In the Clouds:
COVID-19, Dystopian Reality and Online Carnival

Edited by Shiqi Lin and Kaiyang Xu

Participants: Jenny Chio | Belinda KongShiqi LinCarlos RojasKaiyang Xu

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2020)

Shiqi Lin and Kaiyang Xu

This collection of short essays and Q&A series derives from an online panel, “In the Clouds: COVID-19, Dystopian Reality and Online Carnival,” which was put together in response to the global spread of the epidemic since February 2020. Convened by Shiqi Lin (UC Irvine) and Kaiyang Xu (USC), this panel was held on Zoom on March 26, 2020[1] with an audience across the world. Drawing inspiration from “cloud clubbing,” a creative practice engaged by self-quarantined Chinese web users during the pandemic, this “cloud panel” was an experimental endeavor to discuss digital media, societal fears, and the responsibility of humanities scholars in a time of crisis. The panel brought together scholars working on biopolitics, media studies, video ethnography, urban studies, diaspora studies, and Chinese cultural studies to discuss the sources of pandemic anxieties; humor, care and intimacy animated by creative uses of social media; and the implications of social media in border-crossing. As the spread of the pandemic coincided with a transitional period of remote teaching in academia, the panel was also set up as a space for exploring alternative modes of intellectual collaboration during the pandemic.

The panel was carried out under two shared beliefs. First, in the face of a global crisis, collaboration and dialogue are needed more than ever. Acknowledging the limits of individual strengths brought the panel together, as a reminder that we all need to think collectively, draw expertise from each other and learn from each other in a time of radical uncertainties. In honor of various academic conferences disrupted by the global spread of the pandemic in March 2020, this panel was conducted as a gesture to carry forward the spirit of dialogue and broaden the possibilities of engaging academics in turbulent times.

Second, in convening China studies scholars together with participants from a wide array of fields including Asian American studies, international studies, political science, sociology, anthropology, history, literature and communication studies, this panel highlights the translational move China studies scholars could take at this moment of crisis. As anti-Chinese racism has been surging across the world due to the pandemic, Chinese speakers and China experts are often the most vulnerable populations susceptible to suspicions and attacks at home and abroad. However, these populations are also uniquely equipped with capacities for working with multiple sites of archives, initiating dialogue, and making moves between borders. We understand China studies scholars as translators paving bridges for understanding, and take this panel as an entry point to working through fissures polarized by this pandemic crisis.

COVID-19 as a Moment of Rupture and Learning Together, by Shiqi Lin

I would like to start by sharing a question that I encountered more than once during a two-week stay in Beijing this past December, right before the coronavirus raged in China. In multiple conversations with my old friends, they asked me the same question: “What would the future generations say about the time we’re living right now?” What I found interesting in this question is a sense of anxiety that people in China were already living through before the coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, this question also conveys an impossibility to talk about the volatile present—since my friends had to resort to the future. When they were asking this question in December in China, signs of anxiety were already pervasive there. Everyone was trying to keep their life on track, but the country was showing signs of retarded economic growth, business closedowns, layoffs in retail and high-tech industries, uncertainties living under surveillance, and an unstable social structure after the “low-end populations” were driven out of the urban centers.

A look at these overlapping factors leads to my first point that, long before the coronavirus outbreak, we had already been living in a state of accumulated crises and slow violence. In what appear to be lofty edifices, societies have been rife with structural problems in socioeconomic governance. In that mode of boiling ourselves in lukewarm water, we could sense something was going wrong, but the cost to stop and to put down an established social path was too high. Then, as I reflect upon a series of missteps that almost all the national governments had taken in the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak, what we were living through before the pandemic seems to me as “an unbearable lure of maintaining the status quo.” Obviously, the virus didn’t really work this way—it does not wait for us until we fix our problems. Rather, it just breaks through the immunized layers we have built for ourselves and exposes our vulnerabilities, regardless of time and temporality. In this regard, what we are experiencing today as a dystopian sudden fall of the world now is better understood as a consequence of a much more slowly accumulated process of political failures involving our own complicities over the past.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of this world. On the brighter side, we could say, when we are finally stuck at home and accepting things that are out of our control, this is really a rupturing moment that forces us to break from a mode of “sleepwalking” and to look out for new modes of interventions. If we truly take this global crisis seriously, what comes with it could be more than despair and catastrophes. No matter how ironic this may sound, COVID-19 could be an educational moment that lays bare the systemic violence in our current global and local political systems and drives us to face these problems with no way to escape.

This is my first concern about how we have come to this moment of devastating crises. My second meditation is on “cloud clubbing.” Because of social distancing and self-quarantines, by now many of us have become digitized animals, learning how to use Zoom or Canvas, exploring new functions of Facebook or Wechat and trying to maintain our social contacts via social media. Among numerous online activities that mushroomed since the coronavirus outbreak, cloud clubbing—the festive practice engaged by Chinese web users via live stream apps—is what intrigues me most, in part because it is such a bodily performance that is both collective and personal. Almost a direct antonym of social distancing, “cloud clubbing” breaks a conventional assumption that staying at home is solitary, antisocial, and lacks bodily movements. To me, “cloud clubbing” serves as a productive moment of learning with everyone: it gives us a precious lesson that the shared sense of solitude, boredom, isolation, and impasse may become the very ground for coming together and creating new structures of cohabitation. In the meanwhile, of course, it would be too simple to deem such online activities utopian. After all, we would not be able to arrive at this moment of “cloud clubbing” unless online technologies had been converged with neoliberal economies and the culture of surveillance.

Up to this point, I would like to conclude my discussion with a final thought on “falling.” It is disorienting to see how different parts of society are falling apart in front of our eyes, in terms of fleeting changes of social policies and discourses, infrastructural breakdowns, and blatant ideological shifts challenging our previous beliefs every day. However, this moment could also be a rare opportunity for us to reflect on various things we have taken for granted in the post-Cold War period, such as “peace,” “stability,” physical gatherings, and our perceptions about the mightiness of world superpowers. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, we are getting to see many cracks and shaky grounds in the idea of well-planned futures as well as assumptions about what national governments could and could not do. As we are coming together to this point, rather than being disturbed by falling, finding a place within it and accepting the brokenness of our world may perhaps become a new starting point for us to actively create new bonds and attend to creative modes of cohabitation, just like cloud clubbing.

