Back in July 2020, Josh Michaud and Jen Kates published an essay on China’s public health program in Foreign Affairs. Chinese policy is summarized in the word fangkong, “prevent and control.” The term is dense with meaning. It refers to “crisis management involving control over diffuse forces (inside or outside the country),” and is broad enough to apply “to possible threats to both health and security.”
Implemented through constant and intrusive surveillance, tracking of movements, and “harsh, often preemptive punishment for anyone who the party thinks intends to violate the rules,” fangkong is a preventative policy, intended to neutralize threats before they become threatening. The term has been applied to the Chinese governments battles against pornography, gambling, political opposition, and the followers of Falun Gong.
And, of course, COVID. When the pandemic hit Wuhan, the Chinese already had their surveillance apparatus in place, ready to collect data, impose lockdowns, track movements and contacts, gather intimate health data such as body temperatures, and share the information with police and local authorities.
Fangkong is also the basis for the “medicalization of public security.” Chinese politicians frequently speak in medical metaphors. One official said, “For harmful infectious diseases, we must strike early to preventatively immunize.” He wasn’t a public health official, but China’s internal security chief. He wasn’t talking about viruses, but about people.
Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities have been compared to infections, and the three evils of separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism are often compared to cancer. Yes, the state has locked up thousands; but it’s acting with the “curative intent of a doctor.”
According to the Xinjiang Communist Youth League, religious extremism (= faithfulness) has to be dealt with severely because many are already infected: “There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public. That is why they must be admitted to a re-education hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind. . . . [G]oing into a re-education hospital for treatment is not a way of forcibly arresting people and locking them up for punishment, it is an act that is part of a comprehensive rescue mission to save them.” (Cue C. S. Lewis quote about tyranny.)
Fangkong isn’t merely a threat to China: “Even before the pandemic arose, Chinese surveillance and public-security technology had spread to at least 80 countries—in part because Chinese tech companies were able to offer those countries a way to clamp down on violent urban crime and other challenges.”
Since the pandemic, Sinophiles in the West, including WHO Director Tedros Adhanom, have lauded the Chinese response and urged other countries to follow its lockdown and surveillance strategies. They’ve been supported by coordinated social media disinformation from bots and paid propagandists, which also harshly attack dissenters like Sweden’s Anders Tegnell and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. For many in the West, fangkong is the future, and anyone who objects is a potential infection in the body politic.
Every sea beast needs its land-beast prophets. Communist China has won the admiration of Christians before. In 1974, an ecumenical colloquium occurred in Louvain, hosted by the Lutheran World Federation and Pro Mundi Vita, a Belgian Catholic group. They declared: “In China, to an impressive degree, basic human needs have been met, dignity has been restored, people have been freed to participate in the decision-making processes that affect their daily lives . . . This leads us to affirm that since the Chinese revolution is seen as part of God’s saving action, but with a different world view, Christians are challenged to reconsider their own world view and ethic in the light of this ‘sign of the times.’”
It won’t be hard to find Christians today urging us to adopt fangkong, in order to keep in step with the spirit.
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