences are no different than whatever stories are coming out of China.

    Key reasons why leaders like FDR and Churchill were respected in the 1930s and 1940s was because they didn’t sugar-coat bad things. Instead they recognized them and then laid out a plan. They hid things and kept secrets (it’s what you do in war) so things like the atomic bomb and Enigma code-breaking were kept secret (except for spies giving the bomb to the Soviets). There were some big blunders (it happens as Churchill well knew from his Dardanelles blunder in WW I) But on the whole, if they could talk about the bad things publicly, they would but would provide hope there was a plan for moving forward to a better time..

  5. Social Nationalist

    China is very decentralized in political power. US business began altering in December. It was already well known.

  6. ambrit

    A question for the site admins.
    Is the mention of a certain Middle East centred website, whose name starts with “S” trigger an automatic deletion function for that comment?
    I have had it happen twice in quick succession.
    Just curious, not upset. Thanks.

  7. RBHoughton

    For nearly ten years scientists have been able to buy lengths of RNA, stitched them together and immerse them in a nutrient fluid where they become alive, join-up as a virus and start replicating. We have the ability to make life from chemicals. In our society any laboratory can do that and no regulation is required.

    If we wish to get better control of new diseases (and we know monkey pox is spreading in West Africa) we might consider vetting the regulation of the scientists who travel around collecting new viruses and the others who stay at home and make their own.

  8. Dwight

    This article was very interesting, but was unclear about the reason that Wuhan censored more than cities outside Wuhan. At one point, the author says that Wuhan’s local media was censored “in accordance to local needs.” At another point, she says “Wuhan authorities’ initial decision to bypass the national reporting system [was] for fear of political admonishment on bringing up ‘bad news’.” These could be the same, but the former could also be local bureaucratic or economic incentives to avoid bad news.

    The author was also not specific about dates of reports outside Wuhan, including the “Beijing newspaper [ ] that first questioned Wuhan authorities’ insistence on ‘social harmony’ at the cost of public ignorance.” She was also not specific when she said: “To be sure, some of the censored content may have been fake news, but it was also evident that what remained in circulation adhered to the party-line.” I was left wondering what the “party-line” was, and how much of what was censored was just wrong. Was the Beijing article she mentioned censored?

    I oppose censorship, government or corporate, and think that readers should be left to sort out truth for themselves. I also think the U.S. has its own huge problem with mainstream media not disclosing conflicts of interest and less direct institutional and economic incentives. Overall the article was very informative and balanced, and I’m just stating things I wish she had explained better.

  9. Fergus Hashimoto

    I recently denounced Vijay Prashad for his shameless propaganda demonizing Europe on the flimsiest of grounds. Now he’s at it again, this time churning out fulsome praise for the Chinese tyranny on Globetrotter.
    “Viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 are complex. The Chinese government and its medical establishment acted in a scientific manner, with resolve and with speed; the disciplined public action of Chinese society, including the immense scale of volunteerism, was breathtaking. Weiyan, Xiaojun and I looked very closely at the evidence of the virus, of the disease that began to convulse society and at the way the Chinese government, medical establishment and social organizations responded; this booklet is an evidence-based tribute to their fight against COVID-19.”
    —Vijay Prashad, Director, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

    Key information:
    An important paper in Science magazine proposes that if the Chinese government had not initiated the lockdown of Wuhan and the national emergency response, there would have been 744,000 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases outside of Wuhan.
    Soon after the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, more than 40,000 additional medical workers arrived in the city, and protective equipment, tests, ventilators, and other supplies were rushed in. “In just two months, the epidemic situation in Wuhan was basically under control,” said Dr. Li Lanjuan, who was on the ground at that time.
    As of February 1, the government produced 773,000 test kits a day; by February 25, it was producing 1.7 million kits per day; by March 31, 4.26 million test kits were produced per day.
    Up to February 9, the health authorities had inspected 4.2 million households (10.59 million people) in Wuhan—99 percent of the population.
    Bla bla bla bla

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