Saturday, January 15, 2022

Wow, the Anti-China Bias in Western News Media

In Xi'an, China, people wait in line to be covid-tested. Image source.

Throughout the whole pandemic, I have been shocked by the anti-China bias I keep seeing in news articles from western media. A lot of articles criticizing China's "zero covid" strategy, talking about it like it's just absurd, when in reality it has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. A lot of articles talking about covid outbreaks in China- I see that the articles report the correct numbers (any small number of cases in a city of millions counts as an "outbreak" in China- so we have outbreaks of like 3 or 10 or whatever) but the tone these articles use makes it sound like the situation is just as bad as in the US.

It's made me political in ways I never was before. Yeah, I've lived in China for 8 years, yeah, I'm American and I was always taught that the Chinese government was evil... I moved to China and found the reality is it's mostly a huge bureaucracy, but beyond that, I hadn't really formed much of an opinion about the Chinese government. Until now. Like wow, China has successfully controlled the pandemic, and all CNN wants to talk about is how "harsh" our lockdowns are or whatever.

(I mention CNN specifically just because that's the site I usually read. Seems that other western media also has the same kind of bias though.)

CNN always reads [to me] like "you guys, get a load of this, China is trying to not let ANYONE get covid. How weird! What a harsh dictatorship! Everyone hates it, surely China will soon get with the program and stop this 'zero covid' silliness." Some links: here, here, here, and here. The facts are right, but the overall tone is so biased against China. Instead, they should be pointing out, "you guys, when China says 'outbreak', like, 1 covid case counts as an 'outbreak'. This is not like in the US. This is completely different from the pandemic in the US." But the articles use language like "scrambling to contain"- which is true, China is "scrambling to contain" covid outbreaks- but to readers in western countries, that makes it sound like things are just as out-of-control here in China as they are elsewhere. China is "scrambling to contain" because China takes any 1 single covid case seriously, because China understands what exponential growth means and how it would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths. And because China is "scrambling to contain", we have NOT had exponential growth, or hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Anyway, here's a recent example. The same story, reported by CNN and by Sixth Tone, a Chinese media group:

CNN: Xi'an lockdown brings heartbreak and dysfunction as political pressure to contain outbreak grows

Sixth Tone: After Tragedies, Xi’an Promises Better Health Care Amid Lockdown

(A little bit of background about Sixth Tone: It's a Chinese media group that writes articles in English from a feminist perspective- and that's why I like reading their articles. They don't really do the same style of "breaking news" that CNN does, it's more like, in-depth investigations of how minority groups are affected by society-wide trends, that sort of thing. Wikipedia tells us that Sixth Tone is owned by Shanghai United Media Group, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party- but this is very much NOT an "everything the government does is awesome" propaganda machine or anything like that. They publish articles about how the legal system in China fails to protect women's rights in cases of divorce or domestic violence, how parents are unable to buy medicine for their kid who has a rare disease that China doesn't care enough to approve treatments for, even though other countries have treatments, also a lot of articles about queer people and the challenges they face in China... Yeah, many articles critical of "the system" and its real-world effects on people's lives.)

Both CNN and Sixth Tone reported about this: In Xi'an, which is currently under lockdown because it has the biggest COVID-19 outbreak that China has had since the initial Wuhan outbreak in early 2020, there have been people who needed emergency medical treatment but were not allowed to enter the hospital because of the pandemic rules. (ie, they didn't have a negative covid test, or didn't have the right health code on their phone.) There was a man who had a heart attack, and later died because he couldn't get treatment, and a pregnant woman who had a miscarriage (Sixth Tone mentions this happened to 2 pregnant women in Xi'an).

It's fascinating to me to see the same story reported by 2 different sources, and how it's spun so different. CNN reads like "this shows that 'zero covid' is BAD, everyone hates it, China should stop." Sixth Tone reads like "nobody is questioning the 'zero covid' strategy. But we all agree that Xi'an is doing a terrible job of it."

[And here's another little complication to throw in: When I first read that article on CNN, I thought, "I am not gonna see this reported in Chinese news, I'm sure they'll censor it." Then later I saw it reported by Sixth Tone and I thought, "Oh, interesting, I guess since it already went viral on Weibo, they are not trying to censor it." Yeah, we know news get censored here. We know we don't truly have free speech- though with social media, sometimes something goes viral before the Powers That Be have a chance to silence it...]

