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Just over a year ago, Dave Pritchett walked into the RoundTable office and asked if we would be interested in hearing from a friend of his who was stuck in China because of the virus that was raging there.
At that time, the novel coronavirus was on the periphery of our consciousness – it had not yet been named COVID-19, the new coronavirus discovered in 2019 – but we were of course eager to hear firsthand news from an Evanstonian.
One year ago today, the RoundTable published “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” the first of two missives from Kurt Mitenbuler who was visiting his in-laws in Enshi, a prefecture-level city in China about 500 kilometers west of Hubei.
It began, “I am in China. … This was going to be another fun Spring Festival excursion. It started out that way. Now, it has turned into something else.” The full letter is reprinted below.
We published Mr. Mitenbuler’s second letter a few days later, on Feb. 12, thinking these were more travel narratives than previews.
Mr. Mitenbuler returned to Evanston in September. In the next weeks, the RoundTable will publish his narrative of the summer in China and his reflections on governing and governance.
In the meantime, we invite readers to revisit “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” and remember those few weeks leading up to the March lockdown. The RoundTable welcomes other memories of what it was like as it dawned on our country, state and City that a dangerous wave of illness and destruction was heading toward us.
I am in China. For the last 10 years, have spent between two and four months in China.
Ten years ago, having never traveled, or even owned a passport before my travel, I made my first visit to the Middle Kingdom. I fell in love with a Chinese woman who is now my wife.
Through her, I have learned and experienced a country that I also fell in love with – China, its people, its traditional culture, its deep connection to the countryside, its seasons, and all that implies to a society originally formed by tilling the Earth.
This was going to be another fun Spring Festival excursion. It started out that way. Now, it has turned into something else.
By now, the world has been alerted to the timelines and subsequent cover up and subterfuge of the Chinese government in bungling this emergency.
China has always impressed me with its all-consuming methodology in moving China into the modern world. The suppression of useful information is right up there with all their other efforts.
The situations change on an hourly basis. Every time I start to document the current state of the city, there are new developments. I will keep with what’s happened up until today. Tomorrow is another story.
For a brief few hours, on February 3, it seemed the dam had broken. On WeChat, a few posts with links to stories of official misconduct and blame-laying stayed up. I contributed to the threads with Alexander Solzhenitsyn quotes describing the dystopia world of Communism. I checked around p.m. to see if it was still up; still there. I checked again around 11:30 p.m., when I went to bed; still there. This morning, when I woke up, the first thing I checked was the WeChat post. Gone. Things haven’t changed; they’ve merely slowed down. It took the overnight lull for the censors to catch up with the firehose of angry posts.
This morning (Feb. 6), Dr. Li Wenliang passed away. He was the doctor who initially sounded the alarm almost two months ago, but was silenced, removed from active duty, made to sign documents admitting what he did was illegal and outside official channels, and generally persecuted.
The number of outraged posts on this topic has brought forth an avalanche of angry posts about the lying thieving top leadership of the Party.
I know people who were friends with Dr. Li Wenliang. By all accounts he was a dedicated and tireless worker always with the best interests of his patients in mind. If anyone prays, please say a few for Dr. Li. He was a great man, silenced by a ruthless and uncaring government.
As far as my physical situation, I am, thankfully, in Enshi, a small (only about a million souls) prefecture-level city about 500 km west of Hubei, nestled in the foothills and mountains. Stories from my friends in Wuhan indicate I do NOT want to be there. It is a nightmare. I won’t elaborate; there are plenty of descriptions circulating online.
Enshi is a ghost town, just like every other city in Hubei. Broad, eight-lane boulevards normally packed with cars, scooters, all manner of three-wheeled jitney and improvised mechanical devices, and pedestrians are empty.
The only cars roaming the vacant streets are equipped with large loudspeakers blaring tinny nasty sounding commands: “Don’t go out! Stay inside! Don’t visit friends or family! Don’t talk to anyone! Wash your hands! Wear a mask!” Comparisons to the closing scenes in Fahrenheit 451 are appropriate.
Masks are not just recommended. Mask-use is mandatory. Not wearing a mask gains the immediate attention of the Chengguan, the street police granted the authority to enforce official policy. They all look like Central Casting caricatures of thugs – thugs who, granted authority, use it. You do not mess with Chengguan. You don’t even want to be in their vicinity. If you see them down the street, you turn around and go another direction. I keep my mask on and carry a spare in my pocket, just in case.
