The Wuhan Epidemic and the Mandate of Heaven

I’m going a bit off-topic to talk about China, but I’m currently on extended vacation due to the coronavirus out of Wuhan, so in some ways it feels on-topic. I won’t talk about why these viruses so frequently develop in China, but rather why they have a tendency to spiral out of control.

Emperors have ruled China since the murky depths of prehistory. Each dynasty derived its legitimacy—the right to rule—from the Mandate of Heaven. Essentially each dynasty’s rulers have served at the pleasure of heaven. Part of their role was to intercede with the gods to ensure good crops and protect against natural calamities. When a dynasty collapses it is marked by a great tragedy, usually a natural disaster—the signal for political change. This is why when a natural disaster strikes Taiwan, the Chinese leadership usually offers snippy comments on Taiwanese politics. They’re assholes—sure. But, they’re assholes with a political philosophy.

The Mandate of Heaven is an anachronism; but, in many ways so is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP doesn’t have a very clear mandate to rule. Nobody voted for them. The Party is atheistic, so presumably they weren’t chosen by the gods, and do not serve heaven. Why are they there?

I often see Western media talk about the CCP deriving its legitimacy from its ability to ensure continued prosperity. That’s true, but it misses the broader point. In a real sense, the CCP is just the latest dynasty to rule China. The majority of China is still undereducated and segregated from the world. The old ways hold sway, whether in technology, agriculture, medicine, or politics. CCP rule operates under the Mandate of Heaven, whether they like it or not.

If a cataclysm and chaos mark the end of a reign, then the opposite—periods of calm—must show heaven’s continued support. Prosperity and a relative lack of natural catastrophes are indicators the CCP continues to hold the Mandate of Heaven. The natural result—and visible sign—of such silky smooth trouble-free rule is social order and harmony. That’s one reason maintaining social order is the most important feature of Chinese governance.

In addition, the Chinese government has  a top-down centralized structure. A characteristic of such organizational structures is officials don’t want to risk their boss’s ire by kicking bad news up the chain. That’s just the way it is. (Soviet Russia was the same, watch Chernobyl).

When something happens that threatens social order, the instinct is to sweep it under the rug. Outbreak? What Outbreak? During SARS, the last epidemic that started in China, doctors were told by top provincial authorities not to educate the public about the virus. Hospitals just sent patients home for bed rest. Most knew nothing about Western medicine, ignored the advice, and simply continued daily life, infecting others. The current 2019-nCoV outbreak in Wuhan has followed a similar trajectory. Wuhan authorities initially tried to keep a lid on information regarding the epidemic. They literally preferred to let people die than acknowledge the true situation.

So vital is preserving a sense of social order and harmony, combined with the strong desire not to be the bearer of bad news, that during Spring Festival celebrations, Wuhan party officials did nothing to mitigate the worst effects of the public revelry.  A particularly egregious example was authorities, knowing about the epidemic, allowed state television to promote a municipal banquet—in the infected zone—where a hundred thousand guests ate together, dipping their chopsticks into the communal food, Chinese style. Also, at the beginning of the holiday hundreds of thousands were allowed to board trains and planes to infect other passengers, and then to spread the virus throughout China, and to a lesser degree the world. It wasn’t until the virus went international, and Wuhan authorities could no longer turn a blind eye, that measures to control the spread of the virus began to be taken.

When I was a child, a family friend, who was an epidemiologist, [drunkenly] contented that the thing that would eventually take out humanity was a virus—and that it would come from China.  Thus far I’ve seen nothing that contradicts his prediction.

Vignette #19: Legal Philosophy and Taiwanese Traffic

If you’ve traveled Taiwan you could be forgiven reaching the conclusion driving on the sidewalk is legal. It’s not; but, sending pedestrians flying for cover as you—astride 125cc’s of rumbling thunder—roar onto the sidewalk is practically the national pastime.

When I first arrived in Taiwan I too concluded sidewalk surfing on a scooter was perfectly legal. In my defense, nowadays people still drive on Taiwan’s sidewalks, but they’re a bit shifty-eyed about it. Occasionally they’ll even hop off and push their scooters. An astute onlooker might guess that sidewalk driving is illegal. Not so twenty-some years ago, then drivers had no compunction about using the sidewalk as a handy third lane.

I went to Taiwan to live and bought myself a scooter within weeks of arrival. I had no more knowledge of Taiwan than an average tourist. Unaware of my own illegality, I took great joy in playing motorized sidewalk snooker [old man off the hobbling geriatric woman’s walker into the stinky tofu stand], just like a native-born son of Taiwan—a most 台 of 台客’s.

One particular day, I was high-tailing it down the sidewalk heading to work—hell-bent for khaki—when I plowed past a police officer giving me the stink-eye. He was obviously tempted to stop me, but that was back when you could count on cops to assiduously avoid foreigners. [A beautiful era]. I was confused by his reaction. I thought maybe he’d never seen a white guy driving in Taiwan. It was still uncommon. It never occurred to me, as I scrapped old-guy [10 points] off my scooter’s bodywork, that the issue might be my one-man demolition derby through Taipei’s walkways.

