Coronavirus – an exercise in intensified social control

China: Coronavirus – an exercise in intensified social control


“As of today, the state has essentially quarantined an area estimated to encompass 35 million people—a population greater than the 10 largest U.S. cities combined. The unprecedented intervention paints an apocalyptic scene. Around the world, stock markets fell. …Based on what’s known so far, the virus is dangerous—but not unprecedentedly so. It has been confirmed to spread among people who are in close contact—family and health-care workers—but it does not clearly show sustained transmission among people, like other coronaviruses that can manifest as the common cold. The virus seems to have an especially high mortality rate, though of the 26 people reported dead so far, most have been of advanced age or chronically ill—a similar demographic to the hundreds of thousands of people killed every year by the influenza virus….so far, the most deadly coronaviruses—SARS and MERS—each killed fewer than a thousand. Both were tragic, but could have been exponentially worse. Part of the fear and panic in the current case seems less due to the virus than to the response. The moderately virulent nature of the pathogen seems at odds with the fact that the largest quarantine in human history is now taking place in an authoritarian state. People inside and outside of China have limited trust in the information they receive, given the country’s long history of propaganda and censorship. Without knowing everything that the state does, international officials have been hesitant to criticize its response. But there is good reason to believe that the quarantine itself will have significant consequences. Quarantines were common during Europe’s plague-addled Middle Ages, and continued to be the primary means of controlling outbreaks until 1900. Especially after the advent of antibiotics and diagnostic testing, the relative harms began to outweigh the benefits. International agreements were put in place to limit the practice as a matter of justice, because of the burden it placed on people and economies, in addition to basic questions of effectiveness. Quarantines may be used in isolated cases, especially before an outbreak is widespread. But in China, given the advanced spread of the outbreak—the new virus was first reported to the World Health Organization just three weeks ago and has since been found in Japan, South Korea, the United States, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam—some experts believe any window for effective containment has passed…Shortly after the quarantine was announced, The Washington Post reported increases in the cost of food in Wuhan. Some citizens have reported empty grocery shelves…. Social-media posts describe people being unable to get access to medical facilities for viral testing. Other posts on social media about the scope of the outbreak have inexplicably disappeared, prompting accusations of censorship and further uncertainty.”

In 2005 in France the avian flu “pandemic” was the first item of the evening news for about 6 weeks. Small farms were visited daily by gendarmes until they were forced to close down. Nobody in France died, and globally there were less than 1000 deaths of human beings, vastly smaller than deaths from ordinary flu annually. But it served the purpose of destroying small farmers/peasants and greatly boosting agribusiness.

“Until recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the annual mortality burden of influenza to be 250 000 to 500 000 all-cause deaths globally; however, a 2017 study indicated a substantially higher mortality burden, at 290 000-650 000 influenza-associated deaths from respiratory causes alone, and a 2019 study estimated 99 000-200 000 deaths from lower respiratory tract infections directly caused by influenza. ” – here. This is not to deny the fact that this new virus is killing people in greater proportion to those who have it than the proportion of those who die from ordinary flu as compared to those who get it, but it gives some notion of the disproportionate level of alarm. Meanwhile deaths from malaria are also quite high – 405,000, 67% of whom were children,  in 2018.

In France in 2009 swine flu became the pretext for an exercise in social control – with doctors forced by the state to vaccinate everybody who came to their clinics fearing the disease. Despite massive and continual state and media propaganda, less than 30% of the population took up this manipulated ‘need’ for a vaccine. The Minister of Health at the time, Rosalyne Bachelot, whose personal interests in the pharmaceutical industry were well-known, ordered billions of euros worth of vaccines that were never used, but which the state paid to her financial connections.

