Pathogen Stress in the People’s Republic

Person in a white suit Foto: Person in a white suit by Xiangkun ZHU under Unsplash License

by Konstantin Kladensky

China enforced COVID-19 lockdowns at staggerating costs. A look at China’s battles with past pandemics and the nexus of hygiene and authority helps us to explain.

In 2020, the world moved on from the COVID-19 pandemic as the much lighter and more infectious Omicron variant emerged. China, however, doubled down and combated the rapid spread of Omicron with draconian containment measures. The 26 million metropolis of Shanghai was locked down for almost two months, and other cities soon followed.

To achieve this unprecedented precision and coverage of the pandemic measures, the entire state expanded its administrative system. Formerly insignificant neighborhood committees were incorporated into the party-state’s administration and were used to monitor and coerce people.

The policies had a devastating effect on retail sales, export, unemployment, and economic activity in general. This damaged supply chains and had ripple effects all around the globe. People were confined to their flats for weeks and experienced extreme stress and food shortages. The party appeared relatively unified on the issue, and only mass protests in November 2022 led the government to cancel the containment measures.

Hygiene Policies in China

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first attempt to use strict discipline to enforce public health related measures on the Chinese people. In the early 20th century, the common Chinese were depicted as deficient, selfish, and unhygienic by the educated, intellectual class of China. Soon, these ideas served as a platform for various state-led campaigns that aimed at improving the national condition trough discipline and punishment.

The Guomindang government launched the first attempt in 1934. With their “New Life Movement” they tried to use new laws and policies to instill a sense of discipline and hygiene in the population. However, this endeavour remained unsuccessful in the end because the 1937 Japanese military invasion and the Second World War quickly rendered hygiene a luxury problem.

In the first years of Communist rule, disease prevention had strong aftereffects. In early 1952, while the Korean war was raging, Chinese media reported about American planes dropping bioweapons and infectious diseases on unsuspecting civilians. Mao Zedong quickly seized this opportunity and called for a nationwide mobilisation to combat diseases. He kicked off the “Patriotic Hygiene Campaign”. In that year, media reinforced a nationalist rhetoric and vaguely connected every epidemic in China to American bioweapons.

But the Patriotic Hygiene Campaign was not just a propaganda exercise. The government also expected citizens to proactively involve themselves. and punished those who did not comply. If restaurant owners, for example, did not comply with the campaign’s measures, they were publicly shamed and criticised. Over time, people got used to the state’s increased involvement into their private lives, which set the stage for later campaigns in the Mao Era.

The SARS outbreak from 2002 to 2004 led to comparable reactions from the government. Many village councils rejoiced, since they finally had a “solid, legitimate basis for improving the villagers’ civility.“ For instance, a new legislation put fines on open spitting. Some punishments even involved public shaming. As measures got more extreme, legal experts felt they had to step in and remind everyone of basic rights and legal principles.

Social contagion

But China is not exceptional in this sense. Psychologists have identified similar patterns in other societies. The pathogen-stress theory argues that infectious diseases make societies more authoritarian. As infectious diseases are dangerous and complex, to keep them under control, societies need to make sure that the public is guided by strict rules, so they don’t endanger other’s health. It makes sense, then, to enforce ritualised behaviour, obedience, and conformity. Freedom and liberty suddenly seem like a fever-dream luxury.

This theory has a good empirical basis. If individuals are more afraid of infections, or more easily disgusted, they are more likely to be politically conservative. Comparing countries, infectious diseases predict introversion, sexual restrictiveness, authoritarian attitudes, and authoritarian politics. These findings remain significant even after controlling for GDP per capita and GINI coefficients.

Historically, the theory also checks out. Before liberal values took hold in Europe and North America, these areas restrained infectious diseases. Much earlier, diseases like the plague made medieval European authorities much more powerful than before. During the plague, for example, Italian cities created provisional health committees, which later were established all around Europe and became increasingly influential. They enforced unpopular and restrictive policies and created surveillance networks that monitored the outbreak of diseases.

The future Pandemic

In short, infectious diseases make societies more authoritarian and conformist. In the long run they, can even strengthen state capacity. In China, the longstanding discourse of deficiency in terms of hygiene has further strengthened this effect. The COVID-19 pandemic was just the most recent link in a chain of authoritarian handling of infectious diseases that stretches not only through modern history but also through other human societies.

Although not even close to the Chinese level, even liberal democracies used a rather authoritarian approach during the pandemic. With an unusual speed and lack of discussion, they restricted citizen rights to an extent rarely experienced in peaceful times. The pathogen-stress theory helps us understand why the COVID-19 pandemic provoked similar reactions in countries all around the globe.

The pathogen stress hypothesis can help us understand why the COVID-19 pandemic happened the way it did. It helps us not only to understand the events that transpired in Europe or China but most likely also what will happen when the next pandemic comes around.