A predominantly one-topic blog: how is it that the most imminent and lethal implication for humankind - the fact that the doctrine of "Mutually Assured Destruction" will not work with Iran - is not being discussed in our media? Until it is recognized that MAD is dead, the Iranian threat will be treated as a threat only to Israel and not as the global threat which it in fact is.
A blog by Mladen Andrijasevic
The new coronavirus disease has a name
now: COVID-19. That took a while. The virus’s genome was
sequenced within two weeks or so of its appearance, but for many weeks more, we
didn’t know what to call it or the disease it causes.
Indeed. On Jan. 29, an
Australian tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch featured on its front page a red
face mask stamped with “Chinese Virus Pandamonium”: The emphasis on “panda” was the paper’s doing,
so the misspelling it highlighted presumably was deliberate, too. A Chinese
student in Melbourne protested in an op-ed in another paper, “This virus is not ‘Chinese.’”
Of course, the virus isn’t
Chinese, even if its origin eventually is traced back to a cave in China; nor
is the disease that it causes.
Epidemics, on the other hand,
are often societal or political — much like famines are usually man-made, even though droughts occur
As far as the current outbreak
goes, two cultural factors help explain how the natural occurrence of a single
virus infecting a single mammal could have cascaded into a global health
crisis. And now for the controversial aspect of this argument: Both of those
factors are quintessentially, though not uniquely, Chinese.
The first is China’s long,
long history of punishing the messenger.
A doctor who had flagged on
social media the risk of a possible viral outbreak was among several people summoned
by the police in Wuhan in early January and warned not to spread rumors. He died recently after being infected with COVID-19.
Similarly, the epidemic of
SARS — which is caused by another coronavirus — that broke out in southern
China in late 2002 was covered up by local authorities for more than a
month, and the surgeon who first sounded the alarm was held
in military detention for 45 days.
These are recent examples, but
that doesn’t mean they should be pinned solely on the Chinese Communist Party:
The practice of punishing whoever brings embarrassing truths has been the order
of the day since at least the time of Confucius, in the sixth century B.C.
The sage took a page from an
even more ancient tract, “The Classic of Poetry” (also known as “The Book of
Songs”), a collection of songs and poems dating to the 10th century B.C. or
before, and adopted a rule from it: “To
Manifest the Way, First Keep Your Body Safe.” (明哲保身)
That may sound innocuous
enough, until you considerthe
fate of one of Confucius’s beloved students, Zi Lu (子路),
also known as Zhong You (仲由), after he ran afoul of the
precept: For trying to rebuke a usurper in a power struggle between feudal
lords, he was killed and his body was minced. (It is said that Confucius never
ate ground meat again.)
In the third century, the
maxim took on some literary flair and a cynical didactic twist in an essay on
fate by the philosopher Li Kang (李康): “The
tree that grows taller than the forest will be truncated by gales” (木秀于林，風必催之).
This, in turn, eventually gave rise to the more familiar modern adage, “The
shot hits the bird that pokes its head out” (槍打出頭鳥).
Admittedly, China’s rulers
occasionally solicit honest views from their subjects — but only of a certain
kind or usually for a limited time. Mao Zedong, in his “Hundred Flowers” or “Big Voices, Big Gripes” (大鳴大放) campaign of late 1956
and early 1957, called for the facts and critical opinions to be freely
proffered. A few months later came the Anti-Rightist Movement (反右運動)
— during which hundreds of thousands of educated people who had spoken out were
sent to jail, forced into exile or subjected to years of mistreatment, their
careers and families destroyed.
Punishing people who speak the
truth has been a standard practice of China’s ruling elite for more than two
millenniums and is an established means of coercing stability. It is not an
invention of modern China under the Communists — although the party, true to
form, has perfected the practice. And now, muzzling the messenger has helped
spread the deadly COVID-19, which has infected some 75,000 people.
A second cultural factor
behind the epidemic are traditional Chinese beliefs about the powers of certain
foods, which have encouraged some hazardous habits. There is, in particular,
the aspect of Chinese eating culture known as “jinbu,” (進補) meaning, roughly, to fill
the void. Some of its practices are folklorish or esoteric, but even among
Chinese people who don’t follow them, the concept is pervasive.
It is better to cure a disease
with food than medicine, so starts the holistic theory. Illnesses result when
the body is depleted of blood and energy — though not the kind of blood and
energy studied in biology and physics, but a mystic version.
Chinese police with items seized from a store suspected of trafficking exotic meats in Guangde, central China, last month.Credit...Anti-Poaching Special Squad, via Associated Press
men, it is most important to fill the energy void, which is related to virility
and sexual prowess; for women, the stress is on replacing blood, which improves
beauty and fertility. Rare plants and animals from the wild are thought to
bring the best replenishment, especially when eaten fresh or raw. Winter is
said to be the season when the body needs more “jinbu”foods. (Could that
help explain why both SARS and the current epidemic broke out during that time
Hard-core believers in “jinbu”
seem to buy into this notion, too: “Like-shapes eaten strengthen like-shapes” (以形補形),
with the word “shapes” sometimes referring to human organs and their functions.
Adherents count as favorites a long list of exotic foods — whose methods of
procurement or preparation can be outright cruel, with some simply too
revolting to describe here.
I’ve seen snakes and
the penises of bulls or horses — great for men, the
theory goes — on offer at restaurants in many cities in southern China. Bats, which are thought to be the original source of
both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, are said to be good for
restoring eyesight — especially the animals’ granular
feces, called “sands of nocturnal shine” (夜明砂). Gallbladders and bile harvested from live bears
are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone is for erections.
More mundane yet no less
popular is the palm civet (果子狸), a small, wild quadruped
suspected of having passed on the SARS virus to humans. When stewed
with snake meat, it is said to cure insomnia.
Less wealthy people might turn
to dog meat — preferably a dog that has been chased around before being
slaughtered, because some people believe that more “jinbu” benefits are reaped
from eating an animal whose blood and energy ran high. Similarly, it is thought
that animals killed just before serving are more “jinbu” potent, which is one
reason the more exotic offerings in wet markets tend to be sold alive — also
making them more potent vectors for any virus they might carry.
Eating exotic wildlife has
long been endorsed by scholars and elevated to mystical heights, including in
the medical treatise “The Inner Bible of the Yellow Emperor” (黃帝内經),
written some 2,000 years ago and still revered by many health-conscious Chinese
today. Beliefs surrounding the health benefits of certain wildlife foods —
which are discussed in newspaper columns and on numerous dedicated internet sites, as well as taught
in China’s medical schools — permeate the culture.
True, these practices are not
legion across China. Nor are they uniquely Chinese: Many peoples in many other
countries eat exotic foods, too. But what is notable about China is that these
beliefs about the special powers of some foods have been accepted, are now a
given, even among people who do not put them into practice. They have become
firmly embedded in the Chinese collective consciousness.
And so there are strong
reasons to say that the current outbreak of COVID-19 has been aided by two
fundamentally Chinese cultural practices. This may be discomfiting to hear; the
notion might even strike some people as offensive. But it is necessary to
investigate all the causes behind this deadly epidemic, whatever their nature —
because if we don’t, we will only be inviting the next one.
Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator
on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin
University in Japan and a contributing Opinion writer.