Undoubtedly illness and disease are constantly used for ulterior motives  which will invariably be dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’ by  interested parties. Often the state allows genuine problems (and certainly not only health-related ones) to develop to use a crisis so as to consequently crack down on potential revolt. This is not to ignore the  obviously ridiculous conspiracy theories around the Coronavirus, whose effect is ultimately to make many of those who recognise the absurdity of many of these claims  accept everything official ideology proclaims about it, since anything critical can be dismissed as some stupid conspiracy “theory”.

Which is why we should not forget that Wuhan – the centre of the Coronavirus – had a significant social movement in July 2019 which tentatively began to connect to the movement in Hong Kong ( see this, this, this, this, this, this, and this), which may be a factor in this exercise in authoritarian repression.  And Hong Kong too is experiencing some minor elements of control as a result of this virus. In the face of the very tenuous beginnings of significant social contestation in countries throughout  the world, fear of touching or proximity to others is another convenient factor in the intensification of social separation. Given the ‘spontaneous’ racism of many people, it doesn’t need to be deliberate policy for it to be exploited  in such a way as to exacerbate already existing separations – such as racism towards anyone who looks Chinese (see, for instance, this).

Moreover, given the fact that the doctor who originally discovered this virus was arrested and accused of “rumour-mongering”, it’s hard not to speculate if the Chinese bureaucracy intentionally wanted this virus to spread. And perhaps conveniently blame the local bureaucracy in Wuhan of gross incompetence so as to get rid of rivals in the CCP’s internal battles. Sure, this is pure conjecture, and it implies that the State is omnipotent and invariably in control of forces that are often beyond its control. It would suggest that the CCP was capable of undermining its own global bid for world market supremacy (the effect of the virus has been to weaken Chinese capital) because of a greater threat of internal subversion perhaps triggered by the limited revolts in Hong Kong, and Wuhan itself. In other words, figuring out that reducing its capacity for capital accumulation in the immediate term  was worth it in order to suppress the possibility of revolt. Possibly too many incalculable risks for the State  to have proceeded in such a Machiavellian manner, though it’s still a possibility. However, it’s  not really worthwhile going down this road of hypothesis-fantasy. After all, it’s how the state actually uses this “crisis” that’s important not tracking down the manipulations and manoeuvres that seem to be behind it.

Conspiracy “theory” is often just a way of constantly researching – and often inventing – “proofs” with the sole aim of proving something that’s largely impossible to prove without having direct access to the hidden secrets at the centre of Power.  And almost invariably  involves ignoring any evidence that may conflict with the conspiracy ideology: having decided dogmatically on the fact that a situation is  a conspiracy, it would be inconvenient to look at anything that might run counter to such a possibility. In an age of confusion and uncertainty, conspiracy “theory” functions like other  forms of dogma – as a way of affirming a fixed idea that seems to rise above the turmoil. In a world that’s utterly insecure, those on the absolute margin of existence seek out fixed certainties that substitute for confronting  this increasingly chaotic world, that substitute for a more open ‘nuanced’ attitude towards people and ideas.

Conspiracy “theory” is usually an obsession which aims to sell the “theorist” as a particularly lucid opponent of political intrigue. Whereas in fact, it’s just a grandiose internet-fueled  political version of what used to be seen as petty gossip. Substitute “Jerry’s sleeping with his ex-wife’s girlfriend” with “Xi Jinping hates Zhou Xianwang because…”. Just as in the past the largest section of society objectively reduced to being spectators of history – women – resorted to gossip as  a form of manipulation substituting for direct ability to influence events, so nowadays there are many who essentially remain spectators who feel that they overcome their separation from history by spreading conspiracy “theories”.