When I breathlessly hauled ass into class and told them the story, the whole class looked at me like a cross-eyed Appalachian cousin-brother. They insisted my behavior was terribly illegal. My reaction was: “Really? In Taiwan?!? Illegal?” I continued in a scoffing tone, “Pray tell what is this ‘traffic violation’ of which you speak?” Turns out there were traffic regulations restricting the driving of motorized vehicles on the sidewalk.

Who knew?

That was my first introduction to Taiwanese legal philosophy. Just ignore laws that are inconvenient, don’t make sense, or are too annoying—unless there’s a cop around.

Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. II]

Part I gives a brief overview  of Asian attitudes towards race and racialism. See: Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt.I]. Part II discusses  some personal experiences of racism in Taiwan, specifically interpersonal racism. (Institutional racism is for another time).

I’m struggling with how to present the topic. A kind of casual, friendly, racism is the background music to my daily life in Taiwan. Yet it almost never reaches a distressful level. Sure I notice the obāsan pointing at me and telling her grandchild, “Look, look at the foreigner. Look at it!” Sure, I’ve noticed people who’d rather stand than sit beside me. If things like that bothered me, I wouldn’t have survived a month in Taiwan. But, I rather think I deserve ogling—I’m quite the specimen—and having some space on the bus is always pleasant. The following are examples of Taiwanese racism crossing my annoyance threshold.

I previously worked at a University with two campuses, one an hour outside Taipei. The school provided staff busing to the outlying campus. One day it was announced all foreign staff would be required to ride in the back of the bus. Some Taiwanese workers didn’t like sitting beside a foreigner for an hour. That annoyed me.

Administrative pronouncements are a speciality of Taiwan’s universities. Racism has a casual, unwitting, quality here. I don’t believe administration ever understood why their back-of-the-bus policy caused backlash. The whole episode dovetailed with American history in an unfortunate way. The next day I took a front seat, beside a Taiwanese colleague, and got as far into his personal space as decency allowed. The other foreign teachers did the same. Thus ended that rule, and with it my civil rights activism.

During a university-wide meeting at that school the foreign staff listened as a Taiwanese professor lobbied for the firing of all foreign teachers, presumably because we’re icky. That annoyed me. I’m pretty sure he was the dilhole behind the back-of-the-bus dictate.

On two occasions, while in smaller towns, local toughs have hurled racial epithets and threats at me. always of the prosaic get-lost-whitey variety. This may actually have happened many times, it happens in Taiwanese, which I don’t understand. The only reason I’m aware of those is the Taiwanese women with me tensed up and pushed me past the offending troglodyte. I’d learn what happened when I complained of losing my place in line for deep fried squid. That annoyed me,… and sometimes scared me.

The first time I came to Taiwan, over thirty years ago, small hotels used to post their prices behind the reception desk. Normally there was a price for locals and another for foreigners. It wasn’t a secret, you just needed to be able to read Chinese. These foreigner prices still exist. It happens in small shops, at night markets, or while bartering. In my personal experience Taiwan is not bad for this, so I’m only minimally annoyed. Just slightly bothered I have to keep my guard up.

I used to date and develop an intimate relationship with women that assumed I understood we’d never be boyfriend and girlfriend. They thought I realized I’m white and ineligible for a relationship. Unfortunately, I had little concept of my alabaster sheen. That annoyed me. This has changed in the time I’ve been here. It’s less likely now to find a woman indulging her latent psychopathic narcissism at your expense. Though I must admit it could be delightful, if you understood the rules of the game.

It sounds bad, but isn’t really, at least for me. Taiwan is unique among Northeast Asian countries for its relative acceptance of outsiders, which developed in parallel with the trend away from self-identifying as Chinese. I’m not sure if that’s causation or coincidence. I suspect it has been a factor allowing the country to re-create its relationship with racialism and provides the freedom to be more inclusive. Strides are being made at the interpersonal and institutional levels. A lot of the Taiwanese attitude about race is grounded on an education system deeply rooted in Confucian values and teachings. Confucius didn’t say much about race relations, so not much is taught on the subject now. As a white man, I can’t speak for other races, I rarely experience aggressive racism in Taiwan. Culturally things are usually never in your face in Asia. By far the most common way I experience racism in Taiwan is through white privilege—I’m coddled. [See: White Privilege in Asia]. It’s racist, but if you’re going to experience racism, that’s the kind you want.

Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. I]

This article and its second part are an extension of White Privilege in Asia, and look at the downsides of being a racial minority in Asia.

Asian acquaintances sometimes ask about my experiences with racism in their country. I struggle to respond in a meaningful way. Is there racism in Asia? Certainly. Is it overt? Frequently. Does it have a negative impact on my quality of life? Not so much. Asia has a very different history, perceptions, and socio-cultural norms regarding racial discrimination.

