Huang Hung: How Has China Used Collectivism To Navigate The Pandemic? For millennia, China has taught its citizens to embrace individual sacrifice for the greater good. Writer Huang Hung explains how this mindset allows the country to preserve safety during a crisis.
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Huang Hung: How Has China Used Collectivism To Navigate The Pandemic?

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Huang Hung: How Has China Used Collectivism To Navigate The Pandemic?

Huang Hung: How Has China Used Collectivism To Navigate The Pandemic?

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, in a time of crisis, who do we put first, ourselves or the greater good? How do we decide what we're willing to fight for and what sacrifices have to be made? Well, it can depend on where you live.

YAN CONG: My name's Yan Cong. I was born and raised in Beijing. I'm right now walking down the street in my neighborhood in Chaoyang District, Beijing.

ZOMORODI: Yan is a photographer. And in her hometown of Beijing, the greater good means following strict pandemic protocols.

CONG: Entering a lot of places still requires different kinds of proof that we're in good health or we haven't been to any high-risk areas.

ZOMORODI: So, for example, before she can order a drink at her local bar, Yan has her temperature checked and scans a QR code on her phone.

CONG: The person in front of me just left, so now it's my turn to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ZOMORODI: The QR code tells the government where she's been for the past 14 days. Her phone lights up green, so she can enter. But if her phone had flashed red, indicating that she'd been traveling overseas, Yan would need to report to a state-run quarantine location. If it flashed yellow, meaning she'd been in an infected area, well, that would require her to quarantine at home for two weeks with an electronic sensor installed on the door or paper tape sealing the door shut. Break the tape or activate the sensor and a neighborhood committee alerts the government that she broke the rules.

HUANG HUNG: I told that to my American friends. They're like, oh, my God. How can you live with that? That so infringes on everything that we believe in, in individual rights and so on and so forth.

ZOMORODI: This is Huang Hung. She's been called the Oprah Winfrey of China.

HUNG: I'm a writer. I'm a columnist in China. I - most of my writing are in Chinese. However, I am actually a U.S. citizen. And I've been living in China since 1991, so for quite some time. So, you know, I walk into a shopping mall and I have to say I'm glad. I feel safer that there is a scanning system. It is for the greater good. The Chinese kind of realize in time of crisis, it is necessary to bound together. And whatever inconvenience happens, you need to be able to tolerate it. You need to work with other people. You need to support the collective rather than just think for yourself.

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ZOMORODI: In China, this collective mindset means the government can enforce systems like tracking its citizens during a pandemic. But there are costs to taking these measures, like privacy and other civil liberties. On the other hand, not acting collectively in a crisis can be lethal. More than 100,000 lives have already been lost to COVID-19 in the U.S., and those numbers skew disproportionately towards people of color largely because of systemic inequalities that go back centuries. So how can we right these wrongs and protect the well-being of the most people possible? Well, today on the show - four different ideas about how to act for the greater good and what our behavior can say about our convictions, our culture and our history.

HUNG: The Chinese have always had a ruler, an emperor. And this kind of system, which is a Confucian system of a emperor, has not changed for almost 5,000 years. So for the Chinese, it's not strange to have a one-party rule. It's not strange not to have elections because for 5,000 years, they have never had an election. I think that most people have an image of Chinese people almost being enslaved and completely unhappy.

But it is ironic for me that you take China, where the government is not elected, but during the pandemic, everybody will do what the government wants them to do, be it lockdown, be it testing temperatures. Whereby in the West, you have elected governments. These governments are actually voted in by the people, but anything that the governments say that the people will not listen to. And I find that to be something very ironic. And...

ZOMORODI: It's fascinating.

HUNG: It's fascinating. Yes, it is fascinating. You know, what does this say about how a authoritarian government when it carries on for 5,000 years can shape a certain culture of conformity. And is that conformity necessarily bad?