Frogs and Birds: How We See the World, by Carlos Rojas

I am currently in Durham, North Carolina, at Duke University, and see that our audience includes dozens of people around the world. Given that three-fifths of our panelists are based in California, however, I will begin with a California anecdote.

There was an article in the New York Times last year noting that in California—which straddles several overlapping fault zones—only 13% of homeowners and fewer than 10% of commercial buildings have earthquake insurance. This is an insurance against something not that might happen, but rather something that definitely will. We don’t know exactly when, where, or what the magnitude the next big earthquake will be, but there is more than a 99% chance that an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 or higher will strike California within the next 30 years. On the other hand, Californians spend more than $6 billion a year on lottery tickets (or more than $250 per capita), when the odds of winning a major prize are less than one in ten million).

Humans are really good at a lot of things, but one of the things that we are not really good at is thinking probabilistically, and particularly in terms of risk assessment. We radically overestimate the likelihood of desirable outcomes and underestimate the probability of unwanted outcomes.

Shiqi mentioned how virtually every major government waited until the virus had already established a foothold in the nation in question before adopting aggressive measures. For weeks, as the crisis unfolded in Wuhan, much of the rest of the world seemed to be under a kind of a collective delusion that the crisis would never affect them. Even after the epidemic began to spread to other regions, people elsewhere were slow to acknowledge the threat. For instance, on March 9, Italy belatedly imposed a national quarantine, yet three days later more than 3,500 people dressed as Smurfs assembled in France (which at the time had the highest infection rate after Italy) in an attempt to break the world record for Smurf gatherings. Once again, this is an illustration of our difficulty of responding to a risk until it is already immediately upon you. It is very difficult for us, both as individuals and as collectives, to think abstractly about risk, risk assessment, and cost benefit analysis.

I would like to make two points about this. First, the Internet has the potential to both ameliorate and exacerbate this problem. On one hand, the Internet contains a wealth of data that offers us a bird’s-eye view of the situation. For example, I regularly check four or five different websites to get different statistics on the global COVID-19 crisis, and there is a lot of very granular detailed information out there to see how this pandemic is unfolding at a macro-level. On the other hand, the Internet also encourages a focus on the individual and the anecdotal, which invites a frog-in-the-well perspective: you focus on your immediate surroundings and the people you can relate to, and allow that to guide your decision making and your response to the crisis, rather than focusing on the big picture. In other words, while in principle the Internet should make it easier for us to make well-informed probabilistic assessments and risk-benefit calculations that would allow us to prepare for potential crises, in practice it also encourages the individualistic, myopic focus that makes those sorts of assessments and calculations all the more difficult.

Second, our belated response to the current pandemic ironically coincides with our even more belated response to an even greater threat. That is to say, much of the world is now responding in an almost unprecedented fashion to the pandemic, with entire countries closing their borders, shutting down non-essential businesses, and issuing stay-at-home orders for their citizens. At the same time, however, we might note that while COVID-19, even if it were to spread unchecked, would certainly be a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, in the end the resulting death toll and collateral damage would still be finite. Over time, humans would develop greater immunity to the virus, or would find other ways of limiting its impact. Global warming, by contrast, presents an existential threat to humanity itself—yet despite near-universal scientific agreement about the nature of the threat and the measures that would be needed to address it, the world has, by and large, proven unable to act accordingly (and by “the world,” we of course mean primarily the developed nations that are responsible for the vast majority of the world’s carbon emissions). It is, therefore, ironic that the response that humanity has belatedly taken to address the coronavirus pandemic (in particular, radically cutting back on transportation-related carbon emissions) is precisely an example of the sort of response that humanity has proven unable to implement in response to the even greater threat of global climate change. If only we could find a way of rechanneling the current short-term response to the coronavirus pandemic, and apply it to a long-term solution to the looming threat of global climate change.

Skin, Masks, and the Screen of Carnival, by Kaiyang Xu

I will start with an article recently published by Time, called “Why Wearing a Face Mask Is Encouraged in Asia, but Shunned in the U.S.” In the article, an interviewee who wore masks stated that, with a mask on, nothing could touch your mouth and nose, so you could get protected from the coronavirus. By creating a barrier between the body and the external environment, the mask functions as a second layer of skin. Skin is the largest human organ marking the boundary between the internal and the external, and therefore it envelops the body as a safe entity. When people touch their skin, the virus can get into their bodies through invisible skin or mucosa damage. This is why the CDC encourages people to wash hands frequently and avoid touching their faces. However, the skin is also the surface upon which human contact can be made and from which feelings about the external can emerge. For example, we feel temperature, wind, and rain through the skin. In the face of the breakout of COVID-19, skin and the second skin—the controversial mask—share the struggle between the closedness of the fortified body and the openness of human vulnerability.

These struggles have been represented in the media. My point here is how meanings and functions of media change during the time of crisis. I emphasize “screen” rather than “media” in order to focus on the surface of representation rather than the media infrastructure. This is because, in the meaning-making process during the pandemic, media is experienced as a surface mediating both the internal and the external, both a sense of being isolated at home and a desire for communication, as well as boundaries between different identities and forms of knowledge. The screen also suggests “surface” as a verb, that is, to bring to the surface what we are experiencing. Specifically speaking, in some online short videos recently made by Chinese people during self-quarantine, they do things that they never thought of before, such as playing table tennis on a dining table, playing card games with their cats, dancing with their dogs, and performing family melodramas. These amusing practices bring happiness to quarantine life while framing performative, experimental human bodies embracing various shapes of life. Some people wear masks in their videos, showing both an optimistic attitude and an intention to raise the public’s awareness of how dangerous the virus can be. These short videos, uploaded onto media platforms such as Bilibili, have become agents mediating and enriching lives going through precarity and isolation. Furthermore, interactions and communications are sustained through bullet-screen comments (弹幕) made by the audience. Although this kind of virtual interaction is always there and used to be more associated with commercial and entertainment purposes, in the face of the current crisis, these interactions have gained more weight in terms of bearing social responsibility and creating online sociality as a symbol of human solidarity.

