BY EFFIE DEANS
It is clear now that Covid 19 originated in Wuhan China sometime in November or early December 2019. It might have been stopped if the Chinese Government had taken the necessary steps early enough. Instead they tried to prevent Chinese doctors from telling the truth about the illness and repeatedly lied to the rest of the world about its nature, the danger it posed and the true facts and figures which may have enabled us to protect ourselves against a deadly illness. A large number of deaths just might have been prevented and the economic damage, which will kill a lot of people too, might have been avoided.
Every country has made mistakes. We are fighting against the unknown. We don’t know the number of people worldwide who have been infected. We don’t know the true death toll. For this reason, we don’t know exactly what percentage of people who are infected will die. One of the reasons we don’t know this is that we can’t trust the Chinese data, because we can’t trust the Chinese Government to tell the truth.
There is a problem with regard to truth in China. It is in part a result of China being a one party nominally communist state. Telling the truth or believing the wrong thing can get you into trouble with the Chinese state. But this ought not to prevent the Chinese Government from telling the truth to the rest of the world. Why is it continually trying to avoid blame by inventing bizarre conspiracy theories? The answer is that more important to the Chinese Government even that communism is the need to save face rather than tell the truth.
The Western system of morality is derived from Christianity and depends on the idea that I have a conscience that tells me that I have done wrong. It doesn’t matter if I get away with an immoral act, I still feel guilt and after confessing my guilt and doing penance receive redemption. What matters is the truth of what I did. I either did it or didn’t do it. God knows my sin even if I can hide it. For Western morality what is shameful is if do wrong without confessing it. Getting away with it is the shameful thing. It is for this reason that in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov cannot live with the sin of murder, eventually confesses and achieves redemption through exile.
The Chinese system of morality is quite different it is not based on the individuality of the Christian standing before God with his sin. Rather Chinese morality is based on Miànzi [面子] which is usually translated as face. We don’t really have this concept in the West though you sometimes find something similar in medieval poetry like the Nibelungenlied.
What matters most for Christian morality is reality. Did you sin or did you not? Even if you get away with it, God will record your sins and reveal them on the day of judgement. By contrast what matters in Chinese morality is appearance. How do I appear to other people?
Good conduct in Chinese society is based not on Western individualism but rather on the group acting so that no one loses face. Rather than admit to doing wrong the tendency is for the group to hide the shame so that everyone saves face.
While people in the West are encouraged to recognise our faults and to confess them, the Chinese tendency is to hide them. This means that the Chinese have a different relationship to truth. They say what the situation demands, so that both parties retain face. For this reason, it is permitted indeed obligatory to lie if doing so preserves either one’s own or someone else’s face.
The Chinese Government and the Chinese people in general are not remotely honest about Chinese history. They do not discuss the horrors of the Revolution, the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. It as if the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests never happened. This is why the Chinese Government is so concerned to prevent free access to the Internet. It’s because it would lose face if the people knew about these things. In turn many if not most Chinese citizens do not want to know anything shameful about their country’s past or present because that too would mean they would lose face.
Faced with a devastating new illness the Chinese Government found it shameful that once more a new threat to humanity had arisen from one of its markets. Rather than face the truth and deal with the reality, it chose to save face. But appearance cannot compete with a new illness that multiples exponentially. But by the time the Chinese Government was forced to face the truth it was already too late. Covid 19 had escaped from Wuhan, escaped from Hubei and had flown around the world with the Chinese New Year celebrations.
We need a new relationship with China that is not based on saving face, but which instead is based on honesty, truth and an end to lying, because the reality is that Chinese morality is killing people all around the world.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.