The silence of the streets and station speaks a certain sorrow.
Alighting at my station in a once bustling Beijing, I remembered a remark once made in jest: “if one wanted to wait for a less fuller metro train in Beijing, you’d have to wait all day.” On returning to China, amidst the Novel Corona virus crisis, I was spoilt for seats. It was sad.
They say character is judged not in times of confidence but certainly in times of crisis. If one were then to describe the response of the Chinese people and their character, at an official level and even the ordinary folk in the street, then it is one of being resolute.
Having just celebrated seventy years of liberation and forty years of reform, the Chinese see this latest test simply as one of many. They were resolute in liberating China, they were resolute in defeating poverty, achieving the Chinese dream of ensuring a modern and prosperous society and they are resolute in defeating this latest devil.
Social media has been buzzing of the hospital built in Wuhan in a whopping ten days. The epicenter of the outbreak, Wuhan is regarded as the capital of central China. A six hour trip by speed train from Beijing, the city is surrounded by some of the most beautiful parts of the Chinese country side while, with its two hundred lakes, lying on the Yangtze river; China’s longest river and the world’s third longest.
It was of Wuhan that the Tang Dynasty poet, Li Bai, described as “blowing Jade Flute in the yellow crane Tower, plum blossom in the may day in river city.” And thus, Wuhan became to be known as the River City. Yet the building of this hospital is symbolic of this resolve of the Chinese people. With little effort, thanks to a different kind of democracy some would say, the central, provincial and municipal governments have come together to ensure that there is an efficient and effective response to this crisis.
The outbreak of Novel Corona virus is not viewed as only a health issue in China but what we have witnessed is a comprehensive and coordinated response to a national emergency. Hospitals, the police, universities, schools, immigration, housing officials, among all other state and party departments have responded collectively to ensuring the defeat of this challenge.
The coordinated and comprehensive response by the Chinese government, coupled with their unwavering resolve to overcome this latest challenge, has translated itself into a comprehensive and coordinated response by almost every single institution in Chinese society: businesses, civil society, faith communities, labour.
As a result, the resolve is matched with an effective and efficient strategy to address the crisis because of the cohesion, across government departments and spheres, in the Chinese government’s united response. The people sense this cohesion and they freely implement it themselves.
Every single morning, without fail, one of the residence staff knocks on my door to take my temperature. Everyone’s temperatures are monitored on a day-to-day basis. At the moment, we are not allowed to leave campus without explicit permission. The security guard at the gate knows this. He takes his job seriously. Like, the residence staff taking our temperatures, he takes his contribution to combatting Corona seriously.
One does not want to ignore the fact that Chinese culture has a history of being disciplined. Some would argue that the residence staff and security guard are simply practicing a discipline that has been found for generations in Chinese society. Yet all it takes is for a few ill-disciplined people to eat banned meat.
The Corona crisis in China therefore speaks to a number of lessons for South Africa. Like some Chinese, some of us are also ill-disciplined. Some of us contribute to the ongoing and number of crisis that continue to plague South African society.
However, the greatest lesson that this crisis in China can teach us is the cohesion in government and its resolve. The inability of our government to address certain challenges in a comprehensive, coordinated and cohesive manner remains the greatest stumbling block in ensuring that government’s own resolve translates into the people’s resolve.
There is not a single challenge whether it is gender based violence, crime in general, corruption, land, restructuring the economy or education that we, as South Africans, can say our government takes this fight seriously. They simply lack resolve.
While we are daily updated on the statistics of the Novel Corona virus, we have become cold towards the statistics on the challenges faced in South Africa. Our challenges have become so normal and part of the South African way of life that not even being able to take a simple train ride is not an issue.
Wesley Seale is completing his PhD in Beijing.