Beyond China, there are also cases in which officials wore masks when speaking to the public at press conferences, such as the governor Suzuki Naomichi in Japan. In these circumstances, they were trying to create a public and political image of fortifying the body against the virus, the external threat. In another video made in Italy, an ethnically Chinese man is wearing a mask and a blindfold, standing on the street and holding a board with signs, “I’M NOT A VIRUS. I’M A HUMAN. ERADICATE THE PREJUDICE.” In the video, some local people begin to take off his mask and blindfold, and give him hugs. Through this project, this man represents himself as a political, cultural image expressing and negotiating with the struggle about the skin of ethnicity and mask-wearing. Later on, some ethnic Chinese in France and Germany started similar activities. The public images they created addressed Asian people’s struggle against xenophobic violence and the controversy of mask-wearing.

The shifting and multiple meanings of the screen surface echo the doubleness of the skin and the mask. That is, while the skin and the mask cover the internal, they also call for a relationship with the external. The screen may be regarded as the third layer of skin in this sense. The screen as the third skin also works critically when the face covered by a mask gains another meaning on the screen—that is, a face capable of speaking for marginal or endangered lives. We have the logic of “third,” the “other” in scholarly works such as Edward Soja’s “Thirdspace” and a body of literature critically reflects on the so-called “third countries.” The logic of the third fashioning the socially marginal and open possibilities can be applied here to the screen as “the third” unmasking of marginal people’s struggle and confusion about the on-going danger. Concerns such as whether Asian people in the United States should wear masks and whether they will be safe in doing so can all be represented on the screen. The screen both unpacks and communicates these concerns.

At this point, I am still debating the effectiveness of this metaphoric connection between the skin and the screen. I am trying to think through the dynamics of these multiple layers and surfaces upon which body, media, and cultural representation are intertwined in this moment of uncertainty.

Pandemic Ordinariness, by Belinda Kong

For this talk, I will elaborate on the motivations behind my article for The Conversation, which is a general audience journalistic platform for academics. I was asked by my college to write a short public piece on the coronavirus, so in my Conversation article, I talk about social media out of Wuhan and other cities in China where we see examples of pandemic solidarity, care, and humor. Part of my impetus was to disseminate more widely to American readers these on-the-ground, creative expressions of epidemic life by ordinary people in China.

I am not a media studies scholar, and I am not even that tech-savvy. However, what I was noticing around me—keep in mind that I am located in Maine, statistically the whitest state in the US, at about 93% white—was that many people don’t know about China’s social media world. When they do hear about it, it’s usually in pretty narrow and reductive ways, and they think of social media as strictly a forum for Chinese citizens to express political anger against the Chinese government. This impression is very much reinforced by the US news media, which typically covers stories like Li Wenliang’s death only if they fit into a binary model of an oppressive regime versus oppressed victims. So, during this pandemic, many Americans tend to see Chinese people as either culprits or victims: as either originators of the coronavirus responsible for spreading the disease to the rest of the world, or as a persecuted and helpless population caught between the virus and their own government.

What I wanted to show instead are the everyday forms of social and cultural agency that are thriving in China, and that COVID-19 and quarantine life amplified. I wanted to highlight that agency does not have to take the form of overtly political acts of resistance and dissent, and that the absence of grand gestures does not therefore mean obedience to the state or a cowed existence. I am interested in the ways people engage in everyday social practices that produce alternative communities, particularly activities that seem too small to be political. Social media offers a perfect window into this type of social life. Just recording yourself singing a song, dancing a dance, talking to your cat—the things that Kaiyang was referring to—then uploading that video online, sharing it with friends, even just liking a video or adding a comment or sharing a link with a friend through email: all these small acts are meaningful social practices that construct community and build up a sense of peopleness outside official party rhetoric. These are what Shiqi referred to earlier as the “new structures of cohabitation.” My own term for these small daily acts is pandemic ordinariness.

The other impetus for my Conversation piece is driven by the Asian American side of my scholarship and identity. As we have all read, there has been an escalation in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian hate crimes across the world during this outbreak. In the last few weeks I have read reports of East Asian women in New York City being attacked in broad daylight both for wearing a face mask and for not wearing a face mask—which underscores the catch-22 faced by many Asians in this country, where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. These incidents seem to me underreported in the US news media, and I worry that, with New York becoming the new epicenter of the coronavirus and many Americans now losing their jobs and livelihoods and even loved ones, racial violence will only intensify in the coming months.

I regard this moment as a dangerous time that we are living in. So, for my Conversation piece, I turned to the language of humanism, which can be a powerful tool to counter some of these mentalities of racial othering and racial scapegoating. I think of this rhetorical practice as a form of strategic humanism—mobilizing the language of the human in order to circulate a more unifying way of thinking about global disease that taps into people’s real desire to feel compassion and solidarity during this crisis. As we know, there is also a strong affective dimension to infectious disease thinking, where human beings’ predominant emotion toward new and unknown pathogens tends to be fear. Moreover, we are bombarded daily by media headlines and health authorities warning us about worst-case scenarios, all of which exacerbate our brains’ fear-based responses. I wanted to help shift the norms of pandemic feeling away from fear and dread, and toward this end, I used the language of care and humor as vehicles for reshaping how we can feel about epidemic social life. So, for my piece, I selected videos that touched me personally, that made me laugh and made me cry, that made me feel a sense of emotional closeness to those in remote epidemic sites.