Going out of the compound, everyone has to present ID, have their temperature taken, and wash their hands with alcohol before they can leave.
Entering or exiting any grocery store has the same protocol. Reentering the compound is the same methodology. I learned today that even casual exit for a walk along the river is restricted; permits are being issued restricting exit to one person per family, three times a week.
Thoughts turn to food: Hewn Bakery on Saturday morning for a sticky bun and later on one of their Best-in-Class Reuben sandwiches, an Orange Door IPA at Sketchbook Brewery, a slice of apple pie and a coffee at Hoosier Mama.
I put those thoughts out of my head. I think of my home on South Boulevard, the South and Sherman email group connecting neighbors. I dream of my comfortable apartment, front yard vegetable garden and accompanying rooftop tomato garden. I put those thoughts out of my head too. It’s the future. I have to live in the present.
My fresh coffee stash is dwindling; I check it every morning. I’m down to about three or four days, tops. I’ve been on an every-other-day schedule, then I went every third day. Now I’m thinking I need to extend it to every fourth day. I do not dilute my morning cup; I do not drink weak coffee. I am rationing, hoping to extend my morning refreshment.
Nursing my coffee like a drunk on his last Budweiser, I watch from my fourth-floor perch the daily compound disinfection. An old man (wearing a mask) and a liquid tank backpack of disinfectant, sprays down the trash bins, walks, entries, stairs, railings, walls, and elevators including the buttons for each floor. Like everything else in China, once they get on the game, they’re efficient and effective. The smell of dilute chlorine bleach solution wafts upward. My memories of quarantine will doubtless be linked to this smell.
I smoke a cigarette every morning in the open-air stairwell, standing at the railing with my coffee.
In Chicago, I disparage anyone smoking, period. I have proposed smokers should all be put in glass boxes where we can point at them like monkeys in a zoo. Here, I’ve taken up the one a day habit.
Sinatra, when he hit 70, started smoking again, saying, “Why not? I’m an old fart, I’m going to enjoy myself.” I haven’t fallen that far, but, depending on how long this thing continues, it’s not inconceivable that I might go up to two, or even four, a day.
Finishing the butt, I flick it out into the air where it lands on the roof of the “porch” that is the entry to our building. It lands alongside the dozens of other accumulated butts. No one cares. In Chicago, I’d be yelling at anyone that flicked a butt in my alley. Here … I’m here. People flick butts. Get over it. I do.
Turning on the TV, one sees the usual programs, but interspersed between segments, the screen is filled with happy smiling individuals all working together and fighting the Corona virus. There are fades, vignettes, and beautiful scenes of Chinese landscapes blending together with scenes of high-level officials meeting hospital staff, providing assurances, clasping their hands in salute and thanks, and everywhere everyone is smiling and visually expressing complete and total admiration to the officials.
Military medics jumping out of helicopters, racing to apparently apprehend the virus are interspersed throughout the production. Inspirational music rises and falls according to what’s on screen. The propaganda department is cranked up to 11 in a bald-faced display of propagandistic scenes one imagines happening in fourth-world dictatorships, which China is feeling like nowadays.
Questions from stateside all ask about access to hospitals, health care, and all the other questions Westerners have about the immediacies of the health crisis. Answers are generalized. As with everything else in China, it’s complicated; there are a lot of variables; and I can only describe what I have personal experience in.
Yes, Wuhan’s hospitals are packed, and halls are filled with frantic people attempting to see a medical professional of any stripe. Doctors are worked beyond a state of collapse. I am sure we will hear of the suicide of at least one doctor, nurse, or related medical professional. I have videos of entire office suites of mask-clad hospital employees collapsed on floors, in chairs, and lying across desks. The only thing I can compare it to are descriptions I’ve read about GIs in Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge – people worked to well beyond the physical and mental capacity of any human, and being ordered to go back and fight more.
Wealthy cities like Hangzhou, Shanghai, Xiamen (and this is somewhat the case in Wuhan) have hospitals that resemble something an American would recognize. Then, there are the hospitals for the masses. I generalize to friends who ask for descriptions with a simple formula: Gather and reflect on any sensibility one might have when hearing the word “hospital”, then forget those sensibilities. They do not apply.
