COVID-19 remapping East Asian Modernity

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Mark Harrison (Hobart)

When COVID-19 was reported in late December 2019 in China, there began a remapping of global power. Initially it was a “mystery illness” a “pneumonia”, or a “SARS-like virus” in Wuhan and the vague descriptors in wire reports briefly seemed to trace the boundaries of the knowable and unknowable world over China in a way that echoed the mediascape of 19th century imperialism.

Then, through January, the virus began its spread across China to Japan, Thailand, the US and Europe, and COVID-19 concretised into an immutable biological reality that illuminated the more contemporary contours of globalisation. It propagated along vectors of capital flows of trade, manufacturing, consumption and tourism.

Along its paths also came new modes of governmentality and discourse. In truth, the most technical parts of governmentality of epidemiological expertise and transnational public health had mobilised at the very outset, largely unseen by a global public, as too had the reflexive authoritarianism of the PRC party-state system that prevented doctors from sharing information about the growing crisis. But in the last week in January, governmentality became visible when the PRC state locked down Wuhan, prohibiting travel within and to and from the city completely. Other nation-states followed with travel bans and school and workplace closures that sought to arrest the propagation of the virus by interrupting the movement of people. State power intervened in the global system and features of that system became visible in the disruption to the flow of bodies, capital, goods and discourse.

From governmentality an array of metrics – R0 transmission rates, case numbers, case fatality rates, mortality displacement – generated by the national health and public policy responses and their outcomes, have traced new contours through the global system.

The metrics represent an epidemiological reality, but as they have risen and fallen and risen again, they have become freighted with meaning, contestation and narrative. Distinct from the complex public health practices and biological realities they express, the metrics have come to measure the efficacy – or not – of governance, the methods of scientific policy, and the rationality citizenry have to act for both individual and collective good. The metrics have created a new schema through which to envision modernity, its history and its aspirations, and have destabilised existing schemas.

This has meant, in some instances, the metrics of COVID-19 are functioning as a critique. In March, Singapore’s low rates of transmission validated its self-ascribed state identity as a model of modernity in Asia. Infection rates were low while schools and businesses remained open, due to a forceful public health campaign well-observed by citizens. By April, however, Singapore’s case numbers had surged among migrant workers living in dormitory housing. The virus exposed truths about class, labour, and migration that are intrinsic to Singapore’s political economy but have long been occluded by its status as a developmentalist exemplar of “Asian Values”.

Further north, COVID-19 has traced starkly different and hostile visions for modernity. In China, the initial response of denial and silence gave way to a demonstration of the power of the state. China has done what no other state could do, at least until other states did so, in implementing city lockdowns covering tens of millions of people and building entire hospitals in mere days. It demonstrated the power of the state as an unfettered instrument of political action that could command both human and microbiological life. By controlling the virus, China’s party-state system has presumed to offer an awesome modernist vision of the power of human agency.

Its politics, however, holds the party-state system as the only legitimate executor of that power. CCP chairman Xi Jinping declared that China was in a “People’s War”, not a public war, against the virus, writing its story, like so many others, into the history of the party’s totalising conceptualisation of the people under the party’s leadership in a revolutionary struggle to realise the New China.

In Taiwan, the cases of the virus have also fallen to low levels. Taiwan has a natural advantage as an island and like other islands has been very effective in controlling the virus’s spread. But the virus has also been controlled by modes of governmentality in policies, practices and technology that invoke an alternative modernist vision to China’s. Taiwan has used rigorous quarantine supported by location and contact tracing through mobile phones. It has emphasised civility in implementing public health practices to strengthen compliance, with regular phone calls from medical personnel to inquire about the well-being of at-risk visitors and citizens. The government has emphasised, and acted upon, transparency of information available to all members of what, for it, is the public. Its statism is not of awesome and fearful power but expressed as benign, familial inclusion.

Like China, then, COVID-19 has been written into a story of Taiwan, in this case one of progress, efficacy, democracy and modernisation. Directed towards technological modernity and urban civility, Taiwan’s governmentality envisions a modernism in Asia that can be traced back to the 1920s and Taiwan’s Japanese colonial period, enduring as an ideal in Taiwan even as it has been trampled by a long history of imperial and authoritarian state violence.

In COVID-19, this ideal has been made salient by the Taiwan government by its efforts in public diplomacy to draw an express contrast to the display of power by the PRC party-state. The Taiwanese government has mapped the success of its response to COVID-19 onto hard geopolitics to strengthen Taiwan’s international space against Beijing’s efforts to exclude it.

The political meaning of the virus is contending constantly with its biological realities. But as its transmission has slowed in Asia, it is leaving behind newly calcified traces of the long-standing enmities, political compromises and aspirations of different modernist visions set in place in the early 20th century history of modernisation in Asia. By the end of the century, these had been partly submerged by the flows of global capital and neoliberal governmentality, but COVID-19 has elevated them again, showing globalisation to be a more ephemeral force that it might have seemed. The reckoning of COVID-19 that is yet to begin will be reckoning with those once submerged histories.


Dr Mark Harrison is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. He is also Founding Fellow of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University. He published ‘Art, Violence and Memory in Taiwan: Telling the Story of the Beautiful Island‘ in Thesis Eleven. Email:  Twitter: @mhar4

The feature image: Abstract Composition, Wu Guanzhong (1993)

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