“Conspiracy ideology becomes a strategy which mediates all of reality. For the believer, the clouds rain conspiracy, the sunshine nourishes it. Its favorite climate is fog, the element of confusion, where secrets are wrapped in a nebulous environment that animates mundanity. Facts are relevant only as details in the landscape which jive or don’t jive with what the believer wants to see. …Conspiracy ideology does not set out to demonstrate the real motive forces behind human practice (including the actual role, if any, of conspiracies within the development of events), but rather takes the conspiracy as beginning and end. The notion itself of conspiracy constitutes the totality of its substance. Conspiracy ideology is a quintessential reflection in ideas of commodity production: each new detail at once creates the need for more details and confirms the value of all previous investigation (consumption). Each detail is a commodity in and of itself. The goal – discovery – is always a letdown, a pageant of bureaucratic tedium. The process is everything. Conspiracy ideology is modernist to the extent that it makes interpretation participatory. The specialist is not the person best able to interpret the evidence, but the person who uncovers it. The interpretation is left to mutilated subjectivity….” – here (written in 1979!)


in Hong Kong some people are resisting.

“Protesters threw petrol bombs on Sunday night at an empty public housing complex in Hong Kong that had been earmarked to become a temporary quarantine zone as the city battles an outbreak of the SARS-like Novel Coronavirus as the city battles an outbreak of the SARS-like Novel Coronavirus…Dozens of local residents and protesters opposed to the idea held rallies outside the complex on Sunday, with some setting up road blocks…The city’s ability to combat the crisis was hampered by moves in mainland China to cover up and play down the outbreak, leaving a lasting legacy of distrust among many Hong Kongers.”


The lobby of the proposed quarantine building

More surveillance, tighter controls: China’s coronavirus crackdown

A man stands next to a cart in a snow-covered field in Inner Mongolia, trying to carve a path. A drone hovers in the distance and a voice calls out: “Uncle, why are you still going out without a face mask? Don’t laugh. Hurry up and get in your car and go home.” As the man drives away, glancing back, the drone follows him and the voice warns: “Don’t come outside if you don’t have to. Rest at home … What are you looking at? Go!”…More than 50 million people have been placed under a lockdown and myriad directives have been issued, from enforcing temperature checks and “strengthening monitoring” of citizens’ health to persuading people not to hold weddings or other large gatherings….”

On the uselessness of facemasks

Updated on 4th February with statistics about ordinary flu, and the two links immediately above about China’s use of the epidemic to reinforce already existing tendencies to totalitarian surveillance and the uselesssness of facemasks.

Updated further on 8th February with an elaboration on the contradictions of conspiracy “theories”.

PS This – Will the coronavirus outbreak derail the global economy? could well become the official reason  for an economic recession-cum-depression which was already predictable way before the Coronavirus “crisis”, the justification for further attacks on the working class.




SamFanto was born, and then he lived a bit but never enough.

8 Responses to Coronavirus – an exercise in intensified social control
  1. Anti-China xenophobia intensifies with Coronavirus:

    “Minnie Li has thrown herself into Hong Kong’s protest movement for the past few years, even joining a hunger strike last summer.

    But these days the Shanghai native and university lecturer is greeted with flyers warning that mainland Chinese like her are not welcome – all in the name of shielding residents from potential coronavirus carriers from the mainland….”


    China’s online censors tighten grip after brief coronavirus respite:…/

    “The period from Jan 19 to Feb 1, when public concern about the coronavirus exploded just as China was gearing up for the Lunar New Year holiday, saw an uncharacteristic loosening. Online buzz about the outbreak flourished, with netizens largely unfettered in criticizing local authorities – but not central government leaders – over their handling of the crisis.

    That liberalisation has come to end, with censors in the past week shutting down WeChat groups and scrubbing social media posts, according to Chinese reporters. Authorities have also reprimanded tech firms that gave free rein to online speech.