The default condition of an average major urban area Chinese hospital is hallways packed with frantic people. Lobbies are like an expansive Greyhound bus station with people jammed in, no available seats. Peasants who stink with filthy bare feet are stretched out taking up at least four spaces, oblivious to/ignoring those standing. At least one person is smoking right in the lobby, and dozens are packed around the entries creating literal clouds of smoke.
Giant Chengguan with three-foot truncheons direct the flow of people, with aggressive shouts and gestures. There are series of mechanical gates, remarkably similar to the cattle-chute gating system in livestock feed lots, gathering and shuttling people through passageways to the elevators.
Elevators are jammed to well beyond capacity. It’s not uncommon for someone to light up a cigarette in the elevator. In our visits, I walked up 19 flights of stairs in order to avoid being in an elevator. The stairwells were, of course, where Chinese men go to smoke cigarettes.
I have seen 3-metter-by-3-meter offices where (I counted) 17 people jammed in to listen to the doctor. Nearly every doctor and nurse are wearing gowns that are, at best, like worn sheets in a cheap motel, and all have darning and sewing repairs to button holes and stress points.
It is extremely rare to be able to see the same doctor more than once. The standard experience is this: You put your name in the list, stand in line, and wait for whoever they assign you.
The idea of having a personal relationship with a doctor is nonexistent for the ordinary citizen. Certain wealthy or connected people can find doctors with whom they can have a relationship. These relationships are based on the perceived weight of what one might bring to the patient-doctor relationship, the possibility of reciprocal favor- granting, or in many cases, the simple payment of money, although the payment part has subsided substantially since Xi Dada began his anti-corruption campaign. I suspect it continues through back-channel methods, a suspicion all my friends have confirmed.
Stories describing transgressions against The People by officials or medical staff disappear from WeChat within minutes or seconds. The censorship apparatus is cranked up to 11. What do The People actually believe?
The overall situation on the ground, right now, is that there is a growing realization that the government messed this up royally. On WeChat, there are individuals tangentially referring to missteps on the part of government, but after that, how does one determine what citizens are actually thinking?
My attempts at discerning this are immediately recognized as trying to know actual thoughts of The People. I can see the look in their eyes. It is a combination of panic, fear, and then the immediate deflection and adoption of the inscrutable. There is no political discussion in China. It does not exist.
Educational institutions, where a semblance of actual discussion once occurred, do have political discussion. The discussion starts and stops in expressing continual and eternal gratitude and fealty to the magnificent success of The Party at moving China into the future.
Since about a year ago, all classrooms in Chinese universities have Party “proctors” who sit in the back, ask no questions, make no statements, and take notes. It is an officially stated and well known fact that student Party members, who remain unknown and secret to both teachers, students, and proctors, take mental notes on the proceedings and report in to their superiors. The Party doesn’t just monitor discussion; they monitor the monitors. Then, there are the cameras in every classroom. Anyone out there want to guess at the level of discussion? I’ve been in the classrooms. It is the silence of the lambs, made whole.
To seek political discussion in China is to brand oneself as an ultimate fool and outsider. New York Times articles to the contrary, people do not want to talk to journalists, and when they rarely do, the usually don’t provide a name. To talk to a journalist is to reveal one’s thoughts, something that only happens after a deep trusting relationship is established. News reports on what people think are exaggerated. Distrust hyperbole with the major newspapers; the New York Times does not accurately reflect the situation among The People.
Western academics nominally familiar with Chinese history and tradition are invoking the current situation as similar to catastrophes in the past that signaled to the people that the Emperor and government had lost the Mandate of Heaven and are therefore not entitled to rule. There was even an earthquake a few days ago in Chengdu, magnitude 5.2, that they’ve tacked onto their assertion this might be the beginning of the end for Xi and his authoritarian rule. I submit that anything is possible, but this speculation is at the fringe, and only serves to make those making the connections to appear knowledgeable in Chinese history, nothing more.
Regarding the possible dissatisfaction with leadership, the loss of the Mandate of Heaven, and all the other ways Chinese dynastic traditions have come and gone, it’s a big question. Let me knock out a couple yardsticks for attempting to get one’s head wrapped around the idea.
Add up the total populations of the first tier cities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing – the largest and those under the direct supervision of the Central Government), the second-tier cities (Wuhan, Chengdu, Nanjing, Suzhou, a raft of cities you’ve never heard of and that I can’t pronounce or spell), the 100 or so cities with populations of approximately 1 million and you end up with a total of about 300 million.