When I first moved to Taiwan 20+ years ago most Taiwanese self-identified as Chinese, and held Chinese views on racism: “We are the victims of Western imperialism and cultural bigotry. By definition we cannot be racist—we are the oppressed, and thus free to say anything.” A pretty good example came in conversation with a middle-aged Taiwanese man explaining how Western racial ideology brutalized Asia. He had a point, that was undercut by the fact he was concurrently expounding on his theory that black people [that’s not the term he used] had barely evolved from the apes. He was explaining why they’re all drug-addled animals…. But still, according to him, Chinese racism is an oxymoron—victims that they are. Surreal as the conversation was, it was not an outlier at that time.

As a graduate student in Canada I was classmates with a PhD candidate from Beijing. We were in a historiography (philosophy of history) class together. A lot of time was spent debating racist underpinnings in the writing of history. After one such class, he asked me why we considered racism wrong. In his opinion, as long as you could logically support your arguments, racial prejudice was valid. If you’ve read Chinese history, written by Chinese scholars, you have an idea where he was coming from. He tried to engage me in academic debate, but my own cultural/academic background prevented me from serious discourse on intellectual racism’s merits. He was not a bad guy and I wouldn’t exactly call him a racist. He simply reflected his own cultural background.

Shortly later I found myself living in a small South Korean city. The Land of the Morning Calm is one of Asia’s most xenophobic countries. My Korean experiences opened my eyes to Asian attitudes on race and racism. My favorite story is of a very sweet female college student in my class. One day she demurely informed me that, “Racism is one of the great flowers of Korean culture.” To her chagrin I burst out laughing. I could see on her face she was rechecking her English. I told her, “I’m not sure what you meant to say, but that definitely wasn’t it!” I was wrong. She got the English exactly right.

I’d spent my entire life absorbing an anti-racist message through school, family, media, etc. Korea taught me the same wasn’t necessarily true in Asia. Indeed many Asians saw nondiscrimination as potentially culturally dangerous. At that time the Korean economy was booming, The government was pushing global integration as the way forward and my adult class was animatedly discussing globalization in Korean. They were all very enthusiastic and asked my opinion. I told them they couldn’t realistically hope to globalize while maintaining a culture of ethnocentrism. They were outraged. As a single voice they leapt to racism’s defense. I pointed out globalization required foreign experts be welcomed as members of Korean society, so they’d be willing to stay and dedicate their working live’s to Korea. That brought the discussion crashing to an angry end—nothing must ever challenge Korea’s racial and cultural homogeneity. During their long history of invasion xenophobia was used to maintain the Korean race. For me to blithely call racism bad was to attack Korean culture’s very soul.

Korea is extreme, but not unique. All Asian societies are racially uniform, plus ethnically and culturally monolithic to a degree hard to comprehend for the average Westerner. In such homogeneous societies who is there to speak up against racism? Prejudices can proceed unabated by contact with other races. Most Asian societies prefer/demand racial and cultural constancy; change and diversity are seen as a threat. [See: The Unified Field Theory ]. It is no wonder many Asians don’t see a problem with racism—as long as it isn’t directed at them.

Have a look at Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. II] for specific examples of white privilege not being all it’s cracked up to be.

Inconsistencies in Publishing Schedule

Until the end of the Chinese New Year holiday my publishing will be a bit irregular. I will try to post as often as possible, but I’m dealing with [serious] family health problems; [minor but annoying] personal health issues; will play host to visiting family; and also will be making a trip to Canada during this period. I apologize. I recommend a trip through The Salty Egg’s back catalog when you find yourself suffering a bout of hyponatremia. Here are a few suggestions.

It was a surprise to me, but my most popular post by a very wide margin is Don’t Marry a Foreigner. One of my earliest posts, Marrying Taiwanese, is a perennial favorite, garnering daily views. It is unsurprising that intercultural dating/marriage are popular topics among my expat readers, but there are a few articles on the subject that are less widely trafficked: The Hot-Crazy-Taiwanese Matrix and Taiwan’s Marriage Market.

If you’re more of a tourist than a resident of Taiwan, you could try Snakes & Whores, or some of my food writing; The Taiwanese Hamburger, Oyster Omelette, or Oyster Vermicelli. One of my favorite food articles is actually Gross-Out Porn for the Armchair Traveler.

But, I’m not a very serious guy, and tend to like the lighter things. Three of my favorite pieces have no deeper meaning than a chuckle; Sperm Donation and the White Guy, Harmonicas and Public Humiliation, and Are You Gay? A very fun, if off-topic, read is Profound Musings. Check it out.

For those times when you’re not feeling quite so irreverent, try my articles on cultural linguistics. There’s quite a few, but the starting point is The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock and A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places.

Or, if you’re just looking for information on intercultural interaction and culture shock, try these; Guanxi, Humor’s Intercultural Perils, Taiwan’s Social Hierarchy, and Symbolic, Parabolic, Metaphorical,  Allegorical,... The entire blog’s theme is culture shock, so just surf around. There are lots of good things to find.