Where Performance Meets Pandemic: Bin Xu on anti-COVID Policy in the U.S. and China

Without a doubt, the United States and China hold distinct strategies in the long fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. These distinctions may be attributed, perhaps, to the two nations’ particular socio-political context. To acquire more insights into why the Chinese leadership opted for aggressive anti-COVID measures (e.g., imposing lockdowns in megacities), I spoke with Dr. Bin Xu, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Emory University and a leading scholar on the cultural sociology of disaster. In Dr. Xu’s words, modern states manage disasters in part through ‘performative’ cultural responses: ‘States project their definitions… of disasters and construct their positive self-images when interacting with the publics.’

Dr. Xu has won awards and grants from the American Sociological Association (ASA), National Science Foundation (NSF), and American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), among others, and his research has appeared in leading journals. His new book, The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society (Polity Press, 2022), provides a theoretical framework for the cultural sociology of civil society: ‘The culture of democracy varies in different contexts and faces challenges,’ Dr. Xu writes, ‘but it shapes civic actions, alters political and social processes, and thus is the soul of modern civil societies.’

Jade: Undoubtedly, COVID-19 represents one of the greatest disasters of the 21st century. As a cultural sociologist who studies disasters, could you first address the cultural response by the American and Chinese governments to the COVID-19 crisis? Why are the cultural responses to disasters such as COVID-19, to use your word, a ‘performative’ act?

Dr. Xu: Yes. I define ‘cultural response’ as states’ effort to use meaningful narratives, rhetoric, and symbolic actions, such as rituals, to address issues about citizens’ suffering and death in order to enhance their legitimacy and secure citizens’ support.

In popular discourses, people pay much attention to material and administrative responses, such as how many supplies the states can mobilize and deliver and how efficient the state agencies’ actions are. But I believe all these material and administrative responses have an equally important cultural aspect. More specifically, the state must deliver materials and act quickly; the state must also demonstrate their care about and compassion toward people who suffer from disasters. The cultural response sometimes could be in explicit symbolic actions, such as rituals [e.g., public mourning] which you mention. But it is more often presented in less obvious things, such as conveying messages through stories and rhetoric that contain not only technical details—quantities of supplies and number of casualties, for example—but also narratives to explain why so many people die in a disaster and how states take care of the survivors.

All the cultural responses are ‘performative’ in the sense that the states project their positive images to the ‘audience’—the public—hoping such images and corresponding messages will be accepted. My performative approach is not entirely new. It is deeply rooted in an established intellectual tradition, which emphasizes the symbolic, performative aspect of politics. This tradition has been developed in various disciplines, for example, the dramaturgical theory in sociology, symbolic politics in political science, and ritual and performance in anthropology. But I believe I am one of the very few people who develop this perspective in studies of the politics of disasters.

Jade: Why do you think China adopts a draconian zero-COVID approach when other nations are gradually moving back to normalcy? How would you evaluate China’s response to COVID-19? How does China’s socio-political culture inform its response to disasters?

Dr. Xu: The number ‘zero’ in China’s zero-COVID policy is a good example of the state’s cultural response. It is not only a measure or standard for the state’s public health response but also a performative action to convey political messages. The first message, which is also the officially stated message, is to demonstrate the state’s care for Chinese people’s life and health. The second message is to show the Chinese state’s superiority over the United States in the COVID response. In other words, it is about the state’s and top leaders’ images—in Chinese colloquial expression, their ‘face’ (mianzi 面子).

Behind these two particular messages are two more fundamental intentions of the state. First, the state wants to demonstrate a high level of confidence in its capacity to deal with crises, and second, to show China is able to compete with the US for world leadership. These two intentions have been significantly louder and prevalent in the past decade, especially encouraged and promoted by China’s leadership. The COVID number provides the Chinese state with a rare opportunity to use a universal, commensurable measurement to confirm its confidence and compete with the US.

This performative approach can explain why China still sticks to the draconian zero-COVID policy when most public health experts and other governments have switched from the early elimination strategy (of which the zero-COVID policy is a type) to mitigation and opening their borders. The state’s performative intentions—to show the state’s capacity to handle crises and to compete with the US for world leadership—were greatly satisfied and encouraged by China’s extremely low number of cases since 2020. Now, if China switches to mitigation, then cases will inevitably increase, probably in a dramatic way, and then the high number will project a negative image of the state—’losing face,’ so to speak—and correspondingly contradict the messages conveyed through the low numbers.

