American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Imagining the Public Amidst the Pandemic in China and the United States (Global and Transnational Sociology)

Larry Au, Columbia University

Tropes and stereotypes exist in the many comparisons of the responses to COVID-19 in China and the United States. I focus here on a less mentioned reason: the differing imaginaries of the public held by policymakers and scientific and medical experts.

By imaginaries of the public, I refer to the understandings of how science and the state relate to each other, and to society. These are forms of sociotechnical imaginaries, which Jasanoff and Kim (2009) define as “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects.” Benjamin (2013) extends this, arguing, “depending on who imagines ‘the people’… how one seeks to implement a ‘people’s science’ shifts markedly.” How the public is imagined has ramifications for the ways in which COVID-19 is contained, mitigated, and hopefully eventually eradicated.

(De-)mobilizing the Public in China

In China, policymakers and scientific and medical elites saw the public as a resource to mobilize to fight the virus in the “people’s war.” The central authorities put Hubei under lockdown in January. Elsewhere, factories, schools, and workplaces were shut down, and neighborhood committees were mobilized to monitor residents. Digital contact tracing with “health codes” was later deployed, allowing residents to shop and go to work. 30,000 medical professionals were also mobilized to Wuhan to treat the surge in patients. After more than two months of lockdown, Wuhan was opened as near normalcy returned to the rest of the country.

The public was understood as willing and ready to aid in the whole-of-society battle against COVID-19. A report from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, a government-affiliated think tank, described the public as such in early February: “Instead of complaining and grieving, more and more Chinese people are comforting and encouraging each other. This boosted public morale has contributed to the rapid social mobilization for epidemic prevention and control.”

Moreover, Chinese policymakers portray and think of themselves as technocrats deferential to scientific opinion, and intent on bringing experts into the party fold. As Greenhalgh (2008) observes with China’s past demographic policies, technocratic thinking has also lent to ways of envisioning society as a “giant machine, to be run and managed according to the ideal of mechanistic efficiency.” By thinking of the public as a resource to mobilize, policymakers were able to act decisively to contain COVID-19.

This is not to say that resistance to state dictates does not exist. On the contrary, political elites have been careful in managing public opinion, replacing Hubei’s maligned leaders and co-opting the image of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower previously persecuted by local police.

Persuading the Public in the United States

In contrast with China’s quick response, once COVID-19 was belatedly detected in the United States, a clear problem emerged: Should mandatory measures be put in place to help “flatten the curve” of COVID-19? While stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines were put in place, and organizations could be fined for flouting rules against non-essential work, these policies were largely voluntary at the individual level.

For American politicians and public health officials, the public had to be persuaded to do what is right, instead of being told what to do. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly belabored this point in his daily appearances. As he said in an April 16 briefing, “I believe if the facts are presented to the people in this state, New Yorkers will do the right thing.” Cuomo continued, “I can’t put a mask on 17 million people. 17 million people will decide whether or not they’ll do it." 

While state leaders have had some success in persuading their residents to adhere to public health guidelines, the contentious relationship between the Trump administration and its scientific advisors at the NIH and CDC featured prominently at the daily White House briefings confounds this project of public persuasion, threatening to drag the country back into further crisis. This tension is visible today, as state governors face anti-lockdown protesters who flout the voluntary character of stay-at-home orders.

Re-imagining the Public

By imagining the public in these two ways—as a resource to mobilize and as partner in need of persuasion—policymakers constrain themselves to a set of possible responses to COVID-19. This is not to say that Chinese and American political leaders and experts are all that different, as both rely on a paradigm of public understanding in science.

As the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2020) reminds us, this is not enough, as “every scientist will tell you that science does not provide certainty (and is usually contested); and it does not deliver policy answers—that involves values and judgements for which people are responsible and should be scrutinized, and accountable.” As social scientists, we must aid in this effort of scrutinizing the values guiding responses to COVID-19 and provide ways in which the public can engage with the science and politics of the pandemic.