O.K., add 100 million as a fudge factor, because there are doubtless academics already doing the math trying to undermine my thesis in the eunuchs’ relentless attempt to regain the high ground of authority. Fine. I stick with my number of 400 million. Now, imagine that every one of the citizens has exactly and precisely the same feelings about the government (they do not).
What you end up with is approximately one-third of the total population of China being dissatisfied with The Party. I submit that the number of people really dissatisfied with the government to be somewhere around 150-200 million, tops, and they aren’t really talking to one another.
So, who knows? I sure don’t. Here’s what I am absolutely sure of.
Get out into the country where the great and largest mass of population still resides and the Party is God. Every house, meaning EVERY HOUSE, has a picture of Mao set amidst a little Mao shrine, always in the central “living room.”
This year there are a remarkable number of Xi pics up next to Mao. This should not be underestimated as a sign of the will of The People.
Some of this is due to unnatural selection. Anyone familiar with the liberation of China knows that in the initial horrors of 1949-1950-ish, any dissent was met with a single option: Kill the dissenters. First, it was take out the loudmouth obvious ones.
In its most advanced stage, The Party established specific formulas for getting the peasants to fall in line: Go in, establish the population numbers, and arbitrarily kill 3,000 out of every 100,000. (see Dekotter, “The Tragedy of Liberation”). This is called “kill the chickens to scare the monkeys.”
After a couple years of this, every household was plastered with pro Mao exhortations, the better to dissuade the cadres from dragging fathers and sons off to oblivion.
After a few generations, those not satisfied with The Party were culled, leaving a generally docile and compliant population.
Are there deep resentments and desire for revenge existing somewhere in the countryside? Assuredly. But, I defy anyone to try and find them. (Refer to the paragraphs associated with “No political discussion.”)
After unnatural selection, The Party is revered, because they have come through big time for The People.
I’ve been deep in the countryside looking around for about 10 years now. The transformation is Herculean. All new roads, previously crappy dirt roads now paved, guard rails on roads where farmers used to drive off cliffs and die because of the extremely hazardous conditions, solar-powered street lights, sewage and sanitation systems. Bridges tie together parts of the outback that used to take days to traverse by car or foot – days that are now reduced to a few minutes or an hour.
Nearly every mud-brick shack, which used to be every house in every town and village, is now replaced with new housing, albeit of identical concrete boxes that incorporate no apparent design sense whatsoever, possibly to better illustrate the Socialist ethic.
A few of the newest houses exhibit a smattering of traditional Chinese architectural details, primarily upswept eaves and fake brackets, all at the urging of Xi Dada to adopt more traditional designs into the scheme of things. Tie it all together with a high-speed train system that is strictly 22nd-century Sci-Fi and a highway system that is brand new, gigantic, goes everywhere and continues to expand, and you got a government that looks pretty good for the average Chinese citizen, because the vast majority still live in small towns and villages in the outback.
Per The People, where does the vast majority of PLA conscripts come from? I guarantee you it’s not from the Dream Coast and rich people’s children. They are from the countryside. The same is true with the upper echelons of the PLA. These men – and they are all men – are thugs straight out of a Hollywood depiction of same. They have no interest in anything other than exercising their power, which is now substantial.
So, Xi is revered by at least two-thirds to three-fourths of the population, and he controls all the guns. Even if there are those that do not revere him, they act like it in baldly obvious attempts to ingratiate themselves to those higher in the bureaucracy, or more likely, they simply do not care.
Once out of the urban areas and into the countryside, human rights is not anything I’ve ever heard anyone care about. They haven’t had anything even vaguely resembling a human right for 5,000 years. Imagining this is something the average Chinese citizen thinks about is a projection of our belief system upon a population that doesn’t think this way.
This is a shock, but it shouldn’t be. The average Chinese citizen is concerned with the price of pork, housing costs, and whether their children can advance into the future.
Small businesses, which make up the vast bulk of the economy, are being crushed in this absurdity. All of them are hand-to-mouth operations; a day without income is a disaster.
We are looking at weeks and/or months of absent income. Hubei farmers cannot get feed for their animals, due to all shipping’s being closed down, and those animals are going to die en masse. Even if they had adequate feed, they cannot ship to market.