This was something that the top leadership could not tolerate, particularly when geopolitical tensions between China and the US remain at a high level. This performative action can also explain why China still does not import Pfizer and Moderna—that’s also because the state wants to demonstrate that China also can independently develop advanced technology, specifically the COVID vaccines. Importing Pfizer or Moderna would mean that China admits its inferiority in technology. You can see similar things in the semiconductor industry and other realms. Nevertheless, this kind of performative action has real-world consequences, which everyone can see now.

Jade: In what other contexts can we see this ‘performative’ response by the state? Are there similarities and differences between the COVID-19 lockdowns in Wuhan and Shanghai and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in terms of the government’s cultural and/or political responses? What about when compared to the US’ response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005?

Dr. Xu: Yes, there are significant differences, but the differences mainly come from the situation; more precisely, in both Wuhan and Shanghai lockdowns, the state used the same performative action without adjusting to the changing situation. Before the Wuhan lockdown, the Chinese state covered up the initial spread of the virus also because of the state’s concerns with its image—any negative information about a virus out of control would damage the image of a strong, capable state. Then, a lockdown was imposed on Wuhan and other cities as an emergency measure, which was explicitly stated in the state’s rhetoric.

At the time, despite all the problems, the general public seemed to get this message and tolerate the draconian measures as a necessary evil that only would exist for a couple of months. After the lockdown, the zero-COVID policy enhanced the state’s image, and therefore the state decided to turn it from an emergency measure to an official policy. The substantial human costs that came with the success in Wuhan were downplayed or neglected by the state and ignored by Chinese citizens, who enjoyed relative freedom while the rest of the world still suffered from the virus.

Yet, at the beginning of 2022, the Omicron variant prevailed in China, and its higher infection rate made the goal of ‘zeroing’ more difficult. But this time, the human costs were much higher. The low mortality rate caused by the variant also provoked the question of whether the costs were justified. Then the Chinese state seemed to run out of performative ‘props’—in other words, repeating the same old rhetoric and narratives without creating more convincing ones to explain why the emergency measures turned long-term and how the state should also care about citizens’ livelihood and jobs.

The state’s performance now seems to repeatedly emphasize, first, changing the policy will bring about a large number of death and severe illnesses; second, the costs of zero-COVID will be justified by economic development in the long run; and third, the ‘zero-COVID’ policy is a political issue rather than a purely economic or public health issue. None of the messages was new or convincing, given that the economic pains and daily hassle most people feel have overweighed their worry about the virus. 

Jade: Many scholars assert that authoritarian states such as China have better cultural and political responses than democratic ones in times of crisis. However, whether authoritarianism or democracy performs better in disaster responses is, in your opinion, an off-target and reductionist debate. Why?

Dr. Xu: In an article about the Sichuan earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, I have already argued against this simplistic view. Both authoritarian and democratic states are modern states. I emphasize ‘modern’ here because both are results of modernity and share common features, for example, the states’ overemphasis on efficiency, growth, and conquest of nature at the expense of human lives, wellbeing, and feelings. The bureaucratic system is designed to solve logistic problems, whereas citizens’ desperate need for comfort and meaning amidst suffering and death are believed to be secondary, ‘soft’ issues, which will automatically be ‘solved’ when the administrative issues are dealt with. This kind of logic is everywhere; it is very destructive.

Consequently, before we evaluate which regime type is better at disaster response, we need to ask a fundamental question: ‘What do we mean by response?’ Is it just about materials delivery, administrative speed, and numbers? Or is it also about how states show they effectively address people’s suffering through both material and cultural responses? I argue for the latter—that is, the cultural response is equally important.

If we start from this assumption, then it is very hard to say which regime type is doing better in terms of a cultural response. Authoritarian states usually conceal information about a disaster—as in the initial stage of the COVID crisis—but, in some situations, authoritarian leaders may use their images faster and more effectively to comfort the needy people—for example, Premier Wen Jiabao rushed to the quake zone only hours after the Sichuan earthquake. Yet, their performance often falters where the political structure constrains the possibility of providing meaningful and responsible accounts, especially the accounts about what happened and who should be responsible. This often leads to further suppression of survivors’ questions and activism, as we witnessed in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake and now.

My theory and research also function as a cautionary tale that democracy does not automatically translate its core values—equality, openness, liberty, and solidarity—into meaningful real-world practices. George W. Bush performed poorly in Hurricane Katrina, and the American state in general—from Trump to Biden—also lacks an effective cultural response to the COVID crisis. The Trump administration, for example, made a botched attempt to depict an image of a successful response when the cases were skyrocketing and provided no narratives of compassion or accountability. Rather, Trump attributed the crisis to China, a supposedly easy target due to its authoritarian nature, implying the superiority of democracy and also giving an implicit license to racially discriminate against Chinese and Chinese Americans.

