Saturday, June 20, 2009

How far should governments go to protect us?

A big difference between doing research back home in Los Angeles and here in China is that I feel like I'm on the clock 24 hours a day. Not that I have had much fun over the past five years that I've been attending UCLA, but when I'm away from home, there's this constant feeling that, for every moment of fun or relaxation I may have here, that's one moment longer that I will be away from home.

I guess all of this is to say that, I've been neglecting my blog, and I feel a little guilty about it -- but not so guilty that I'm going to start posting frequently again. Which is a shame because there have been so many interesting events for which I have started outlining blog posts in my head only to decide later that my time would be better spent reading an article, reviewing my field notes or preparing for my next interview.

One recent topic of interest for which I would love to write a much longer analytical article has been the reaction by various governments to the H1N1 swine flu. The contrast between the responses of the US and Chinese governments (including Hong Kong) could not be more stark.

Whereas China and Hong Kong are checking temperatures on planes before allowing people to disembark, and forcing anyone with an elevated temperature (as well as anyone who has been in close proximity to them) into quarantine, the US government has done very little.

While I have an uneducated opinion about the efficacy and necessity of various preventative measures being taken in China and Hong Kong, the purpose of my writing about this topic is not to criticize, but to point out the huge disparity in reactions.

Back in 2003, China's reaction to SARS was widely criticized, but the criticism was not about what China did to prevent SARS. Rather, it was about what local Chinese officials did to cover up the presence of the disease. China's actions now to prevent the spread of H1N1, a disease only slightly more fatal than common seasonal flu, appear to be intended, if nothing else, to demonstrate to the Chinese people that their government can indeed protect them from disease. And the complaints about quarantine that I have been reading online are coming primarily from foreigners (i.e. citizens of countries other than China) who have been forced to waste time and money confined in Chinese hotels. Commentators in China and Hong Kong seem (from my perspective) fairly supportive of their governments' respective actions to protect them.

The US government, on the other hand, is behaving pretty much the same as during the SARS outbreak of 2003. Though SARS was a far more deadly disease, in both cases, the US government basically assessed the risks and allowed American citizens to make their own decisions as to whether they should travel.
Only today did the US government issue a travel warning, and ironically, the warning was not about the dangers of contracting swine flu, but of the risks of being quarantined by the Chinese government which does not reimburse lost travel expenses.

While I know there are certainly exceptions, my guess is that most Chinese and American citizens reading this post are thinking "well, of course, our government is doing exactly what we expect of them!". Chinese aren't complaining about quarantine, and Americans aren't begging for more protection. In the end, whether democratic or not (and depending on whether it threatens their hold on power), governments tend to run day-to-day operations in ways that they think will best serve the interests and wishes of their citizens.

In a few weeks, I will be meeting my wife, whom I haven't seen in over two months, in Hong Kong. If you happen to see a mushroom cloud over HK during that time, that will be my head exploding due to one or both of us being quarantined by the nanny state. :-)


  1. There's another student at EITM who has been talking about the IR implications of epidemics and natural disasters. He uses the example of relaxed relations between China and some of her neighbors because China needed help during the height of SARS. Very interesting stuff...

  2. I wonder if the Swine Flu response says also something about how China legislates. When the news of the flu broke, media played the Spanish Influenza card, whether intentionally or not, to gain attention to the impending disaster. Certainly, in light of the early reports, China's policy was dead-on. Then, as the flu story clarified, their policy seems over wrought, yet it remains unchanged.

  3. Interesting point, Mao Ruiqi.

    It also occurs to me that it's a lot easier to make a show of preventative measures when the flu apparently originated somewhere else. Govt gets a lot of mileage out of pointing out the "inadequacies" of other countries' measures.


    Fascinating topic! Wish I had thought of it before I got so far down the path I'm on!

  4. The more important question is how much is the government doing to protect its people from government agencies and officials. Government agencies and officials are way more powerful and has more authority than any single citizen, and is therefore the greatest danger to the general citizen, especially in places where government power and action is encouraged by other government officials and agencies looking the otherway.


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