Monday, February 17, 2020

Is the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) of any relevance to the COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) epidemic?

Tombstone  Hunger and Public Action
New and resurgent infectious disease beginning with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, followed by SARS, avian flu, foot and mouth disease, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and others, have brought to the forefront how the increasing interconnectedness of societies also makes them more vulnerable to biological threats to life. For a multitude of man-made reasons, the rate at which new and resurgent infectious diseases affects human populations has been steadily increasing over the past three [now four] decades. Indeed, such vulnerability to biological threats through interconnectedness was thoroughly apparent in the spread of the bubonic plague that started in China before entering Europe in the fourteenth century. [….] If nothing else, the rapid spread across national borders of infectious diseases through human interaction evidences the shared vulnerabilities arising from being human beings, and the necessity to coordinate a response across the human community to mitigate the vulnerability. — Sridhar Venkatapuram, Health Justice: An Argument from the Capabilities Approach (Polity Press, 2011): 228-29.

First, please read the extract below from an article in the Los Angeles Times. I have a few comments after the piece by way of a possible or provisional answer to our question. That is followed with an op-ed piece also in the Times by Orville Schell, again with comments. Finally, an article in The Guardian provides yet further evidence for the analogical argument I derived (or simply borrowed) from the work of Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen. 

“Political officials were fired and infection cases skyrocketed in China on Thursday, reminding a nation stuck at home and scientists watching worldwide just how little is known about the coronavirus outbreak that has infected at least 60,000 and killed more than 1,300 people. Previous numbers had been reassuring, with daily confirmations of new infections dropping from several thousand to around 1,000. Officials in Beijing, increasingly worried about the economic toll of the outbreak, urged people to go back to work. State media ran editorials about resuming international flights to China.

But on Thursday the case numbers shot up. Chinese health authorities reported 15,152 new cases of COVID-19 — the World Health Organization’s new name for the viral disease — overnight. Hubei province, the epidemic’s epicenter, accounted for most of the increase: The number of infections went up by 14,840, more than nine times the 1,638 new cases reported there a day earlier.

Then came the purge. Beijing announced that both the Communist Party chiefs of Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province were fired and replaced with officials known for ‘stability maintenance’ and closely allied with party chairman and President Xi Jinping. The sackings followed earlier dismissals including the Hubei health commission’s party chief and its director. The under-reporting of the breadth of the epidemic, believed to have originated at a seafood market in Wuhan, has been blamed on officials who suppressed information on the outbreak to save face among their superiors.”

Epidemics and History  Big Farms
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There have been numerous reports of unreliable information coming from China about the number of people possibly infected by COVID-19 (heretofore and commonly known as the ‘coronavirus’) as well as the precise number killed by the virus. The article evidences concerns on the part of the national government about the manner in which regional and local Communist Party officials in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province have handled this viral outbreak (this hardly means those officials bear complete responsibility for any mistakes in this regard). It helps to keep in mind that China remains an authoritarian country and a one-Party “Communist” State (in many respects, it is capitalist and only nominally socialist, let alone communist). Still, it is not the China of the so-called Great Leap Forward (1958-1962)* or the Cultural Revolution (roughly 1966-1976). The “Great Chinese Famine” took place during the former period (1958-1961), resulting in estimated deaths ranging from 16.5 million to 29.5 million (with a few later estimates considerably higher than this). As Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen wrote in Hunger and Public Action (Oxford University Press, 1989), “While the failure the Great Leap Forward came to be widely recognized after the initial euphoria, the existence of the famine oddly escaped open scrutiny and even public recognition, until very recently [that is, until the 1980s, with several important works on this particular famine published after 2000].” I don’t want to focus on the probable causes of the famine, although it is “clear that there was an enormous collapse of agricultural output and income.” As Drèze and Sen explain, the famine was linked with “policy failures—first in the debacle of the Great Leap Forward, then in the delay of rectifying the harm done, and along with that in accentuating distributional inequalities through enhanced procurement and uneven sharing.” 

