A boy looks through a shop window in a locked-down restaurant in Shanghai in late March.Photo: EPA-EFE
Shenglan Chen
Shenglan Chen

Covid-19 ‘magic mirror’ reflects widening fissures in Chinese society

  • In China, the metaphor of Covid-19 as a mirror that reflects a society’s failings was deployed to critique other countries
  • However, in recent months, as China grappled with its own outbreaks, shortcomings at home have been revealed that have strained social cohesion

“Covid-19 is a magic mirror that reveals the monster within” was a popular saying in China in the early days of the pandemic. It was used by the Chinese foreign ministry in reference to the United States to suggest that Covid-19 had uncovered America’s long-standing social problems.

Whoever coined the saying was certainly very astute. But I wonder how many people in China at the time realised that one day the mirror could be turned on themselves. What would they see? What demons might be revealed?

I have lived in China all my life. I am part of a generation that has seen outstanding improvements in this society. It seemed to us that things could only get better, and if there were any challenges along the way, there was nothing that we as a country could not get through by working together.

But Covid-19’s terrible mirror has revealed two social issues that could significantly hamper China’s development if not handled properly – selfishness and bigotry.

A police officer in protective gear stands on a street in Shanghai during the city’s lockdown on May 26. Photo: EPA-EFE
I was in Shanghai throughout the April-May lockdown. We heard of hospitals that would not take patients, some of whom died; people stealing food that was intended for residents and selling it on the black market; and police or pandemic prevention workers who tried to force people into quarantine without even showing proof of a Covid-19 test result. I was truly shocked by these events.

We used to say that China was a harmonious society because the spirit of collectivism and Confucian values were ingrained in our people. Part and parcel of that belief was the idea that people and the government worked together for the common good. Sure, there were individual cases of bribery, but I expected public service workers and Communist Party members to act with integrity.

Yet, the pandemic has forced people and the government to see each other, up close and personal.

Officials said food supplies were ample and that care packages had been delivered to all residents. However, some people were staring at a single bottle of cooking oil, which was all that the government gave them to live on for two weeks.


Shanghai residents confront officials after swift return of lockdown

Shanghai residents confront officials after swift return of lockdown

I know that television news is not always accurate, but disinformation at this basic and personal level is not something we were familiar with. Is this what collectivism and Confucianism have taught us? If this is what we are capable of, what does it mean for the entire fabric of society?

Another problem that has become very serious is discrimination against recovered Covid-19 patients. During the lockdown, there were stories about residential communities unwilling to accept people who returned from hospital. They were allowed to go back to their homes only after the media or the city authorities got involved. But even now that the lockdown has ended, discrimination has not.

I speak from experience, because a member of my own family, who recovered from Covid-19 in April, still cannot go about her normal life in her community without being harassed. Some people scold her for leaving her flat and tell her to stay away.

If people discriminate against Covid-19 patients, it may be because they have been conditioned to do so. For years, the government and media have criticised foreign governments for letting Covid-19 spread. They reinforced the idea that the spread of the disease is the result of political and moral failings. They point particularly to the US, whose leaders have politicised the virus and failed to provide equal care to black, Latino and indigenous citizens.

Thus, many people have internalised the message that Covid-19 only happens to “bad” people and not to “good” people. That is why they say things like, “How could I test positive? All I do is go to the market and chat with my friends. I haven’t done anything wrong.” The implication is that anyone who contracts Covid-19 must be physically or morally unclean.

The Chinese media was in an uproar not long ago about anti-Asian discrimination overseas. Now, it is largely silent about discrimination at home. But lack of media coverage does not mean that people are unaware of the problem, because the magic mirror has already done its work.

I do not believe that China will be destroyed by Covid-19. The country is far too strong for that. However, fissures in society have appeared, and they are widening.

Shanghai lockdown is testing public faith in the government

Covid-19 has undermined our societal trust in deep and profound ways. If we lose our fundamental belief that we are all working together, or that we will be kind to each other on the road to socialism, it will adversely affect the country’s ability to keep developing as it has over the last few decades.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently said, “Development is the foundation and the key to solve all problems in China”, and that development supports jobs, livelihoods and even the fight against Covid-19.

I absolutely agree. But without social cohesion, we will not have development either, and the outcome will be too terrible to contemplate. The magic mirror gives us a chance to correct our mistakes and mend our ways.

Shenglan Chen is a PhD graduate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a former lecturer at Peking University. She was a Fulbright Scholar at Indiana University Bloomington in 2019, researching the legal and economic development of China.