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Three telling phrases

Ancient wisdom and the Chinese reaction to Covid-19

Three telling phrases

Since the lockdown of Hubei province, the epicentre of the Covid-19 crisis, I have been following the spread of the epidemic closely and exchanging information with friends and relatives across mainland China.

While the dominant sentiment has been one of concern and even a sense of resignation, I have also encountered feelings of anger and frustration, as well as moments of pride and cases of heroism. Below, I have selected three local phrases that – for me – best reflect on the “war on the epidemic” theme, as well as the response to the crisis by the Chinese people.

• 举国体制 ju guo ti zhi (or “nationwide system”)

Initially coined by the international media in 1980s to attribute China’s growing prowess in international sports, this phrase refers to a system or infrastructure capable of mobilising national resources and manpower to achieve goals of long-term, national benefit. In recent years, this system has mostly been credited with the country’s economic development and some of its technological breakthroughs. In the ongoing fight against the epidemic, the “nationwide system” has again been deployed at scale and speed, including the dispatching of over 32,000 medical staff to Hubei, and the building of two huge new hospitals in 11 days.

In an online chat I commented that this kind of system is probably the most efficient and effective means of getting the epidemic under control. But a friend in Chengdu counterargued that it was the very same system that allowed the outbreak to get out of control in the first place.

His response made me contemplate the system’s pros and cons. A key feature is a top-down decision making mechanism, which concentrates power at the very top of government, but depends on a responsive and effective political apparatus beneath. When good decisions are made, they are supposed to be carried out quickly, yielding widespread and immediate results. However, in cases of poorer decisions (or sometimes no decision at all), the impact can be devastating (think of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution under Mao). The system also tends to send good news up the chain of command but stifles the spread of negative news for fear of retribution. That explains why the early warnings of the Wuhan medical community about the virus were censored by the local government.

The tragic death of 33 year-old doctor Li Wenliang, one of the eight whistleblowers who were reprimanded, has stirred calls for greater freedom of speech. Will Xi Jinping, who sits atop the nationwide system, heed them?

• 画地为牢 hua di wei lao (“drawing a circle on the ground as a prison”)

Originating from the historian Sima Qian – who lived in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) – this idiom describes a historical period when people were said to be so self-disciplined that they wouldn’t step beyond a line on the ground, designated as a metaphorical prison.

I was reminded of it recently by a friend in Shanghai, who lamented the depressing effects of the epidemic on the lives of 1.4 billion people. Considering that over half a billion of them have been put under some form of quarantine since late January, I can imagine that millions of homes have become virtual jail cells. Confinement measures taken by various levels of government include the lockdown of whole apartment blocks, door-to-door checks, the stationing of watchdog personnel at community entrances and even the usage of drones to monitor peoples’ movements and transmit instructions.

Millions more people have adopted self-quarantine protocols, either by direct order or under the guidance of the government.

While such an unprecedented confinement can be seen as proof of government efficiency and the self-discipline of the Chinese people, I also cannot help wondering whether it constitutes a sign of the public’s submissiveness – little evolved, perhaps, since the idiom’s coinage in the Han Dynasty.

• 家国情怀 jia guo qing huai (“feelings for family and state”)

Rooted in Confucian doctrine and long hailed as a virtue, this phrase refers to a devotion by the people to “family and the state”. In China, the state is often perceived as an extension of family or presented as the ultimate common identity for all the Chinese people. Nowadays the phrase is often used as a synonym of “patriotism” too.

With the shrinkage of family sizes, the younger generation of Chinese – the so-called “little emperors” – has often been perceived as selfish, individualistic and risk-averse. However, anecdotal stories collected from friends and media reports in recent weeks have altered some of my views on the subject.

A friend who works on the railway system in Shenyang told me that she used to regard her 20 something-year-old staff as unreliable as they are more picky about their work and often call in sick when assigned to long-haul trips. However, when it was time to report back to work after the Lunar New Year holiday – just as the risks of the virus spreading were starting to become more apparent – not a single one of her younger staff called in sick. When asked why, they replied that they felt obliged to step up at a time when the country needed them most.

I have also seen touching images of young medical workers bidding goodbye to their loved ones before getting onto the buses, trains and planes taking them to the epicentre of the epidemic. Some of the scenes resemble those from documentaries or films about soldiers heading to war. As of Monday, 3,387 health workers had been infected in China and at least 18 had died of either the coronavirus or fatigue, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Of course, such heroism is not limited to the young. A quick online search of the same phrase alongside the term ‘coronavirus’ yields over 76,000 stories of various contributions to the fight against the epidemic, involving people of all ages.

Clearly jia guo qing huai is alive and strong. Maybe this is one of the few positives to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.









A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]

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