My final thought is about what humanities scholars of contemporary China can potentially bring to public consciousness at this time (and I am mostly thinking about scholars in the US). This pandemic has highlighted for me the role of expertise in public discourse, and for the most part, scientific expertise has been dominant in conversations, probably rightly so. However, scientific language enters into a public sphere that is not culturally neutral or empty, where people already carry partial perceptions, sometimes distorted perceptions, about racial and global others. This is where I think humanities scholars of China can bring valuable cultural expertise into the conversation, to help offset some of the reductive and dangerous misconceptions about China right now and broaden the terms of the conversation. This is potentially true of humanities scholars of other global non-western sites that are also hard hit by the virus. This pandemic might be a good time for us to think about cultivating more diversified and dispersed forms of public expertise, where cultural scholarship can also play a key role.


Jenny Chio: Now we are going to start with a couple rounds of questions. There are questions I have prepared in advance, and I will pose them to specific panelists. After three rounds, we will open it up to conversation with everyone in the audience.

My first question is for Kaiyang. Playing off the metaphor of the screen as a third skin, what kind of contact is this relationship between the screen and the skin? Can you elaborate on what you see as “the screen is a third skin”? What is this experience actually like, what does it do, and how does it feel?

Kaiyang Xu: Thank you for your question. I would suggest that the first layer of this metaphor is that during this unique time, the screen and the skin both mediate between what is going on inside our body, what is outside of the body, and your knowledge and feelings. The screen can be viewed as “our” skin, because it suggests commonality and shared sensibility. When watching short videos made in the time of coronavirus, what attracted me was people who are doing performance and cheering themselves up on the other side of the screen. The screen brings us closer to strangers we have never met and some new horizons of quarantine life. Through the informational and intimate screen, feelings run communicative beyond the individual body. Basically, I am trying to think through these multi-layers, multi-surfaces, and the interface as a way for us to go through this hard time.

However, the screen is not immediate. While the screen facilitates the sharing process, it conceals fear. When sharing across the screen becomes almost the only way people can maintain sociality during self-quarantine, the fear of the virus and the fear of isolation converge into one—one unity that gets overshadowed by comic or moving content shown on the screen after the editing process. The humor and optimism during the pandemic actually entangle with the complexity of fear and uncanniness, in which case the screen functions as a cover that amplifies humor and optimism while glossing over fear. However, that cover can be vulnerable, because even though it makes people appear safe on the other side of the screen, they may in fact face difficulties, such as the shortage of medicine and masks. The screen as a vulnerable cover is in analogy with masks and gloves that cover the skin and the skin that covers the body but offer no guarantee of safety. This is why I don’t want to over-romanticize online sociality.

I may link the discussion on the screen to a reflection on other forms of media such as the chat room in the previous years. (Nowadays I think many chat apps already have video chat functions.) Visuality is what marks the difference between the chat board and screen communication. The text-based chat room can connect people as well, but the effect brought by the visuality of the face and the body is distinctive. The screen that displays the body and the face, which are the actuality of being, calls for the sensual interface among us the actual people and our affective connections with the environment, rather than just data exchange. The screen mediates the broader social environment instead of focusing on merely delivering messages.

Jenny Chio: Thanks, Kaiyang. I’m just going to add a couple of thoughts here. Based on your talk and your response, one thing that also comes to mind is when we think about the screen as a skin is that there is a tactile quality. There is really a felt, literally a felt, not just a feeling, that is sort of amorphous and theoretical, but literally, the skin has touch. To talk about screens, I don’t mean we could go down the road of thinking about touch screens, but screens themselves are starting to stand in for touch in a particular way in this period. It was interesting to me when I watched videos that people made in China, Italy, or many other places where people were basically stuck at home, they reminded me back to a point in documentary theory where what we realize is that the message given by a particular documentary film or image is not just what the person intended, but everything else that is around. The message is all the extra stuff that is in the image. For example, you see this room in my house, you see the little chair and the lamp in the back. We can literally look into people’s houses now. Then we see, “Oh people in Wuhan live in high rises. I’ve never been to Wuhan, so how interesting is that?” These little tiny things create a sense of touch that is beyond just the message and, as you say, the data. There is a lot to work through and think through.

This leads me to my second question, which is for Belinda. I wanted to ask you to think out loud about how social media has become a particular kind of space for Chinese citizens in this particular global pandemic. What is the space of social media for Chinese citizens at this time? Is it or isn’t it doing the same thing in the US? Do you see parallels in the US or not?

Belinda Kong: Thank you for that question, Jenny. I’m not a media studies scholar, so I don’t want to venture too deeply into a terrain I don’t have expertise on. However, I would say that this explosion of social media out of China is not something new. I think of it as a coming together, a spotlighting of communal social practices that have already been ongoing, that predate COVID-19.

Thinking about my own book project on SARS, I would date the beginning of this use of social media as a vehicle for relaying epidemic disease experiences in unofficial ways, outside the state-run media, to the 2003 SARS outbreak. The communications scholar Huiling Ding has a book on this topic called Rhetoric of a Global Epidemic, where she talks about the rise of new communications technologies in China, like the Internet and mobile phone short text messaging, as alternative and unofficial channels for people to disseminate information about SARS at the time. Ding calls these media forms “guerilla media” because they developed in an environment where people could not look to the official media for reliable information about what was going on. So, I think of SARS as the originating point of social media becoming prominent in relation to a pandemic outbreak, but of course, we see this in more intensified forms now with COVID-19, with social media being much more robust and sophisticated.

The anthropologist Hong Zhang, who teaches at Colby College, also wrote two essays at the time about the many SARS jokes that proliferated on the Internet and circulated on people’s private mobile phone networks during SARS. So, even the coronavirus humor and coronavirus memes we are seeing now actually have a precursor in the SARS moment. Those early forms of social media may seem primitive to us now because social media today is very visual and interactive, but those early forms laid the groundwork for what we are seeing now.

However, thinking about what Jenny just said about the kind of access into people’s interior lives that social media is offering us now, like seeing the environment and the lived habitats of people in remote sites, I do think this aspect is new. During SARS, social media forms were much less visual and graphic, and more verbal, written, even literary. People wrote a lot of SARS poems mimicking classical poetry with rhyme and meter, and people composed a lot of political jokes that made use of punning and wordplay. By contrast, right now, most of the social media around the coronavirus seems to be shaped by video, visuality, movement, the lived present, and this access into people’s interior and contemporary life. All these do seem like new elements.