I want instead to highlight what Drèze and Sen have to say by way of the comparative historical experience of post-independence India in dealing with famines (incipient and actual). First, they point out that “China did not lack a delivery and redistribution mechanism to deal with food shortages as the famine threatened in 1958 and later. Despite the size of the decline of food output and the loss of entitlement of large sections of the population, China could have done a much better job of protecting the vulnerable by sharing the shortage in a bearable way.” But here is the most salient difference with the famine experiences of post-independence India:

“What was lacking when the famine threatened China was a political system of adversarial journalism and opposition. The Chinese famine raged on for three years without it being even admitted in public that such a thing was occurring, and without there being an adequate policy response to the threat. Not only was the world ignorant of the terrible state of affairs in China, even the population itself did not know about the extent of the national calamity and the extensive nature of the problems being faced in different parts of the country. 

Indeed, the lack of adversarial journalism and politics hit even the government, reinforcing ignorance of local conditions because of politically motivated exaggeration of the crop sized during the Great Leap Forward and the fear of local leaders about communicating their own problems. The pretense that everything was going all right in Chinese agriculture and rural economy to a great extent fooled the national leaders themselves. [….] Aside from the government’s informational inadequacy, which made its own assessment of the situation disastrously wrong, the absence of an adversarial system of politics and journalism also that that there was little pressure of the government from any opposition group and from informed public opinion to take adequate anti-famine measures rapidly.” In short, what occurred in China happened in spite of post-revolutionary China’s “outstanding record of entitlement promotion and enhancement of living conditions.” Thus Drèze and Sen conclude that “the precise feature of absence of adversarial politics and open journalism … contributed to the occurrence, magnitude, and duration of the Chinese famines of 1958-61….”

Again, the China of today is in many important respects different from the China of the period during the Great Famine (e.g., information circulates faster and far wider than in the earlier period). And of course famines and deadly viruses are two rather different socio-economic and public health phenomena. But I want to suggest one analogy remains pertinent based on the above discussion: “the absence of adversarial politics and open journalism” in contemporary China. I suspect at least some of the possible shortcomings (if that is in fact what we have here) of China’s handling of this latest viral disease can be attributed to both of these characteristic features of a healthy democratic polity: freedom of the press and political opposition (the former perhaps more pressingly relevant that the latter). 

*The Great Leap Forward (Second Five Year Plan) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1958 to 1962. Chairman Mao Zedong launched the campaign to reconstruct the country from an agrarian economy into a communist society through the formation of people’s communes. Mao decreed increased effort to multiply grain yields and industry should be brought to the countryside. Local officials were fearful of Anti-Rightist Campaigns and competed to fulfill or over-fulfill quotas based on Mao’s exaggerated claims. They collected ‘surpluses’ that in fact did not exist, leaving farmers to starve. Higher officials did not dare to report the economic disaster caused by these policies, and national officials blamed bad weather for the decline in food output and took little or no action. The Great Leap resulted in tens of millions of deaths. A lower-end estimate is 18 million and upper estimates find that some 45 million people died. About the same number of births were lost or postponed, making the Great Chinese Famine the largest in human history.
Fidler 2  Gostin
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In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, “Xi Jinping rules China by intimidation and police coercion,” Orville Schell discusses the authoritarian regime’s handling of the 2019-nCoV outbreak, invoking the relevance of the “so-called ‘mandate of heaven’” [tian ming 天命]:  

“In this Confucian scheme of things, heaven was said to choose rulers of good moral standing, whose virtuous statecraft and proper ritual observations kept heaven and earth in balance and society in a state of peaceful harmony. The cosmic favor bestowed on these chosen leaders by heaven was evident for all to see in such things as a stable social order and a contented populace. However, if a ruler violated these Confucian proscriptions, throwing heaven and earth out of balance, heaven might signal its displeasure with earthquakes, floods, meteors, droughts, famines and epidemics.”

