Over the last few days, an article entitled "Something's Not Right Here Folks" | A look at USA 2009 H1N1 Virus Compared to China 2020 Corona Virus has been widely shared and read on Chinese social media. The original article was published on LinkedIn, perhaps the only major Western social media site still unblocked in China, so English-speaking Chinese started off by sharing the original. But a Chinese translation quickly appeared, and now it is being shared more widely on WeChat and Weibo. Unfortunately this fits in with a general pattern: articles written by outsiders that coincide with the worldview which the Chinese government wants to promote often get translated and spread widely within China, while foreign contents that does not fit in with this worldview quickly gets censored.
The article in question is based on a kind of whataboutism which has become widespread on the internet: the argument is that China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak has been much more responsible and effective than the US's handling of the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 virus (ofter referred to as the "swine flu" at the time). It is also claimed that the international reaction to the coronavirus outbreak smacks of racism and double standards, since in 2009 Americans were not prevented from travelling to other countries or in any way quarantined or shunned, as is now happening to Chinese citizens in certain places. It may seem amazing that people are managing to engage in "whataboutism" regarding a virus, but such is the world.
The article's basic argument collapses when you take a brief look at the facts. First of all, the H1N1 outbreak started in the state of Veracruz, in Mexico, and not in the United States. From Mexico it quickly spread to the US, and then became a global pandemic. There was never a sense at any time that the virus was an "American" phenomenon, while the coronavirus cases are clearly concentrated in China for the time being (although this may well change). There was never any reason whatsoever to be wary of people coming from the United States, or to be scared of going there. The two situations are simply not comparable.
Of course, the author is right that other countries closing their borders with China or rejecting any visitors who have been there is overblown (but it is by no means only "Western" countries that are doing this. Russia and Mongolia closed their land borders with China quite fast). He is even more right when it comes to people refusing to eat in Chinese restaurants for fear of catching the virus, or shunning Chinese-looking people on the street. This is nothing but ignorance and racism, and unfortunately it is occurring all over Europe and elsewhere.
But when it comes to hypocrisy and double standards, it is instructive to take a look at how Mexicans were treated in China during the initial phases of the H1N1 outbreak, when the virus was still associated with Mexico. Jorge Guajardo, Mexico's ambassador to China at the time, has just written a pretty believable account according to which China suddenly stopped issuing visas to Mexicans, and Mexicans in China were quarantined regardless of whether they showed symptoms, not always in good conditions. It seems that when it comes to taking extreme measures against foreigners who might carry an infection, the Chinese authorities are second to none. And let's not even get started on the manhunt against people from Hubei which has been seen in some parts of China.
The article praises, predictably, China's "model response" to the viral outbreak, with its "broad and aggressive domestic response" combined with "the voluntary dutiful cooperation of its citizens". The delay in reporting the new illness is blamed entirely on "a few local government officials in Wuhan". It should be noted that authorities in Mexico, the country in which the H1N1 outbreak actually started, did respond by closing down the public and private facilities in Mexico City, to no apparent effect. It may well be that in China such measures can be instituted more effectively and completely. The question is whether the extreme lockdown currently in place in much of China, which is taking a huge economic toll and threatening the livelihood of the poor, and which is even costing lives, is really useful or worthwhile. This is a question that deserves some serious discussion. I am not an epidemiologist, and cannot judge how dangerous this virus could become, nor how effective these measures can really be at stopping its spread. It may even be true that China is taking a hit for the good of us all, but I wouldn't be so quick to make this judgement. And I am pretty sure the author of the piece has no more qualification than I do in this regard.
The author of the LinkedIn article turns out to be an American commentator who has lived in China for two decades. As he says towards the end, "I am truly blessed with my lovely Chinese wife and our family living here in Shenyang, in China's Northeast. You get my meaning?". He has written a couple of books. The subtitle to one of them reads "Compared to divisive western societies, middle class life in China is like Disneyland; happy, stable & safe, better than ever for 600 million people." It would seem that he is a "China expert" along the lines of Martin Jacques and John Ross, who is now having his moment in the spotlight thanks to this well-timed bit of sophistry.