At the local level, many other state actors attached too many conflicting political meanings—often about individual and local liberty—to logistics like facemasks and lockdowns but too few existential meanings to essential issues like human lives and suffering. Trump was replaced by Biden; this was a victory of democracy. Yet, in my opinion, the Biden administration has also not expressed an effective cultural response. Key state actors, including different agencies, officials, and even Biden himself, showed inadequate compassion, provided unclear explanations and instructions about vaccines and measures, and did not address the long-term, economic and health impacts.

Now, the administration seems to declare that COVID is over; the message is basically: ‘we should move on’. This is not an effective response. If the state does not take stock of its response and do some serious reflection, the same mistakes will be repeated in the future. I hope that there will be a comprehensive report by an independent commission on the state’s response, including its failures. This kind of report is possible under a democratic regime but not under an authoritarian one. In other words, as I say in the end of that article that compares Sichuan and Katrina, ‘All states must work hard to win the hearts and minds of their citizens in dire situations.’

Jade: Do disasters change the relationship between the government and its citizens? If so, could you offer some examples of how? What factors affect the interactions between the nation-state and civil society?

Dr. Xu: Unfortunately, only in very rare cases do disasters change state-society relations. In those cases, the disasters are often prolonged and affect a large population. For example, the ‘Great Leap Forward’ famine was such a case, in which, according to Yang Dali’s study, the catastrophe led to institutional changes in agricultural policies. The Sichuan earthquake, according to my research, has had very few impacts on state-society relations. So did Hurricane Katrina. Both disasters changed people’s perceptions of politics and cultural identities in some ways and certainly become emblematic cases of disasters in their respective countries. But in terms of structural changes, however, there are no significant structural changes in both Sichuan and Katrina. The COVID crisis, in most countries, especially in China and the United States, however, could become something similar to the Great Leap Forward famine since it is prolonged (almost three years now!) and has affected almost everyone. Now, it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions since we are still in this pandemic, but it is worth further research in the future. 

Jade: My favorite chapter of your new book, The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society, is Chapter 5—’The Culture of Democracy Under Undemocratic States.’ How do democratic ‘public actions’ take form in authoritarian regimes such as China? Are these ‘public actions’ limited by the political regimes? In other words, to what extent is the vibrancy of civil societies limited by their political contexts?

Dr. Xu: Thanks for your compliments and for reading my book. When talking about civil society under authoritarianism, people immediately think about oppositional civil society associations and public spheres, such as the civil societies under state socialism in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Poland, and dissidents and independent media under repressive regimes today. They are often subject to state repression. But this is not the whole story. In the book, I discuss several forms of ‘complex coexistence’ of civil societies under authoritarianism; that is, civil societies try hard to survive under authoritarian regimes and develop complex strategies of survival. Most of them do not openly fight against authoritarian states. Rather, they may choose to compromise and negotiate; in many cases, they keep quiet on and avoid sensitive issues; in other cases, they even actively conform to states’ ideologies and policies. All these are civil societies’ responses to the authoritarian states’ repression, and there is a huge variety in terms of their strategies and perceptions. 

Jade: How do Chinese citizens understand the meanings of their civic engagement in an undemocratic context? How do such ‘public actions’ and ‘understanding of meanings’ differ from those in (perhaps flawed) democracies such as the United States?

Dr. Xu: In fact, my research has shown that there is a high degree of similarity in civic engagement in both countries, although differences are also obvious. Citizens in both countries want to improve their societies through their own actions. There is a significant variety in their understandings of their meanings of civic engagement. Some are similar, for example, using individualism to understand altruistic behavior—’I volunteer or donate or participate in public actions because such actions make me happy.’

Religion and emotions also play similar roles. The difference mostly comes from the political context. Chinese citizens often carefully deal with possible and perceived political risks when they try to improve their society. Sometimes they choose to avoid ‘politically sensitive issues,’ and you won’t see many associations in China that vocally advocate for policy changes, let alone political changes. You see numerous such advocacy associations, and involved citizens understand political actions as part of their effort to change the society. But I want to emphasize that American citizens also tiptoe around political issues, not because of the fear of the state’s repression, which was secondary, but because politics may interfere in their social lives in an unpleasant way or because of their worry that explicitly stated political goals may hurt their main messages. There has been tons of research on this topic.  

Jade: Does your research implicitly suggest that ‘Western-style democracy’ is unsuitable for a country like China? Should China move toward a more open system of choice and accountability? The Carter Center was previously involved in monitoring village elections and promoting political reforms in China. Do foreign NGOs have a role in promoting democracy in China?

