Readers Respond to Lab Leak #8

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June 13, 2021 10:31 p.m.

I don’t know who’s right or wrong. But I am as sure as I ever have been that this site’s greatest resource is its rich store of incredibly knowledgable readers. From TPM Reader PL

Now that the lab leak theory has been back in the news, the fact that one of the first identified clusters was at a Wuhan wholesale food market is being discussed again. This happens to be an area where I have some understanding, and I’ve been frustrated with the degree to which everyone is reading things into it without context. Lab leak enthusiasts suggest that because it popped up in the same city as a virus lab it is evidence for the leak, whereas other people just used it to focus on racist “Chinese people eating weird things” stories. But the more likely explanation strikes me as a lot less interesting.

When I was in grad school I spent two years doing field research on design and business strategy in Chinese businesses. As part of this I researched China’s wholesale market system, and, as fate would have it, did ethnographic research on consumer electronics wholesale markets in and around Wuhan as well as other sites across China.

Chinese wholesale markets exist in networks of dozens of primary, secondary and tertiary markets, with the size roughly corresponding with the size of the cities they are in. A large city like Wuhan will have very large wholesale markets, and they’ll sell to wholesalers in smaller markets in nearby cities, as well as to retail outlets and individual consumers. Wholesalers in those smaller cities will sell to even smaller wholesalers in even smaller cities, and so on down the line. Sales people from manufacturers will go to primary wholesale markets in a territory that could encompass several provinces. Which is to say that markets are sites, but are also networks with tens of thousands of people circulating through, a good number of whom are going back and forth between wholesale food markets and restaurants.

Because of this, the fact that one of the earliest identified outbreaks was in a wholesale food market is easily misleading. Sure, maybe that means the source of the outbreak was nearby, or that the market itself was the origin point of the virus. But it could also mean that someone with Covid walked into a restaurant hundreds of miles away and infected the chef who went on to infect people in the market when he bought vegetables. Considering how good restaurants are at spreading Covid, the fact that infections showed up in market networks connected to the restaurant industry early on is not surprising at all.

Also, I would disagree with JF’s assertion that XI Jinping is trying to style himself as an emperor. Comparing Chinese leadership to emperors or China to an empire is generally lazy and orientalist. A better historical frame of reference for understanding the CCP’s secrecy around this is not pre-modern empires but China’s encounter with modernity in the context of colonial subjugation. There’s a whole discourse of national humiliation surrounding the internal weakness that led China to go from being a major power during the height of the Qing dynasty to being invaded by Western imperial powers. In founding the CCP Mao said “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up.” The CCP has framed it’s legitimacy in terms of restoring China as an economic and military power.

The centrality of that humiliation narrative to Chinese nationalism leads the Chinese state to have ridiculously thin skin. Just search the phrase “Hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” in any news database for examples, it is a common line in official statements reacting to things most countries would ignore. It is also why the CCP is going to be secretive about anything which could potentially embarrass China on the world stage. It’s not at the same scale, but in 2008 it was discovered that a major dairy producer was selling milk that was tainted with melamine. This was right before the Beijing Olympics and the Chinese state suppressed news of it until the Olympics were over to avoid embarrassing China during a politically sensitive moment. During the Olympics they did nothing to stop the contaminated milk from entering the food supply because they didn’t want it to leak.

Xi is fulfilling the past 100 plus years of Chinese nationalism by restoring China’s position as the premier regional power and a major world power. While it comes from a different historical trajectory, it’s not fundamentally different from Biden’s commitment to restoring the US’ place as the premier global power. Nobody feels the need to claim that Biden views himself as an emperor for trying to mend relations with NATO or take a hard line with Putin. To do so would be ridiculous, but for some reason people think a (largely imagined) past is the appropriate framework to discuss Chinese politics and not the actual history of the rise of modern China.

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