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Novel coronavirus - China needs less politics, more science

Adopting a scientific approach in their daily lives will help the Chinese better cope with a public health crisis.

No government has the ability to constantly supervise every member of society, so individual mindfulness and mutual monitoring are needed.

AS THE novel coronavirus outbreak evolves into a large-scale public health crisis, the Chinese government at all levels has changed its previously passive stance and under-reporting. China has mobilised an unprecedented level of resources to battle the epidemic. From central to local governments, civilians to the military, and officials to the people - no stone has been left unturned.

Yet, the attitudes of the Chinese society towards the government's efforts is startlingly divisive. On the one hand, the sceptics have finally found an opportunity to attack the system as though the virus will not exist and the outbreak will not spread if the system is changed. On the other hand, there are the believers who extol the virtues of the great national system, which they view as the only force capable of stopping an outbreak of this scale.

Society at large attempts to grasp and understand the situation from various perspectives, expressing emotions of fear, despair, anger or sympathy through their points of view or prayers. These emotions are unavoidable yet reasonable in the face of disasters.

However, what is lacking among both sceptics and believers of the system is a scientific approach. There exists a certain natural order in the origin and spread of the virus. The national system and its ability to effectively prevent or curb the spread of the virus is of secondary importance. To eradicate the virus at source, we must rely on scientific knowledge and a scientific way of life.

Blaming the system

To a large extent, it can be argued that today's public health crisis is caused by the over-emphasis of the role of the system. Compared with systems elsewhere, China's system has a far superior ability to mobilise resources. The substantial progress made in China's public health system after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis underpins the people's current confidence in the system. However, despite the transformations in China's public health system, people's behaviours have not changed.

The robust system has prompted the people towards one extreme: belief only in the government, the leaders and the official media, and not in science. Many view politics and the leaders as omnipotent, all-powerful and capable of dealing with any disaster. In reality, this is not the case because no system is perfect. Even the most robust system has its flaws, some of which have persisted after the Sars crisis.

Local governments and leaders wait for directions from the central leadership, without which the local leadership is paralysed and dare not report the virus outbreak. Concealing information and lax governance are the norm. As a result, they behave as if everything is normal and nothing has happened. It is only after the higher authorities and leaders have started giving attention to the spread of the virus outbreak that the local governments find motivation to take action.

Once mobilised, the local governments compete to see who is more responsive, whether in escalating the issue to the highest levels or getting a quicker handle on the situation. If all their efforts do not sufficiently contain the outbreak, the people swing to the other extreme and become angry with the government. They want the officials who are accountable and the "super-spreaders" to be severely punished. Venting anger, however, will not solve the problem.

In reality, the government and the outbreak have come together in an almost inevitable vicious circle. The people's belief in power turns to hate because power is not omnipotent and can falter. Have there been considerable behavioural changes since the 2003 Sars epidemic? Apart from an increased expectation of politics, there has been no real change in individual behaviour.

For example, consuming game meat is widely believed to have caused the Sars epidemic and, now, the novel coronavirus outbreak. Why has the penchant for game meat consumption not been curbed? Why have the relevant authorities not taken action despite strong calls to outlaw game meat consumption? Although some think that the hunters of wild animals are mainly uncultured country folk, it is undeniably the cultured urban middle class that consumes game meat.

In the face of an epidemic, the people's behaviours have not changed and have gone from bad to worse. Always critical of others' behaviours without reviewing their own, many people remain indifferent as the outbreak worsens. Pretending everything is normal, they carry on with their public activities and continue to visit relatives and friends. They carry on thinking that it is just bad luck to be infected by the virus. Rumours are prevalent, as media content producers (individuals who use a platform to upload and share content directly with their followers) "report" and "explain" the developments of the virus outbreak with wild imagination, including what one can consume to ward off the virus.

The virus outbreak represents an opportunity for some merchants to market their products or drive up prices of items in short supply. The indifference and apathy, which manifest in all kinds of foolish behaviours today, have been described by renowned Chinese writer Lu Xun at the beginning of the last century. People have always shifted their responsibilities onto others but failed to reflect upon themselves in order to improve.

Therefore, we cannot conclude that people will voluntarily change their behaviours after the novel coronavirus outbreak. What is happening today is a repeat of the Sars epidemic. However, human memory is short, and we have already forgotten about the global Sars epidemic. Otherwise, the current outbreak could have been less severe.

Excessive political awakening but little scientific awareness

This situation demonstrates a lack of scientific awareness which results in ignorance that continues to shape the people's behaviours. Science is the product of human progress; and scientific behaviour, in short, of scientific awareness. However, no cultural behaviour originated scientifically. In the West, during the early Renaissance, society transitioned from religion and ignorance to an age of science, rationality and progress.

In science, everything has its origin and development process, and every problem has its causes and solution. Following from the Renaissance, in the Age of Enlightenment, the Western focus turned to systemic reforms. Without considering scientific rationality brought about by the Renaissance, it will be difficult to understand the effectiveness of the Western system. While there have been numerous public health crises in the West in modern times, they have not caused huge panic. The government and society share the responsibility to deal with virus outbreaks in an open, transparent and scientific manner.

