How Ignorant Are We About China? – Opting Out

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There’s a lot of problems in China. I don’t wish to downplay that. There are questions to be asked about the state’s approach to the virus, authoritarian measures, treatment of Hong Kong, etc. I am a (peaceful) anarchist, hating all governments on principle. Trust me, I don’t need you to give me a list of bad things China has done or is doing, but watch now as commenters, having only read the headline, do exactly that.

My motivation for “defending China” isn’t because I’ve been brainwashed after living there (yes, expats get those accusations after going there and realizing that it’s a pretty cool country for the most part), or because I hate America or something. The motivation is to promote peace between nations and cultures.

Full disclosure, and this can act as a TL;DR: I’m worried about a war between the West and East. It would be a disaster for humanity. Let’s not make this more likely by participating in sensationalist drivel. There is a consequence to our keyboard warrioring.

Daily I see things like “what’s China hiding from us, though?” “They’re probably just shooting infected patients in the head.” “That’s what communism gets you.”

This got me thinking about how two-dimensional the West’s view of China is. I wonder whether these peddlers of wild sensationalist speculation are aware that Chairman Mao died in 1976, preceding modest free market and civil rights reforms; that comprehensive state ownership and the breadlines and mass graves that come with it are well in the past, and the quality of life for Chinese has been increasing exponentially, or they just think China is still in permanent 19th-century poverty lead by Emperor Palpatine. You know, basic facts.

Even my dad, who’s not stupid, when we watched a documentary about Shanghai, said, “I’m kind of shocked at how modern it is.” And after having been there now, I concur there’s little in the main city that would differ from, say, Sydney or New York. (Yes, I’m aware that there are still areas of China that are in dire poverty.)

Point being, how ignorant exactly are most people about China?

I would say, very.

Even respectable Western media such as the New York Times offers the most uncharitable interpretation of anything that happens in China.

Some of it is bang on, and great journalism. Other stuff is your standard neocon garbage that most of us libertarians would dismiss out if hand if it was about the Middle East. Over time, this has to have an effect on our larger impression of the country.

This filters down to social media where rumors and fancies get passed around as if they were universally accepted facts. When anybody pushes back, their distributors are genuinely surprised that anyone might question it, and suspect that they’re in denial or even shills for Xi Jinping.

These small falsehoods accumulate. When someone might offer positive things about China, they don’t want to hear about it because they already “know” that China is irredeemable, based on an ocean of misinformation.

Now let’s get to facts. The coronavirus has brought the world’s eyes upon China, and reasonably so. But in addition to rational questions, we’ve been inundated with top-grade nonsense.

It’s “obviously true” that the virus comes from archaic and disgusting eating practices, right? The original story was that the first carrier of the virus got it from eating bats. Sounds pretty gross to Westerners’ ears. Bats are indeed a delicacy amongst a minority in China.

Experts, albeit with some dissenters, believe the virus originated in a wet food market in Wuhan. But the “Coronavirus came from dirty Chinese who eat bats” story didn’t come from experts, it originated from a widely shared video of a travel blogger in… Polynesia. It was a meme based on the imaginations and extrapolations of over-eager Twitterites. 

The “It’s a bio-weapon created by China in Wuhan’s research facility” initially came from the speculation of one Israeli spy. Since then, the theory has gained steam amongst apparently respectable people such as US Senator Tom Cotton, thanks to the testimony of a draftee of US legislation for the Biological Weapons Convention of 1989, Francis Boyle.

He went on the Alex Jones Show to explain he has found the “smoking gun” that implicates Wuhan’s viral research facility in leaking this “bio-weapon.” Yet, all he demonstrates is that 2019-nCov contains a “peculiar feruin” which means it’s transmittable to humans whereas other coronaviruses are not.

The Daily Express had to issue a correction when it said that this virus had been “tampered with.” The referred paper had nothing to say about how the 2019 virus had mutated this way.

Defenders of this conspiracy theory (and I use the term descriptively) will respond, “Oh, so it’s just a coincidence that the virus originated in a place that has a viral research facility?” The answer to this is, yes, maybe. Wuhan is a city as big as London that happens to have a building where they research viruses. In the absence of hard evidence, coincidence has to be one of our possible explanations.

Finally, to put a period on this wave of nonsense, I shall share with you a picture. This did the rounds on Twitter a few weeks ago. Tweeters claimed it was people dying in the streets of Wuhan.

Looks awful. Except, it’s actually a picture of a demonstration in Germany from 2014.

When it comes to China, it’s time to stop participating in science fiction.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.

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