Dr. Xu: No, my research does not convey that message. On the contrary, I think democracy is a universal form of institutions, social life, and ideas, which have been globally developed, spread, and evolved. The culture of democracy in my book’s title means a set of values, imagination, and norms in people’s pursuit of a democratic social life. I emphasize ‘democratic social life’ here because I follow John Dewey, Jürgen Habermas, and other democratic theorists and view democracy as a concept much more than the electoral system, division of power, and rule of law. Democracy is a type of social life in which citizens participate in decision-making processes in their communities, engage in rational-critical debates over public issues, and culturally make civic participation more inclusive, equal, and open. If we understand democracy in this way, then we are confident that most people and societies—not just in the West—want this kind of democracy.

In this sense, yes, as you mention, the village-level elections in China in the 1990s were a perfect example of an attempt to develop a democratic social life, even though such attempts were certainly limited by authoritarianism. Similar practices are everywhere, especially flourishing in non-Western contexts, such as gram sabha (village assembly) in India and the ‘participatory budgeting’ in Brazil. The problem with China’s political practice is that experiments like village elections are too few, probably completely halted now. In the current political atmosphere, nobody dares to make this kind of effort.

Against this background, the concept of ‘Western-style democracy’ distorts our perception and sends a very wrong message to Chinese citizens. It labels democracy as ‘Western’ and thus tries to stir up nationalism and prevents people from imagining an alternative future. It justifies the authoritarian state through a crude version of ‘cultural difference’ or ‘Chinese exceptionalism.’ More fundamentally, as my book suggests, this claim tries to kill the culture of democracy in its cradle—that is, to limit people’s imagination and condemn some universal values—before such a culture informs, inspires, and activates people to take actions to change their society.     

Jade: Thank you very much for these thoughtful answers. I have one final question. Academic institutions are vibrant parts of civil society, particularly in democratic countries. As a scholar yourself, how should the US and China conduct academic exchanges? 

Dr. Xu: This is a question that haunts me on a daily basis. In general, I view ‘authoritarianism’ as a concept of variety and degree, in other words, even in the absence of a representative democratic system, there could be some room for citizens, associations, and intellectuals to conduct meaningful public discourses. Such room has been shrinking dramatically in the past decade, which makes academic exchange in social sciences extremely difficult. The ‘gray area’ disappears. This kind of academic disconnection will increase in the near future. I can even say that we should not be surprised if in a few years the Chinese government puts more restrictions on Chinese students pursuing higher education degrees outside of China. The reasons for this change, if I can return to the performative messages in the beginning of this interview, are the state’s demonstration of its confidence in its capacity and its competition with the US on world leadership. This kind of performative message is ‘performative,’ which means it may or may not accurately represent reality. But in order to project positive images, the state will try everything to block the information flow, hold young Chinese back from globalization, and boast about its own universities’ status.

I don’t really see any factor that can reverse this trend. This situation won’t change anytime soon. It is not just the Chinese government that blocks the information flow. The American government does not show strong interests in restoring academic exchanges with Chinese scholars. This is exactly what worries me deeply now. After COVID, are we China scholars—especially those relying on fieldwork, who, like me, develop our ideas from talking to people on the ground—able to do research in China again?

Ironically, a question before this is: ‘When will the Chinese state significantly change its COVID policy to allow people to visit China?’ Or, even after such a COVID policy change, will the political atmosphere be good enough for researchers to conduct research and give talks without being on the state agencies’ radar or even black lists? If something happens to a scholar working on a sensitive topic about China and gets into trouble with the Chinese government, then will the American government take some action?

I don’t see clear answers to these questions. The community of China scholars can certainly write an open letter or similar advocacy to influence decision-makers in the US government, but such actions will have no impact on the Chinese government. I am now particularly worried about junior scholars who are just starting their serious research and suddenly lose access to data due to disconnection. If disconnection persists, as I predict it will, at least for a while they might have to change their topics and methods. They certainly can utilize the big data available online, but any serious China scholar will tell you how important on-the-ground experience in China and among Chinese people is for scholars, even if they may not use fieldwork as their major methodology.    

On the other hand, we should not give up or give in. Despite the tightening controls, there is still some room in China—assuming the COVID policy won’t stay forever—that allows individual researchers to conduct ‘low-key’ research in a smarter way—walking into the crowd and talking to ordinary people without attracting attention from the authorities. As a disaster researcher, I know how resilient people are in facing catastrophes—they tough out difficulties and invent new ways of life. We are unable to change the geopolitical tensions, but we can try to adapt to this changing environment. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when China was not entirely open to outsiders, overseas China scholars were still able to produce high-quality studies based on a limited amount of data. The situation now is certainly better than then. In this sense, I don’t think we need to be pessimistic. Patience, perseverance, and innovation are important for continuation of our research on China.