From Jingyuan to São Paulo：Lessons in Empathy and the Role of Knowledge in Overcoming COVID-19 and Other Maladies
December 31st of 2019: After finishing a highly anticipated final exam in Professor Qian's Chinese language class, I said goodbye to my friends, ordered a jianbing to go - “da bao”, as Rafaella from Italy taught me in her uniquely charming accent - collected my luggage, and headed to Beijing Capital Airport.
I was going home - but soon I would realize that I was leaving home as well. My destination was São Paulo, where my family lives, for a well deserved 20-day break from the bone-chilling Beijing winter. Brazil is one of the farthest countries from China. This distance is the primary truth which separates my two homes. Fortunately, even this kind of distance can be overcome by planes, thorough planning and, above all, patience. In three days, I would celebrate the 80th birthday of my grandmother. Knowing this, Xiaolin from Guangdong thoughtfully bought the best birthday gift my grandmother could ask for: a generous amount of fine dim sum pastries. I could never be grateful enough for those sweet and salty treats and the great lesson of kindness embedded in such a small act.
March 31st of 2020: My hometown São Paulo, the largest city in the Southern and Western Hemisphere, is under strict lockdown policies after becoming the epicenter of COVID-19 in Brazil. I cannot see Xiaolin, Rafaella or the Boya Pagoda – a poetic and constant reminder through the window of my room that I was studying at Peking University, a place that I had come to call home.
The profiles of courage I studied while reading about China's past and witnessing its present have inspired my journey in the difficult times that would soon unfold. Without previous notice or timely preparation, my cohort of young scholars hailing from more than 40 countries have adapted our original homes and local communities as the grounds for an academy devoted to learning and advancing social sciences and the humanities- powerful bridges between people divided by ignorance, prejudice - during a challenging time for all humankind. In our hearts, homes, and online, Yenching Academy reasserts its mission of building bridges between China and the rest of the world and between disciplines in order to train a new generation of scholars willing to act in an increasingly interconnected world.
The global outbreak of COVID-19 means more than the spread of a dangerous disease. The pandemic also fills hearts and minds with fear and mistrust, thereby empowering ignorance and dangerous disharmony. As the virus spread globally, China became a target for misinformation and unfair judgement in many different fora - not only in the media, but also in the public consciousness - in various countries. Unfortunately, Brazil is no exception.
In the past few days, I have had the opportunity to participate in public discussions in Brazilian forums voicing my thoughts on China - an improbable role that became an unavoidable task due to COVID-19.
During a two-hour long live broadcast to more than three thousand people, Professor Mario Vitor Santos, director of Casa do Saber(“House of Knowledge”), a well known liberal arts school and think tank in São Paulo and Rio, and I, a Yenching Scholar, analyzed the narratives surrounding COVID-19: namely, the resurgence of “yellow peril” xenophobia and the “red scare” paranoia. These ideas from the 19th and 20th centuries, based on pseudo-scientific racism and Cold War tensions that led to both institutional and structural discrimination against Chinese people and Asian communities in Western countries. I argued that some important Western news outlets from Brazil, the United States, and Europe, along with influential figures on Brazilian social networks, were employing elements from both of these outdated narratives to criticize China with indifference and disregard towards its people. China cannot be the scapegoat of our own mistakes in handling the rapid spread of COVID19.
As soon as the broadcasting ended, Petria Chaves, a news anchor at CBN radio (“Brazil News Center”), contacted Casa do Saber. She was watching the transmission and was willing to continue the conversation on her primetime nationwide Saturday show on radio.
The following day, on air with her show(“Revista CBN”), Petria asked me about the consequences of widespread use of images from exotic wet markets in the media misleading people to believe in the image of an exotic, backwards, and irresponsible China. The lessons I learnt while studying sociological topics of a China in transition and the vivid classes of Professor Lai in “China's World Views” - based in Chinese classics, traditional medicine and modern sociology - provided me the basis to expose the inner prejudice driving the West's blaming of China for all major viruses and diseases since the Middle Ages, and the paradox of selective forgetfulness regarding viruses that have started and spread in the west, such as the swine flu of 2008.