In terms of the US, the same thing is definitely happening here. The lockdown has not been as long as in Wuhan, but on YouTube, for example, there are already tons of quarantine diary vlogs. Many are by college students stuck at home. Even some professors have recorded witty complaint songs about the shift to online teaching. A lot of videos make fun of the toilet paper shortage here in the US. There is one hilarious meme of a couple paying a pizza delivery guy in toilet paper and tipping him with a pump of the hand sanitizer.

So, for me, the explosion of social media around the coronavirus is not a phenomenon unique to any country, nor is the genre of epidemic comedy that pushes against the mode of pandemic apocalypse we might expect from Hollywood movies. What I am more interested in is which country’s social media memes get disseminated and to whom. For example, when I published my piece in The Conversation, I had several readers tell me that they had already seen the viral videos out of Italy, where people were singing on their balconies trying to boost each other’s morale, but they had not heard about the “Wuhan jiayou” videos—even though the Wuhan videos actually predate the Italian ones by a month and a half, and they had already been uploaded onto YouTube for at least a month and widely available in the US. This would be a good moment for people who do comparative media studies to examine which social media practices make their way to which global sites.

Jenny Chio: Thanks, Belinda. That is a really important point to understand that the Internet does not move equally around the world, let alone amongst individuals, and we have to follow or trace what gets watched, how, and by whom. I am just thinking aloud here: How does or doesn’t this knowledge get picked up, in terms of policy and politics around the world? What makes an impact? When and how does social media actually prompt people in power, in particular, to take action? Those are all really important questions that we need to ask ourselves, so that we don’t forget that the Internet is not a universally democratic space where everyone has an equal voice.

This leads very well into my last set of questions, which will be for Shiqi and Carlos together. This bundle of questions I have for the two of you starts with a very simple one, basically from Shiqi’s presentation, which is: How can we see COVID-19 as a breaking point? More specifically, what does it break from? It’s easy to say the world is broken and the world has always been broken. But if we think COVID-19 is really a breaking point, then, what has been broken, and what do we do with the pieces?

Following that question and coming from Kaiyang’s presentation as well, I was thinking about masks, in terms of how masks in East Asia are often worn to protect other people [as a gesture of collective care and solidarity]. For example, in East Asia the understanding is that you wear a mask so that your germs do not go out into the world. This has become an accepted social behavior, either when you are sick or in times of widespread illness, like COVID-19 or SARS, when mask-wearing really took off. By comparison, in the US, what we’re seeing in the current run on masks is that people are trying to wear masks to protect themselves, presumably healthy individuals, from getting sick from other people. It is sort of an opposite way in which masks are being used. To play off that trope of masks, my question is: what has COVID-19 unmasked in China and in the US? What has it revealed, and what has it concealed? What are we not talking about, because of the coronavirus domination of the news?

Lastly, this is a question not only for Shiqi and Carlos but also for the other panelists: why are we so fascinated by social media in the time of sickness? What is at root in this upsurge of interest in social media? What are we realizing we have lost or that we are losing by being told to stay at home? Can we think about what we are gaining as well?

Shiqi Lin: This is a great bundle of questions, Jenny. Let me start with an image in my mind—an image of sleepwalking. It comes from the Chinese science fiction writer Han Song. Years ago, he published online, never officially, a short science fiction story called “My Homeland Doesn’t Dream” (我的祖国不做梦). In the story, he portrays an image in which everyone is dreaming; the economy of an entire nation is bolstered by a sleepwalking people who are fully exploiting themselves in a mania for economic productivity. I take that depiction as a very powerful image to think about our lives before the coronavirus. That is the starting point for me to think about how we together have been falling into a mode of inertia, an inertia in the sense of how many of us have been pulled into this daily routine driven by a rational thinking of productivity in our work life. This mindset of efficiency and productivity is pretty much ingrained in national economies and social policies as well, as you can tell the pressure to sustain a certain scale of political economy has become a credo for national governments today. This is why I say people have been bonded together in sleepwalking: delusional prosperity is created at the expense of rising social inequalities and massive disposability of human beings, while those pains are often kept out of our sight. So the rupture, for us, primarily comes as a moment of alarm to remind us of what is the mode of life and economy that we have all been part of, and how to develop a consciousness to break away from that mode by consciously saying no, by consciously pushing the limit of our thinking to understand what is working and what is not. That is what I mean by the “rupture” of this moment.

I also love your question about why we are so obsessed with social media in the time of sickness. This is actually also my question for many people on social media today: why are you so interested in documenting your everyday life in the time of coronavirus? Why are you so interested in keeping some forms of diary writing or posting things about the coronavirus now?

Perhaps this need for social media and for online documentation is an intuitive response to the epidemic, because we are all social animals. By “social animals,” I mean we’re all having a certain kind of yearning for social connection and a documentary impulse in the moment of crisis. Many of us have a sense that we want to grasp something, especially when we are feeling things are falling apart while we do not comprehend so much going on.

Then, I think the reason that social media is becoming such a big thing filling the void of our life in COVID-19 is also due to a participatory culture that has been developing on social media over time. In the past few decades, there has been a transformative understanding of what cyberspace means for our social life. Three decades ago, you could say the Internet was something just for engineers or something not so central to social reality. However, since the Web 2.0 age, since the period of digital media practices like blogging, vlogging, and microblogging, people have taken a long process to see where social media could take them and what kind of creative modes of interaction could be possible online. With the participatory turn of the social media platforms, this is how we have arrived at this point with new forms of media like live streaming and TikTok today. These changes in media technologies are what made cloud clubbing possible. It’s not just about what you can do online, but also about how social media mediates and connects with social behavior offline. You can organize a multitude of offline activities through social media and, as Kaiyang has discussed, gain some tactile and somatic experience through the screen.