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ZOMORODI: There are those who say that despite this concept of collective good, that the Chinese government did not act quickly enough to contain the virus and that deaths were unreported or undercounted, that there was an attempt to protect the government from outside eyes from seeing that they did not act quickly enough. It sounds like there's a tension between what the people trust their government to do and what the Chinese government actually does to protect its leaders.

HUNG: I think there's a strange misunderstanding that a totalitarian government and authoritarian government, a one-party system, namely the Chinese government, does not communicate to its people, and it does not bend to the will of its people. So this, I have to say, is not quite true because the Chinese government is actually quite aware of public opinion. So when confronted with massive amount of complain and protest on social media, the government has the ability to change its decision. And we seen that during the pandemic when the government changed its verdict on Dr. Li.

ZOMORODI: So you're referring to this Dr. Li Wenliang, who first sounded the alarm about coronavirus in China.

HUNG: Yes.

ZOMORODI: And the government initially condemned him as a whistleblower and tried to censor the news of the outbreak. But they later changed their narrative and celebrated him as a hero after he died of COVID-19.

HUNG: Yes. And this the Chinese government does not because it wants to change its mind but because it realized on the night of the death of Dr. Li that it had to do it. So the government actually does react to public opinion.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. But doesn't it seem like there's this really thin line between whether the government is simply listening to the people or if it's actually trying to save face in light of a major blunder after overreaching and censoring too much?

HUNG: It's the same thing. But either way, what it is is a government reacting to public opinion.

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ZOMORODI: Huh. You know, I guess what I'm also thinking of are the instances where people tried to express dissent and were silenced and punished. For example, our own Emily Feng, NPR's Emily Feng, has reported on how Wuhan residents were threatened by the police and silenced after they tried to sue the Chinese government for the way things were handled there. Lawyers were told to stop their pro bono work on these cases. And so when people are silenced and fear-stricken in this way, you can't really make a generalization that the Chinese population is happy with the government's course of action, right?

HUNG: I agree. I agree. I agree that these incidences are very worrisome, and there are huge holes in the Chinese justice system, in the way that the Chinese local police actually carry out justice and enforces justice. And these are problems that exist in Chinese society. There is no way to deny that.

ZOMORODI: And yet, I think it comes back to this idea that you have talked about, which has no translation into the English language, so I wonder if you can explain it to us and if you think that is the reason why people are willing to accept some changes. The word is (speaking Chinese). Did I...

HUNG: Yes.

ZOMORODI: ...Say it correctly?

HUNG: Yes. Yes. I think the Chinese are taught to think for greater goods ever since we were born. You need to get good grades, not necessarily for your own benefit but because you don't want to lose face for your parents, for your family. And so the collective thinking is very buried deep down.

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HUNG: You really are facing a different creature in terms of a nation and in terms of a race and the people. First of all, China has been homogenized. I mean, it's like 90% of the population is Han, so all I'm saying is that the Chinese government is terribly lucky that they get to rule a people which actually has a culture of collective thinking. They have a easier job than Western politicians. Let's put it that way.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. But do you think there could be a middle ground to be found between that collectivist sentiment that you described but without the extreme measures to enforce it?

HUNG: I think there has to be a middle ground, and I think this is why U.S.-China relationship is so important that it's not a breakdown because that middle ground is somewhere between the Western world and the Chinese world.

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HUNG: We're all together in the same problem. So it's about the human race either moving on to a higher platform where we recognize our collective good as a human race, or we actually die fighting whose system is better. So from that point of view, I do think that the West has a lesson to learn in terms of collective thinking.

ZOMORODI: That's Huang Hung. She's a writer and the publisher of the magazine iLook. You can hear more of her thoughts at ted.com. Coming up, a very different perspective from political philosopher Danielle Allen, who says protecting the most vulnerable members of a population is essential for the greater good.

DANIELLE ALLEN: For me, that is just a bedrock. You start there. And once you commit to not abandoning any subset of your population, you figure out what the pathway is.

ZOMORODI: That's just ahead. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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