This concept (and its derivative incarnate conceptions) is not an easy one to understand: see, for example, the essays in Christopher Lupke, The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (University of Hawai̒i Press, 2005). And when paired with tian (see the ‘study guide’ for Confucianism for a short entry on tian), the possible meanings can vary (whatever the extent of ‘family resemblance’) by textual and contextual source, philosopher, philosophical “school,” ideology, colloquial use, and so forth. I mention this largely because I don’t think Schell gets things quite right here, especially with regard as to how Confucius himself understood tian ming, although we can agree this idea plays a pervasive part in Chinese culture and discourse, the terms “ming” and “tianming” dating back, as Lupke reminds us, to pre-Qing China. Leaving that quibble aside, Schell spells out the possible role the idea of a “heavenly mandate” is playing (and may yet play) in the outbreak and epidemic spread in China of the most recent coronavirus, 2019-nCoV: 

“The idea of mysterious forces in heaven determining who rules China is antithetical, of course, to much of what the Communist Party has sought to instill in the Chinese people over the 70 years it has been in power. Still, Confucian thinking and forms of deeply rooted superstition continue to hold widespread sway across the country, including in leadership circles where a Confucian revival is in fashion.

Disease outbreaks are especially tricky within the mandate of heaven construct. Epidemics are, of course, a normal part of life everywhere in the world. But in the case of a disease perceived as spreading because a ruler (and the officials who serve him) failed to sound an early warning for self-serving reasons, it is not difficult for ordinary people to conclude that their leaders have angered heaven by abandoning virtuous rule. It’s not yet clear whether the Chinese people will start to see President Xi Jinping through this lens in the current outbreak, but as the virus spreads from the central Chinese city of Wuhan out around China and the world, he is certainly being besieged by criticism, especially on social media. 

Xi’s neo-Maoist toolbox is stocked largely with Leninist instruments of control. But viral outbreaks operate according to their own rules, in their own autonomous universes, and the 2019-nCoV epidemic is beyond the influence of the usual party methods: political censure, intimidation by surveillance, police coercion or even imprisonment. The 2019-nCoV outbreak is confronting the autocratic Xi with a foe as imperious, unyielding, unrepentant and uncontrollable as his own regime. Despite an unprecedented government response to the epidemic and the virtual lockdown of millions of Chinese citizens, this invisible adversary continues to proliferate. In so doing, it has stripped Xi of his aura of invincibility in ways that no political dissident, opposition party or revolutionary movement ever could. And his tardiness in sounding the alarm against it, and then his inability to contain it, at least to date, has led to a growing public outcry and an upwelling of skepticism about his form of techno-authoritarianism.

Whatever happens next, Xi’s latter-day mandate of heaven has been called into question, just as the Nationalist rule was called into question during the late 1940s. Back then, Mao Tse-tung was helped to power when Chiang Kai-shek was perceived as having lost his mandate after becoming mired in corruption, self-interest, tyranny and famine. Then, in 1976, the Tangshan earthquake and the death of Premier Zhou Enlai were viewed by many as heralding the end of Mao’s own revolutionary dynasty. And now with social media savaging the Party’s handling of the present crisis, another wave of error and blame has taken hold in China to challenge the once seemingly invincible Xi.”

And now the concluding paragraph, which I severed from the above because it resonates with what I wrote in response to the question, “Is the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) of any relevance to the COVID-19 epidemic?” 

“The current upwelling of negative sentiment must be taken seriously, even though it is not year clear what it will signify. Xi has managed to gain unilateral command of the Party and state structures by rigidly controlling the flow of information. However, in the present crisis the absence of free-flowing information has helped allow this epidemic to spread and become such a menace. And Xi’s failure to contain it will affect how his people view both him and his latter-day heavenly mandate to rule, long after the threat of this spreading disease has been brought under control and the economy begins to recover.” [emphasis added]

I repeat, the China of today is in many important respects different from the China of the Great Famine (e.g., owing in part to social media, ‘information’ circulates faster and far wider than in the earlier period). And again, famines and deadly viruses are two rather different socio-economic and public health phenomena. Yet one analogy remains distressingly pertinent: “the absence of adversarial politics and open journalism” in contemporary China.
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Alas, this article from The Guardian reiterates and provides further confirmation of the analogical argument (after Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen): 

“Even now, when the virus has made 70,000 people sick and taken more than 1,700 lives, the government is still trying to hide information. Thousands of posts were deleted from the online group asking for help, including Lin’s. I was told by editors of Chinese media outlets that I couldn’t write about anything that reflected negatively on the government. It is not new for figures in government to put their political interests ahead of public health. But given the rapid spread of the virus and the gravity of the situation in China, I thought the government could put aside the censorship and propaganda for a while. I was wrong.” [emphasis added]


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