At the same time, of course, this transformation of social media is a double-edged sword. Social media has extended so much into our life that we’re encountering so many new possibilities online. However, danger will also come up when you become a cyborg totally absorbed into a cybernetic world. I would say for us, at this moment, it is probably a constant struggle to find a balance between both ends of social media. I will turn it to Carlos.

Carlos Rojas: Thanks, Shiqi. I’ll comment first on social media, and then on masks. With respect to social media, I agree with you and Belinda that what we have been observing over the past few months is actually not novel, and instead in many respects it can be traced back to the 2003 SARS crisis. In the Chinese context, the SARS crisis was one of the first examples of grassroots activism pushing back against the government’s attempts to control the dissemination of information. In late 2002 and early 2003, the Chinese government actively tried to suppress reports about this emerging epidemic in southern China, until finally the number of people using social media to draw attention to the crisis made it impossible to ignore.

Also, there was a phenomenon in Hong Kong where local grassroots activists used the Internet to identify the location of known infections, so as to identify local hotspots. This kind of ad hoc geo-mapping system was carried out completely by ordinary citizens without any governmental organization. Of course, this practice raises interesting privacy questions, but it was not unlike the more sophisticated response that South Korea, Singapore, and other East Asian countries are now using in response to COVID-19, in that they are using cell phone GPS data to track every time someone has been identified as infected, where they have been, and who has been in close proximity to them.

Last year Jing Wang published an interesting book called The Other Digital China: Non-Confrontational Activism on the Social Web, in which she notes that when outsiders look at social media in China, they tend to focus on questions like “Is something dissent or not dissent? Is it actively challenging the government or is it not challenging the government?” Wang argues, however, that there is actually an enormous space of Internet activism that falls between those two antipodes. Instead, it engages with topics of public concern in a way that does not openly challenge the government or the system, but becomes part of the public discourse. This kind of softer approach attempts to push the government and the dominant discourse in a different direction. I found that argument very interesting and sort of similar to some of the examples that Belinda was talking about in her really interesting talk.

With respect to masks, we should note that the popularity of wearing masks in public in East Asian countries is a fairly new phenomenon that didn’t really emerge until the SARS epidemic. Now we take it for granted, but at the time this marked a fairly radical shift in behavior, and it was a response to the governments’ encouragement that people wear masks to protect themselves and others. By contrast, in the US we have been explicitly instructed that we should not wear masks—on the grounds that they allegedly do not provide much protection from the virus unless you are a healthcare provider.

There are two things to be said about this difference between the US and East Asia. First, it seems self-evident that the reason officials have been discouraging Americans from wearing masks is not because masks won’t provide protection, but because the US simply doesn’t have enough masks even for healthcare workers. Why is it America that does not have enough masks? It goes back to the issue of risk assessment. Currently, the US has a reserve of nearly 100 million pounds of frozen chicken, and you would think that it would be even easier to have a stockpile of essential medical equipment like facemasks. In fact, in 1998, Congress created precisely such a stockpile for a variety of medical equipment, and beginning in 2005 the stockpile began acquiring N-95 respirator masks. Most of those masks were used during the 2009 H1N1 epidemic, and for some reason they were never replaced. Therefore, currently the stockpile has about 40 million masks, which is actually only 1% of what medical professionals anticipate that the US is going to need for COVID-19. This failure to maintain the stockpile can be seen as the governmental equivalent of Californians’ collective failure to purchase earthquake insurance.

Second, although it is still relatively uncommon to see people wearing medical masks in public in the US, something I’ve noticed over the past week here in Durham is that a lot of people in service sector jobs are wearing latex gloves while at work. Like masks, gloves help protect you and those around you. Equally importantly, both masks and gloves signal to other people that you are thinking actively about the potential of spreading the virus. So why is it that in the US people are currently more willing to wear gloves, but not masks?

Jenny Chio: Thanks, Carlos. That ending on masks goes back to Kaiyang’s point about the screen, skin, touch, tactility, and the interface. Maybe one of the things to think through here is: what are the different types of interfaces that we are finding ourselves having to use? What are these new platforms? How might we be able to use metaphors to think through the crisis that we find ourselves in, such as the crisis of not having enough masks? Ralph Litzinger (Duke) posted a link (in the panel chat board) to a Washington Post article about 1.5 million N95 masks that are expired sitting in a warehouse in Indiana. What is this new interface, then, that we have masks that are expired but that we want to use to cover our faces? There is a lot that we can work through here.

This kind of wraps it up. There are a number of different questions that have come up from people listening. I am going to turn it to Shiqi and Kaiyang to moderate the open discussion.

Audience Q&A

Kaiyang Xu: Thank you very much, Jenny. I hope everyone can join me to thank all the panelists and our moderator. Now we are opening to questions from the audience. First, Linshan Jiang (UCSB) has a very good question regarding the downside of boundary-crossing on social media, which may cause conflicts. Linshan, please feel free to elaborate on this question.

Linshan Jiang: Thank you for this great panel. I really appreciate it, because I think it’s very timely to have this kind of discussion to deepen our thinking. My question is based on my personal experience when the pandemic happened first in China and then spread around the world. I kept having frustrating discussions with my friends, not only in mainland China, but also in Taiwan, Japan, the United States, France, everywhere. Sometimes I was frustrated to have quarrels with different kinds of people, and some other times I would receive criticism and backlash in online discussions. This leads me to this question about antagonism, not just among strangers, but also among the so-called intimate ones. I wonder how everyone will respond to this paradox of social media there. Thank you.

Shiqi Lin: Perhaps I can start. I had something in mind when I was listening to your question. I was actually thinking about a previous paper from Belinda, titled “Totalitarian Ordinariness.” In that paper, she was talking about the SARS period, where there was already an evident form of online violence in a sense that people could be overwhelmed by the amount of information, debates, and quarrels online. In that paper, in her discussion of a fascinating novel on the post-SARS period by novelist Hu Fayun, called Such Is This World @sars.come, Belinda talked about how the protagonist was striving to rebuild a life and seek meanings of an ordinary life in the post-apocalyptic world after SARS. In order to do so, you need to set some ground rules for yourself about when to stop from being excessively taken away by the contentious digital environment. To me, this is also a matter of what a healthy mode of online sociality should look like. It doesn’t mean an endless quarrel with people or absorption of social media, but it entails a sense of mutual responsibility that people could establish with each other during their online interactions, knowing where the borders are and knowing when to stop from overburdening each other. Online socializing should not consume 120% of our life. In my opinion, setting a moment of retreat is probably as important as investing your good heart into that media environment.