Both articles report that the people responsible (at the hospitals and/or in the Xi'an government) have lost their jobs. And I have also seen articles in Chinese news media about other cities where local officials have lost their jobs for failing to control the pandemic. So a lot of it comes down to how the local government of each city sets rules to carry out the "zero covid" policy. A lot of pressure on the local government, and blame if they screw it up.

It leads to lots of rules, which may or may not make sense, and low-level security guards are tasked with enforcing the rules. And, I suspect, these security guards know the rules don't always make sense, but if, somehow, the security guard fails to check everyone's health code and then a covid-positive person somehow enters the location, the security guard will be blamed for it. What incentive do they have for saying "the rule doesn't make sense, I will let you in anyway"?

An example that happened to me: A few months ago, my son had a cough and fever, and we took him to the fever clinic section of a hospital. (In China, because of the pandemic, fever patients are not allowed to go to just any hospital, they can only go to a designated fever clinic.) The doctor said my son would have to use a nebulizer to inhale medicine for his lungs, twice a day. The doctor asked us, "Do you live near here? If there's another hospital closer to where you live, you can do the nebulizer there, no need to come all the way here." 

So that night, we went to a different hospital with a fever clinic, closer to our home. When we got there, of course the first thing the security guard asked was "has he had a fever in the past 48 hours?" (48? Maybe 72? I don't remember the exact number.) Since he had had a fever, he would have to go to the fever clinic section of the hospital- and a patient is only allowed 1 visitor, so my husband went with him while I waited at the main entrance.

When my husband got to the fever clinic area, they said that my son would have to be covid-tested, and they would need to stay in the fever clinic for several hours while they waited for the covid test result. My husband said, "We already went to another fever clinic today and he was covid-tested, here is the result, it's negative." They said, they don't accept that, they want to do their own covid test, and you have to sit here and wait for it. 

(At this point, it's about 9 pm, nobody wants to sit around and wait for a covid test result which is definitely negative because Shanghai has had, what, like 50 locally-transmitted covid cases over the past 2 years? Uh I can't find a stat for this- total for Shanghai is around 3400, but the vast majority of those are people who arrived on an international flight and went straight to quarantine, no danger of spreading. Yeah basically nobody here has covid.)

So there was some back-and-forth- my husband said "This is a covid test result from a hospital that has been officially designated as a fever clinic by the government of Shanghai. It's not like, some random guy in a parking lot." [Okay I wasn't there so those were probably not his exact words, lol.] Eventually a doctor said it's okay, you can go. The doctor agreed to take responsibility for it if somehow my son turns out to have covid and they let us go. She made a phone call to the front desk of the hospital to say it's okay, let us in when we come in the main entrance. 

So my husband and son left the fever clinic area and came in the main entrance to the hospital, and we saw a doctor (not the same one- the doctor mentioned above was just working in the fever clinic area).

(Also, I'll mention that the first hospital we went to that day does NOT have the rule "you have to wait for your covid test result before you can leave." Some fever clinics have that rule, some don't.)

Rules. They might not make sense when applied to a specific individual situation, and the security guard surely recognizes that, but why should they take the risk? If somehow you are covid-positive, it's a logistical nightmare disinfecting everything and testing everyone who happened to be there at the same time, and the security guard would be blamed and lose their job.

So this is the kind of environment we have here- and I'm sure it's even more extreme in Xi'an, which is having an actual covid outbreak. I am totally not surprised that a hospital refused to let people in who needed life-saving medical treatment. Actually, I am sure this isn't the first time it's happened in China during the pandemic. Surely there must be other people who died because of the lockdowns and because of the pandemic rules.

They want to just blame it on the local government of Xi'an, but my opinion is, when you have a "zero-covid" strategy, and you have a population of 1.4 billion, there will inevitably be some places where the local government does a really bad job of handling lockdowns and all that, and people die, not from covid but from problems caused by the lockdowns. That's inevitable (but that doesn't make it okay), and the national government has some responsibility for that... but what's the alternative?