I also shared figures, a brief chronology of the virus, and my own thoughts on how China, as a first responder, successfully handled COVID-19 outbreak by employing geo-localization technology, big data, and ubiquitous super-apps made possible by reliable 4G and 5G networks, in addition to enforcing social distancing rules, running mass testing campaigns, and coordinating governmental action at both the provincial and central level, among many other factors. I did not forget to mention the importance of filial piety in Chinese culture and how it helped to keep the elderly safe and families united.
Petria would again generously invite me to participate in her radio show, this time to share my thoughts about the goals and methods of Chinese foreign policy and its general strategy. Within one week, the narratives surrounding China had already become more complex: China was the first country to drastically limit the spread of the first wave of the pandemic.
Simultaneously, it started to provide aid - masks, testing kits and doctors - from countries from Pakistan to Italy, Japan, and Brazil. I have argued that China wants two things: i) partners, not military allies, that will enable (and benefit from) Chinese development from a middle-income country to a prosperous society, and ii) respect for its sovereignty and domestic affairs. Challenging, indeed, but modest goals, considering that the world is not used to seeing a developing country as a global power, nor a non-Western civilization having a truly global footprint in such an unique time in history. Even more unfamiliar is the possibility of accepting a non-hegemonic claim to relevance and respect in international relations. The precise possibilities and goals of China's theory and practice of foreign relations are disputable and part of a global debate, but I felt prepared to dive into this conversation because I had the privilege of seeing the multifaceted nature of this dabate while learning from Former Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei and Professor Zhang Qingmin in the classrooms of Jingyuan.
This past week, an old professor of mine invited me and other young people to a Zoom call. We talked about COVID-19, geopolitics and China, of course. He was Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a sociologist and former President (1994-2002) of Brazil. His actions speak louder than his words - and both are inspiring. Cardoso worked for the UN´s CEPAL, became one of the major theorists of the dependency theory, and founded CEBRAP, a Brazilian think tank for social sciences, during a difficult time for the freedom of knowledge in Brazil. During his presidency (1994-2002), he promoted major social and economic reforms, making Brazil an emerging market and vibrant developing country. On the international front, he consolidated MERCOSUR and developed Brazil's partnership with China, a country he visited to supports its accession to the WTO and to inaugurate an important Sino-Brazilian satellite program. To my surprise, his gift to China - a Toucan sculpture made from Brazilian precious stones - is exhibited in the National Museum at Tiananmen Square. Cardoso taught me that the constant pursuit of knowledge and true patriotism are not mutually exclusive. This is the major lesson I learnt as a fellow in his leadership program, “Legacy for the Brazilian Youth”: that we can be rational, fair and respectful towards our differences while remaining passionate about our own culture and values and committed to our countries. We can act globally, be cosmopolitan, and stay patriotic. This is the exact opposite of indifference or arrogance towards others.
The unexpected journey I have undertaken since I left Jingyuan makes me confident that knowledge and empathy will heal the wounds inflicted by COVID-19 upon public health, national economics, and our own societies. Kind people like Rafaella, Xiaolin, my faculty advisor Professor Guo Li in China and Professor Cardoso in Brazil all inspire me to be active in global conversations. It is important that we keep morale up: as parts of a whole, we all have a role to play - unexpected or not.
In Brazil we should not only welcome much-needed Chinese masks, tests, and doctors, but also the Chinese experience of dealing with COVID-19. Cooperation in health and humanities must be mutually reinforced if we are to strengthen our communities and countries in the struggle to overcome the current pandemic and other global crises or common threats that may follow.
The resolution of this crisis will hopefully come sooner rather than later. There will be a path ahead, and an opportunity for future cooperation, if we suppress other maladies - old and new - and build a new world based on shared values and common aspirations. Yenching Scholars will undoubtedly be called upon in the future to be brave and patient, knowledgeable and empathetic, and above all to keep learning, no matter the adversity. The good news is that we have each other and we have been learning – from Jingyuan to São Paulo, and everywhere in between - how to work together.