What are China's problems? Simply put, political awakening is excessive yet scientific awareness is lacking. The May Fourth Movement is seen as a time of political awakening, rather than cultural enlightenment, in China. This is unavoidable because the upsurge of Chinese nationalism as a political theme was critical in the era of Western oppression, a country's struggle for survival, and a people's life and death. Political awakening has its advantages in the country's organisation and political awareness. China has succeeded in utilising politics as a means to organise and lift the country out of the doldrums.

Consequently, people believe in politics and power, and are convinced that every problem can be solved with politics and power. However, the obvious disadvantage of these political means is the reinforcement of the traditionally entrenched consciousness of an abjectly obedient people. The outcome is an extreme obedience to politics and power, at the expense of all else, including science.

This does not mean that China does not value science itself. On the contrary, science underpins China's development. In modern times, China has not been competitive against Western powers because of the latter's science and technology. To become a superpower, China must absorb and develop modern science and technology. As a result, scientific socialism has become an undisputed ideology in China. In fact, the consensus among almost all of China's political elites in modern times is to become a scientific superpower, which has propelled China's rise.

When people believe in politics instead of science, it means that they exclude science from their daily lives. Despite scientific progress, their behaviours have not improved because science has not been used in rational thought to improve lives. Ironically and grimly, new technologies often become effective tools for propagating rumours and superstitions.

In comparison, the Japanese attitude towards science is different from the Chinese. Japan is a typical example of a scientific superpower. Since the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government has attached great importance to science, first learning from the West and subsequently innovating based on the acquired knowledge, rapidly transforming Japan into a scientific superpower. Science has influenced the re-organisation of the Japanese society and plays a part in the Japanese people's daily lives.

Today, Japanese society displays a high degree of autonomy and self-governance. While Japan is a typical example of a country with a centralised government, its government is mindful of the limitations of politics and provides autonomy for self-governance at the institutional level. In crises, the Japanese people autonomously organise self-help or mutual aid, even in the absence of government intervention. Public health awareness of the Japanese people is self-evident and a role model for the world.

China needs a national science movement

A national science movement is necessary to bring science into the lives of the Chinese people. This will be a real cultural awakening that will lead to a scientific culture. Due to the relationship between politics and science, the awakening to a scientific culture is also a political awakening that begins with politics but not a repeat of the excessive political awakening in the past. The relationship between politics and science in the following areas must be well-managed.

First, political boundaries must be delimited. Instead of pretending to be omnipotent, politicians must be deeply aware of the limitations of politics. While politics is crucial in organising the country and a scientific way of life for the people, politics and political will cannot replace science and scientific logic. In an increasingly complex world, more and more problems will require scientific solutions.

Second, the government must function based on science. Similar to the West and other parts of Asia, scientific knowledge should first be propagated among government officials because they are the society's elites and role models. While this is particularly significant in China due to its deep-seated culture of deference to bureaucracy, it is also more difficult because officials tend more to subscribe to non-scientific factors than the people. The officials are not more scientific or rational because of their power and wealth; instead, they often resort to superstitions to explain or solve their problems.

Third, the Chinese government should transform its advantages in crisis management to advantages in crisis prevention. It has demonstrated its capacity for mobilisation to handle crises, including the Sars epidemic and the novel coronavirus outbreak. However, the country has paid the price as the crises have already occurred. Only when this capacity for crisis management is transformed to crisis prevention can the country reduce or avert social crises and minimise the costs. Evidently, science is the prerequisite for this transformation. By respecting scientific logic, the government can become aware of the limitations of power and make use of scientific knowledge to prevent and deal with crises.

Fourth, the government must decentralise and foster autonomy and organisation within society by making every member of society a responsible stakeholder. This has several implications. The Sars epidemic and the novel coronavirus outbreak can be considered "public bad" (as opposed to public good) that people should not contribute, based on their sense of responsibility to society.

Next, no government has the ability to constantly supervise every member of society, so individual mindfulness and mutual monitoring are needed. Finally, when crises happen, instead of depending solely on the government to deal with them, members of society or social groups must autonomously organise themselves to take action in a bottom-up approach. All these necessitate the decentralisation of governance to the society.

The intellectuals, in particular, play a special role to advocate "less politics, more science" in the process. Regardless of their political inclinations, they must be aware of the limitations of politics. The emergence and development of the Sars and the novel coronaviruses have nothing to do with politics. Since the intellectuals of any society are the main propagators of scientific knowledge, the Chinese intellectuals must make the shift from propagating political to scientific knowledge, thereby reversing the excessive political awakening and the lack of scientific awareness.

China is undoubtedly a country with advanced science and technology, but this does not make China a scientific superpower because science is currently not part of the people's daily lives. Indeed, China can only be a true superpower when every member of society has learnt to live a scientific way of life. THINKCHINA

  • The writer is the former director of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He is co-editor of Series on Contemporary China, and editor of China Policy Series and China: An International Journal'.
  • This article was translated from Chinese by Yuen Kum Cheong