Li Zhang on China, COVID-19 and Global Capitalism

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Li Zhang on China, COVID-19 and Global Capitalism

When searching for the origins of the pandemic, we shouldn’t overlook the role played by capitalism in paving a path for the disease. 

Li Zhang on China, COVID-19 and Global Capitalism
Credit: Depositphotos

In “The Origins of COVID-19: China and Global Capitalism,” Li Zhang, a visiting assistant professor of global and international studies at the University of California, Irvine, pushes past nationalistic tussling over the origins of COVID-19. Moving beyond “narrow cultural, political, or biomedical frameworks” Zhang instead focus on the overarching, global forces that underpin modern life — capitalism, consumerism, privatization, and industrialization — and contributed to the emergence of COVID-19.

“The hallmarks of modernity and economic development in China, celebrated as the instruments used by the state to successfully control the epidemic, are at the root of this and other emerging diseases with pandemic potential,” she writes in the book’s prelude, a theme which repeats itself through the short but incisive text. And these hallmarks of modernity are not exclusive to China. By focusing on the global systems that underpin modern life — and enable diseases with pandemic potential to spread — Zhang does not get bogged down in the geopolitical blame game that has so distracted the world.

In the following interview with The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz, Zhang discusses the pandemic, state responses to it, and the role of capitalism in seeding the ground for its rapid spread. 

So much of the conversation about the origins of COVID-19 has been hijacked by the politics of China-U.S. tensions. How does this obscure harder conversations about the structural conditions that permit the emergence, and wide spread, of viruses and deadly diseases like COVID-19?

New viruses are emerging all around the world, and the factors giving rise to these emerging infectious diseases are the same everywhere: environmental degradation and loss of natural habitat for wildlife; human encroachment into remote regions for mining, infrastructure construction, tourism, and even research; the intensification of livestock production that crams animals into factory farms where diseases spread like wild fire; growing consumerism for exotic wildlife; and so on. 

These are complex issues, and addressing them requires critical thinking about the most basic features of modernization, such as the incessant drive toward urbanization, prioritizing industrialization over agroecology in food production, and even the pursuit of profits and consumerism that defines capitalism. 

Narratives that oversimplify this complexity and blame a single country are comforting for many people, making it seem like the problem is only “over there,” and so there would be no need for us to consider our role and responsibility “over here.” That is especially convenient for those whose power and profits would be challenged by the drastic reforms that would be required to actually reduce the risk of novel infectious disease emergence in the first place. One of the main points of my book is to shift debate away from this “U.S. vs. China” narrative to reveal the global dimensions of the problem we are facing.

When COVID-19 was emerging in China, the initial response was subdued. What was the turning point in the Chinese state’s response to the pandemic? How was China’s initial response slowed by the characteristics of both Chinese state governance and capitalism?

The turning point in the China’s response to the emerging epidemic was around January 20, when human-to-human transmission was confirmed and the central government took charge. 

The idea that this response was “slow” needs to be placed in the proper context, since a comparison with other government responses shows that the Chinese government was actually relatively quick and, which is perhaps even more important, forceful and effective in its response. On the other hand, major countries like the U.S. had a dramatically slower, weaker, and less effective responses. 

Why did governments all around the world hesitate to quickly implement forceful and effective public health responses? It was clearly fear of negative economic consequences, the loss of profits for capitalist elites and both consumerism and jobs for the working masses. In a capitalist world economy, governments must weigh the economic costs and benefits of public health measures. 

In turn, the fastest and most effective public health responses emerge where the state has the power and capacity to confront capitalist elites, and provide social services and support the livelihoods of the masses without reliance upon capitalist firms. For China’s initial response to be even faster and more effective, its economy and society would need to be even more independent from global capitalism, providing for the wellbeing of its people without relying upon profits for capitalist firms.   

In the book, you draw a connecting line between the SARS outbreak in 2003, increasing development and privatization of healthcare in China, and the emergence of COVID-19. Into that mix you add the commodification and commercialization of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the business interests of the biomedical field. Can you explain how these developments fit together to set the scene for the emergence of new disease?

With the development of global capitalism, healthcare has become increasingly privatized and profit-oriented worldwide, shifting the priorities of biomedical research alongside. Thus, there are more profits to be made in seeking treatments for infectious diseases than in preventing their emergence in the first place. That’s not only the case of PCR tests and medical equipment, but also pharmaceutical drugs, including TCM. 

There is a great contradiction in that TCM should be oriented toward prevention and cost reduction, but TCM in general has become more and more commercial, with TCM pharmaceuticals the fastest rising component. And as food safety and environmental crises increase chronic disease like diabetes, more people turn to TCM, including those made from wild animals like civet cats (which transmitted SARS from bats to humans), pangolins, bamboo rats, and other wildlife that can be associated with the spillover of this and other new viruses. 

In what ways does China’s quick recovery and response after the initial outbreak reinforce the underlying factors that gave rise of COVID-19?

The expansion of infrastructure like roads, railways, airports, dams, and powerlines into remote regions contributes to the loss of natural habitat for wildlife. Increased mining activity and tourism bring more people into closer contact with the wildlife that is forced into ever smaller patches of their habitat, such as bats in caves or mineshafts. 

The industrialization of farming and livestock production degrades the environment and creates the perfect conditions for new diseases to spread among animals concentrated in factory farms, and spread from there to humans. Neither China nor any other major country in the world has placed these structural conditions that give rise to pandemic diseases in the center of public debate about the response and recovery from COVID-19.

As the world’s second largest economy, and as the only major country that effectively contained the epidemic domestically, China has restarted its economic activities much faster and more effectively than anywhere else, and even boosted its economy with more exports of medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and vaccines. This places China at the core of a global process of capitalist development that gives rise to new infectious diseases with pandemic potential.

One can get the sense easily these days that pandemics are inevitable, so we should focus on how to respond to them effectively. But is that true? Are there overlooked areas we can address to lessen the chances of the emergence of future diseases with pandemic potential?

The existence of viruses and the fact that some will be able to jump species to infect humans is indeed inevitable. But the rate at which new infectious diseases emerge, and the potential for local outbreaks to become global pandemics are a different matter. 

There has been a dramatic rise in new infectious diseases in recent decades, and outbreaks that would have simply caused local epidemics are now much more likely to become global pandemics. This is because of the radical intensification of capitalism and consumerism worldwide, especially the sacrifice of entire ecosystems in the pursuit of profit and consumer goods, and the adoption of industrial modes of production (especially in livestock and food management) that seem to be more “biosecure” because they are perceived to be modern, even if they actually accelerate mutations of viruses and their spread, unlike more decentralized and labor-intensive production systems.

More and more pandemics only seem inevitable because so many people are unable or unwilling to think beyond capitalism and consumerism, and to reimagine modernity away from urban concentration and the industrialization of everything. To reduce the risk of future pandemics requires more than simple biomedical improvements in surveillance; it requires confronting the power and profits of capitalist elites and the consumerist masses all around the world.