Belinda Kong: I would echo what Shiqi just said. And going back to this idea of social media as generating new forms of cohabitation or communal being, I think part of having that social agency and cultural agency is to be able to draw your own micro borders and carve out the boundaries of your own social and media life.

I don’t want to suggest that social media is only a forum for the coming together of people and of positivity. I do think, though, that social media often gets trivialized as merely the forum for petty and ephemeral meanings. If we want to take seriously this idea of engaging in social media as a form of social practice and cultural agency, we should also think about our ability to manage on an everyday level what we decide to pay attention to, when we decide to click out of a website, and when we decide not to participate in a debate. Those micro decisions are also very defining and meaningful for us as individuals in how we want to draw our social boundaries.

Shiqi Lin: Thank you, Belinda. We can move on to a relevant question raised by Flair Donglai Shi (Oxford). He picked up from Linshan’s question. He asks, “I would like to hear the panelists’ thoughts on how this crisis is driving us back to border thinking (nation, race, sexual contact). Although there is a sense of collective efforts in many countries, internationally speaking, it looks like ‘national/group interests’ are ‘justifiably’ prioritized over everything else.” So what do you think? Is this moment strengthening the border, or loosening the border?

Carlos Rojas: To ask how we understand national borders raises the question of how we understand nations themselves. For instance, although we currently refer to the United States as a singular entity (“the United States is …”), for the first century of the nation’s existence the term “United States” was actually used as a plural (“the United States are . . .”). With the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, we have observed attempts not only to secure the nation’s borders, but also to limit movement between states. Some states are trying to impose quarantines on people coming from New York, while others are imposing quarantines on everyone arriving from out-of-state. I think that the growing reaction to the crisis of shutting down borders, both internal borders and transnational borders, are interesting and potentially very consequential.

Kaiyang Xu: I want to add on that by going back to Belinda’s idea of humanism. When people are talking about the coronavirus crisis as a moment of anti-globalization in terms of travel ban, visa services suspension, and national lockdowns, I’m thinking to what extent humanism may or may not reconnect people and facilitate dialogues between people from very different standpoints and sociocultural backgrounds. After all, the language of humanism that aims at protecting some groups of people neglects the rights of others. Humanism is therefore not neutral; it produces differentiations. So, what is the agency of that humanism? Who are included in humanism? Would it be a concern if humanism became romanticized as a rhetoric of equalizing all human beings while shunning problems such as racializing the disease?

Belinda Kong: It’s a question I myself am still thinking through. Because this hit me while I’m still working on my SARS project, one difference I have noticed is how quickly individual countries across the world closed off their borders with COVID-19 as opposed to SARS. At the time of SARS, the timeline was somewhat different, even though the date of viral emergence was also around November/December of 2002. But SARS did not hit the global radar for the World Health Organization until about mid-March 2003, for a variety of reasons. At the time, the first organization to propose travel restrictions was the WHO, when it issued an unprecedented travel advisory against Hong Kong and Guangdong Province in the first days of April. WHO had never in its institutional history issued a region-specific travel advisory for a particular disease up until that point. But this time around with COVID-19, the WHO has done exactly the opposite. I think this has partly to do with the Director General who’s leading the WHO right now. In his daily speeches on COVID-19, Dr. Tedros Adhanom’s message has been consistent: this is a global crisis that requires solidarity; this is not a crisis that individual countries can contain or deal with on their own. From the beginning, he has emphasized how each country needs to think about its policies as having a global impact. Not surprisingly, it was Trump who led the world in closing off national borders, closing America’s borders to China against the WHO’s recommendations.

In retrospect, given the explosion of cases in the US now, people could say (and do say) that Trump’s aggressive measure was prescient. But I wouldn’t jump to conclusions at this point about whether COVID-19 reflects an unprecedented level of border policing and self-isolation. There are examples of that, but I’m still waiting to see how things will play out because I also see the opposite rhetoric about global consciousness and global solidarity coming from some important international sites of authority such as the WHO.

The other piece of this that I’ve been thinking about relates to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which Carlos raised earlier. Something I see as unusual with COVID-19 is the intense crisis mentality that is contributing to the border-closing behaviors—a kind of immunity biopolitical thinking. You immunize your own people. You cut off and shut out the contaminants. We actually didn’t do that with H1N1. But if we look at the numbers, according to a 2012 CDC-led study conducted by a team of international researchers, the final estimate for total global infections and fatalities with H1N1 was in fact 15 times higher than what the WHO had initially calculated: at the higher end, some 1.4 billion people were estimated to have been infected worldwide, with over 575,000 fatalities—that’s astronomically high. But at the time, I remember students of mine catching the swine flu and self-quarantining in their dorm rooms, while classes went on as normal. I do not remember countries closing borders and entire cities and states locked down. One difference was that, as the 2012 CDC report concluded, a “disproportionate number” of H1N1 fatalities happened in Africa and Southeast Asia, in countries whose healthcare systems simply could not sustain that level of outbreak. Many cases went undiagnosed and unreported, and it is only retroactively that they were able to come up with a cumulative figure by statistical modeling. The realities of that unequal global disease burden did not make it into mainstream news or public consciousness here, so our response in the US as in most developed countries at the time was much tamer than what it is now. Another more recent epidemic that has not received much public attention here is the Ebola outbreak that just ended in the Republic of Congo, where the case fatality ratio was in the mid 60%—again, incredibly high in terms of severity. This is the kind of global thinking that we could cultivate more deeply, so that when we engage in public health practices such as social distancing, we think about the impact of our individual actions not just on our immediate communities and environments but more remotely, about our helping to keep the virus from spreading into parts of the world for which COVID-19 could have much more devastating consequences. And this is the paradigm of global and geopolitical ethics that I see the WHO trying to disseminate.

