I live in Wangjing, a quite internationalised area in Beijing. Many Fortune 500 companies are headquartered there and 10 percent of the around 600,000 residents are expats. Every weekend, I take walks in Wangjing’s many parks to exercise and watch the changes in the city.
There have been no new confirmed cases of COVID-19 for a month in many Chinese cities. Wangjing is supposed to ease the epidemic control measures but its residents, including many expats, are cautious. They continue to wear masks and guard against a second wave of infections.
This is not only happening in Wangjing. More than 2,800 counties nationwide and 1.4 billion Chinese are doing this too. As long as the government does not officially announce lifting the ban, people will always exercise discipline. Even if their residential areas have never reported an infection case, they will continue to make their own sacrifices for epidemic prevention and control.
This stands in comparison with the US where an average of 20,000 daily cases have emerged for two consecutive months, the public in many states cannot bear the stay-at-home order. Certain people even go to the street to protest against control measures. Some refuse to wear masks and flock to the beach. Some cities are even starting to prepare large-scale sporting events.
Medical statistics show that the infection rates in a society where people are disciplined to wear masks is 50 times lower than in places where half of the people do not wear masks. Analysts tend to compare the governance abilities of both the Chinese and US governments, but ignore the differences of cultures between the two societies.
From the central government to grass-root communities, public servants work overtime and check quarantine work. Tens of thousands of medical workers battle against the virus. This national maturity is key to China’s phased success in fighting the epidemic. During the initial stage of the outbreak in January, Chinese society was somehow chaotic, but the situation soon improved. The Chinese people who have experienced the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake perform much better than in the past and than people in Europe and the US.
Obviously, the COVID-19 fight is changing Chinese people’s social and political values. It is like the Enlightenment. Chinese people are experiencing a new spiritual awakening that is surpassing Western neoliberalism. When China opened up more than 40 years ago, individualism and liberalism flooded into the country. The emancipation of minds and protection of rights attracted Chinese people. We have to admit that these new thoughts, which originated from the process of Western modernisation hundreds of years ago, have contributed to the success of China’s reform and opening-up. Wise Chinese people have perfectly combined domestic cultural traditions with foreign ideologies.
The author is professor and executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China and executive director of China-US People-to-People Exchange Research Center.