    “Xi Jinping has made it clear that he expects efforts to strengthen ‘the guidance of public opinion’ to be increased,” said Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) who studies Chinese social media. “

  2. China Arrested a Whistleblower Who Shot Viral Video of Coronavirus Corpses in Wuhan
    Vice News, February 11, 2020

    China Detains, Harasses Journalist, Academics Over Reports, Comments on Coronavirus
    Radio Free Asia, February 10, 2020

    Seven Detained in Tibet For ‘Spreading Rumors’ on the Coronavirus Threat
    Radio Free Asia, February 10, 2020

  3. Beijing and Shanghai impose new controls on residents –…?

    “Measures unveiled by the authorities in Beijing and Shanghai on Monday include stricter controls on the movement of residents and vehicles, compulsory mask-wearing and shutting down leisure and other non-essential community services….Officials at the epidemic control and prevention centre in Shanghai said on Monday that “the vast majority” of the city’s 13,000 residential communities and compounds had instituted “lockdown management”, including entry restrictions and mandatory temperature checks….Most residents appear supportive of the restrictions amid widespread anxiety and fear over the spread of the deadly virus….with restrictions in place for the past two weeks, it felt like “living in a prison”….many others, who were apparently dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the disruption to their lives, complained about the sweeping restrictions and questioned their effectiveness….“What’s the point of such lockdown measures if we are still required to go back to the office to resume work, where we are vulnerable to infections and human transmissions,” a Weibo user commented on the social media site. A tenant in Shijiazhuang, the capital city of Hebei province neighbouring Beijing, said that he was told by his landlord that he needed to submit a medical document for a pass to enter his compound. “But the problem is, I have to go to the hospital to get such document, but who wants to go to hospital at this moment?””

  4. More:

    “A woman who broke a quarantine order by going to her office in Kowloon and attending a meeting elsewhere in Hong Kong has slammed the anti-contagion measure as a “complete waste of time and resources”. Teenie Chau, who asked not to give her real name, had last been in mainland China on January 27 before returning to the city via Taiwan on Saturday, when the government’s tough new system against the spread of the deadly coronavirus took effect. Chau said she went out on Monday in a surgical mask while subject to a stay-at-home order for two weeks that she insisted she did not know at the time applied to her.”

    Xi Jinping May Lose Control of the Coronavirus Story, Foreign Policy, February 10, 2020

    Hong Kong Is Showing Symptoms of a Failed State
    Bloomberg, February 8, 2020

    China’s rulers see the coronavirus as a chance to tighten their grip
    The Economist, February 8, 2020

    Here’s How China Is Silencing Coronavirus Critics in the U.S.
    Vice News, February 12, 2020

    Coronavirus “Rumor” Crackdown Continues With Censorship, Detentions
    China Digital Times, February 12, 2020

    About 100 people protest in Hong Kong over plan to use Fo Tan public housing estate as quarantine site
    South China Morning Post, February 12, 2020

    Why a coronavirus-fuelled revolution in China is unlikely, despite Western commentators’ fondest hopes
    South China Morning Post, February 13, 2020

  5. Xi had early knowledge of coronavirus severity –

    ” …a speech by President Xi Jinping that indicated the country’s leadership was aware of the potential gravity of the outbreak far before the Chinese public was informed.

    In the early days of the epidemic, which has been one of the biggest political challenges of Xi’s tenure, the president seemed to play a muted role, partly fuelling criticism of the government’s approach to the outbreak. But during a speech Xi delivered February 3, which was published by state media on Saturday, he said he gave instructions on fighting the virus as early as January 7.

    It was not until late January that officials said the virus could spread between humans and public alarm began to rise.

    In the address, Xi said he ordered the shutdowns at the epicentre: “On January 22, in light of the epidemic’s rapid spread and the challenges of prevention and control, I made a clear request that Hubei province implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people.”

    This surely makes my original hypothesis of a “conspiracy” ( ie let something terrible happen so as to give the state, threatened by potential subversion from below, the image of being the saviour ) increasingly likely…No need to look for secret information that it was grown deliberately in a lab when a totally verifiable conspiracy is hiding in plain sight.

  6. Three things the Chinese government tried to hide during the novel coronavirus outbreak:

    Quartz, February 13, 2020

  7. Some increasing evidence that it may have come from a lab:

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