There have also been news articles from Xi'an about people stuck in their homes unable to get food. If you have a lockdown, you have to set up a system to make sure everyone gets food delivered to them. This is obvious, right? Also this is the reason the lockdowns could never really work in the US- imagine a big government big enough to quickly set up a food-delivery system that guaranteed every household had food. Instead, what happened in the US was that restaurants and grocery stores saw a demand and started offering delivery services- that's how the free market works. But when it's the free market, nobody is making sure that everyone has access to the food deliveries and everyone can feasibly stay in their homes to do a proper lockdown. And to control the pandemic, it really has to be everyone, not just the people with enough money and privilege to make it work.

But anyway, apparently Xi'an has also done a bad job with the grocery deliveries.

Let's compare this with the US, though. (I am talking about the US because I'm American.) 800,000 people have died of covid in the US. I keep seeing so much news about the US health care system being overwhelmed because there are too many covid patients, and also nurses can't work because they're also getting covid or just getting burned out. I keep seeing news about schools trying to open and then closing again because suddenly a bunch of students and staff tested positive for covid. I see news about long covid. And the US does not yet have a vaccine for children less than 5 years old. (In China, there are vaccines for ages 3 and up.) My son is too little to be vaccinated.

So... if you want to talk about governments doing things wrong in handling the pandemic... Would you rather be killed by bureaucracy in China or by the free market in the US? (Raw numbers say the free market has killed way more...)

Yes, let's expose the failures of the Xi'an government, because these things absolutely shouldn't happen. (Just because it's "not as bad as the US" doesn't make it okay- like wow, set the bar a little higher than that.) But then claiming that it means "zero covid" is wrong, and China should just let everyone get sick- come on, all the other countries are doing it!- like, what on earth?

I'm in Shanghai- maybe I would be saying something different if I was elsewhere in China. Maybe I would have more criticisms of the Chinese government. I found an article on CNN which has this to say about how the government of Shanghai runs things way more efficiently than other cities in China:

In a way, Xi'an's dysfunction is not an exception. Complaints of disproportionately harsh measures abound during previous prolonged lockdowns in other comparatively smaller areas, from cities in the western region of Xinjiang to the southern border town of Ruili. But in Xi'an, such problems took place in a much more extreme form, on a much larger scale, and garnered much wider attention.

"People like to use Shanghai as a sort of reference point," Huang said, referring to the Chinese financial center widely praised for its cool-headed and targeted Covid response. "But they forgot that Shanghai is actually a rare case due to its relatively strong bureaucratic capacity."

"When the capacity is low, government officials are more likely to turn to heavy-handed, indiscriminate and even excessive measures that significantly raise the cost of implementing this (zero-Covid) strategy," he said, citing Xi'an as an example.

Yeah, I guess I shouldn't be ignorant of my own bias, because I am in Shanghai and I have benefitted a lot from China's "zero covid" strategy. I get to just live my life normally, except that I have to wear a mask in public and traveling is very restricted.

But I see western news media talking about China as if they don't know what they're doing, as if it's just completely absurd to try and stop covid from spreading, like, oh surely soon China will recognize how ridiculous this is, and give up their "zero covid" strategy... "they can't do this forever" and such... I mean, why? Why can't China do this forever? Who is going to stop them? Just because news organizations in other countries (like the US) have gotten used to covid and thousands of people dying every day and seem to think it's fine... No, here in China we STILL KNOW that's not fine. That's not okay, having thousands of people die of covid. That's not something we want. Just because it's "normal" to people looking in from other countries doesn't make it okay.

Take the plank out of your own eye. There are problems here, but the alternative is so much worse.


Wow, just days after publishing this post, I see this on CNN: Beijing locks down office building with workers still inside after single Omicron case detected. Wow, the bias here, the horrified tone... unbelievable. The headline "locks down office building with workers still inside", written with the same wording you would write something actually bad like "set it on fire with workers still inside"... Umm, it's a lockdown, the point is to contain the virus, keeping people from leaving is THE ENTIRE POINT, not some kind of horrifying side-effect... Also "single Omicron case"- yeah see the thing is, it's probably NOT a "single Omicron case", there are probably more, so we have to find them before it spreads. Yeah it sucks if you have to sleep at work for a couple days, but you know what would suck more? If your grandma died of covid.

I mean, let's definitely keep an eye on the Chinese government in case they start claiming that controlling people's lives in other shady ways is necessary to save lives. But this, during the pandemic? This actually IS necessary. This is what you do if you actually want to defeat covid.



I Don't Know Anyone in China Who Has Had Covid 

"I'm Thankful That We Live In A Country..."

Well *now* I'm glad I stayed in China

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