Anyone familiar with the tenuous state of food-supply chains anywhere, including America, understands this could quite easily lead to food shortages.
The radiating effects of both big and small farmers going under – and they will go under– is unknown, but it cannot be good. Maybe the government will infuse the situation with capital similar to Trump’s bailing out the soybean farmers, one of his most ardent base constituencies. Markets are not my forte; no hard predictions from me I have to wait and see.
Anyone who paid any attention during the power struggles of the 80’s, 90,s and early aughts knows Xi left Beijing with the admonishment that the countryside was where the action was.
History has, so far, pointed to his understanding what no one else seems to have. Xi went where the numbers said to go. For those not aware, the vast majority of the populations still live in the country, in smaller cities, or cities like Enshi, where most people are first generation off the farm, or at minimum, still view themselves as a being of the countryside.
The countryside believes in The Party. Anything is possible, but any prediction of the early demise of the Party and Xi is, IMHO, greatly exaggerated.
Mid-level officials of the mayoral or general functionary rank? They’re being set up in the classic fall guy manner. They’re toast. They will be evaporated. The machinery is already cranked up, and punishments are being meted out.
What I most wonder at is how the Chinese government – and by government, I mean Xi – wants China to have a vibrant middle class, but a middle class absent all the things we normally associate with same, such as reasoning ability, creativity, and personal initiative. For the last one, personal initiative is hugely rewarded, albeit in the narrow confines of using that initiative to express fealty and undying love for The Party.
For anyone really paying attention, the Chinese rise of the last 30-40 years directly parallels the relaxing of ideological shackles and the encouragement by individuals to take up the task of moving the country forward. Now, that’s out the window, but supposedly, not entirely. Xi has made specific public statements to the effect that private business is welcomed and encouraged. Anyone falling for this game of Three Card Monty clearly has not been staying up on Chinese politics.
The current book “The New Red Guards” by Jude D. Blanchette, is required reading for anyone wanting to get a handle on the situation. In a social environment that stomps any political discussion into oblivion, there is a new group of cadres that have been publishing polemic screeds proposing the abolishment of private enterprise in favor of advancing the cause of Marxist-Leninist ideals. These polemics are not just being allowed; they are being promoted, albeit by the portion of The Party working the shadows. It would not do to have Xi’s public approval, but the mere fact the stuff is out there, uncensored, is enough to show The Party’s position on the matter.
The question underlying the conversation is whether China’s quest for to expand its middle-income group is saddled with conflicting ideas. On one hand, the middle class is supposed to usher in an age of domestically driven consumption, driving the economy’s expansion. On the other, an ever-increasing list of off-limit topics – political, economic, social – is designed to empty out the minds of the middle class.
Overall, the government spends too much effort in policing people’s thoughts and society in general then exercises its censorial prerogatives in making political taboos evaporate. The Wuhan coronavirus outbreak encapsulates the condition perfectly.
Instead of managing its discovery as a neutral public health issue, the local officials focused on the political implications of information flow, how that flow conformed to Party orthodoxies, and ultimately their own careers. Everyone watching out for their own well being isn’t how the world moves forward. The result of this mentally stunted approach is appearing to become a worldwide pandemic of frightening proportions.
Which is a long way around the barn to arrive at the fundamental question: How can China advance into the world order with a healthy functioning economic and social order, while at the same time spending trillions promoting all the ideals and laws suppressing any initiative that fuels the phenomenon?
We will have to wait and see.
I got a lot of time on my hands. What do I do with all that time? I wait.
Waiting is central to any China involvement. Chinese know how to wait. It is a nation of folks accustomed to waiting within unpredictable time frames.
I have done preliminary training in waiting. Generally, my friends and family are impressed with my waiting. I lack experience, though. My waiting is rough around the edges. It needs polishing. I break presence by revealing waiting is not my preferred state, with obvious amateur tics like sighing, or looking around for an empty check-out line amongst thousands of others waiting, or imaging there’s an exit no one else has seen and looking at my partner for help.
I need to learn inscrutability. Let my facial muscles relax into jowly unsmiling acceptance, but not so much as to convey an actual emotion. Present, but not present. Become the wait. Inscrutable. A few more days or weeks, and I think I might be capable.
And at the present rate of Corona virus quarantine administration, it looks like it could be a long time.