I would be curious to hear if anybody has insights into a comparison of different epidemic outbreaks from recent decades, and the uneven disease burden of those outbreaks.

Shiqi Lin: These are very fruitful questions to think about. It seems like some other questions will go back to this discussion, so we’ll move on to our next question directed to Belinda and me. This question is from Weiao Xing (Cambridge). He asks: “As a cultural historian, I am very curious about the connections between the micro and macro level of reflections on the current pandemic. To what extent can personal experience and memory be elaborated in a wider discussion of the global crisis, which is usually politicized like the choice between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, or between nationalist isolation and the global solidarity? How can scholars of cultural studies mediate this process?”

Belinda Kong: That’s a really good question. In the past, I came at these issues through theoretical paradigms in biopolitics with their very macro terms and perspectives. It’s only in recent years that I’ve started to think seriously about micropolitics or microsociality, these practices of everyday life. That is where I see some work could be done. We are very good, maybe particularly in the China field, at thinking about big political categories like totalitarianism and oppression. When we think about politics we think about dissidence and protest. But for the most part, that’s not how most people and most of us live everyday life. There are so many parts of our lives that get relegated to an empty space of non meaning, simply because we don’t pay attention to them and don’t credit them with meaning.

I am influenced to some extent by the work of critics like Lauren Berlant and her book Cruel Optimism, where she talks about slow death and ordinariness, and the anthropologist Anna Tsing, who talks about the matsutake mushrooms and how they thrive in sites of apocalyptic disasters and the small networks that they can point out for us. I started thinking about the pockets of ordinary life that we can bring up to the level of critical discourse, as having broader meaning and without collapsing them into prefabricated categories.

I don’t know if anyone has seen Giorgio Agamben’s short essays on COVID-19? So far he has written two short pieces on the coronavirus, and positions translated the first one, which came out in late February. His take at the time was that an epidemic has been “invented”—that was his phrase, “the invention of an epidemic”—because by some metrics, the coronavirus didn’t seem severe enough to warrant the emergency measures implemented by the Italian government. Agamben’s conclusion was that this disease outbreak illustrates yet again that states will attempt to expand their sovereign power by normalizing a state of exception. So, basically, a repetition of his own thesis. It wasn’t very long after that short essay that the case count really exploded in Italy and it truly became an outbreak of major proportions. Agamben then wrote a clarification piece. But his initial essay highlighted for me that there’s a limit to applying macro biopolitical paradigms to what happens on the ground and how people actually live out an epidemic. Theorists who are largely invested in the macro level of state action and historical patterns can miss out on the non-exceptionalist biopolitical and biosocial practices that occur every day.

Shiqi Lin: This is a great answer. I’ll pick up on that question. For me, I always start from both ends. I will think about the micro and the macro together. As an individual living through this larger historical current, I’m perceiving a tangible impact of the social on myself every day. So when I’m talking about the macro, it is impossible not to talk about the experience of myself and the people I care about. Vice versa, when I’m trying to theorize my personal experience, I need to see how it is situated in a broader historical nexus.

Following Belinda’s approach, I’ll give two examples of the great writers that have inspired me and provided some tangible models of cultural analysis. The first one is Amitav Ghosh. He is an anthropologist, but also a wonderful storyteller and novelist. His novels always start from something trivial, such as daily conversations, but he does exceptional jobs situating tiny acts of daily life and micro-border trespassing in a colonial history and a larger process of globalization. Chinese writer Yu Hua is another example. I was actually brushing up on his memoir China in Ten Words yesterday. I was always very struck by the immense sense of pain and violence he inscribed in his writing. I remember a sentence in his memoir, which goes like as a writer, you write when you start to feel other people’s pain as your own pain. For me that is probably the starting point to think about togetherness and empathy, not just in the mode of writing, but also in other modes of communication, such as making videos and engaging with each other online.

Kaiyang Xu: There is another great question posted by Ruoyu Li (Johns Hopkins). She writes, “In many online diaries by people in Wuhan during the lockdown and other personal accounts/interviews, they hope to ‘go back to normal life.’ My sense is that even when people are doing ‘ordinary’ things during difficult times, the meanings, feelings, affect and effects of ordinariness are different. I wonder if you could speak more about the distinctiveness of this ordinariness, if it is distinct at all. Also, ordinary life could be appropriated for depoliticization and state control (i.e. telling people to go back to ‘normal’ lives and not to participate in protests), so the ordinary is not necessarily an excess, resistance or alternative to the state and its ideology. But, as you said, there are acts, too small to be considered political, that could actually invite different politics. So how could we think of this double nature of ‘ordinariness’?”

This question goes to Belinda, but I also want to tie it to Carlos’s presentation that calls for a mode of thinking-forward and a vision of what will happen in the future, rather than being overwhelmed by what is at hand. Considering both the concept of ordinariness and the mode of thinking-forward, how can we think further starting from an ordinary life?

Belinda Kong: I have a very brief answer to this. That is a great question. For me, ordinariness is not a category that happens in isolation, but always in relation to an opposing term. I think of ordinariness in the context of totalitarianism and in relation to global pandemics. In a vacuum, ordinariness as a concept can too easily get co-opted by different ideologies. One danger is that it can be mobilized by the communist government as its version of “the people.” Neoliberalism has its own version of ordinariness as a kind of universal humanism. So, in itself, ordinariness is not a neutral term, nor can we theorize it in the absence of something else. I invoke it when paradigms of larger power structures such as totalitarianism and pandemic crisis leave almost no room for the micro and the everyday. And that’s where I see ordinariness as becoming useful for us to claim on-the-ground agency, for living within the gaps of those paradigms.

Carlos Rojas: On the topic of ordinariness, I’d like to jump back to something Belinda mentioned earlier. I think you framed Agamben’s essay in terms of the relationship between macro biopolitical paradigms and what is happening “on the ground.” However, I think it’s more a question of comparing different macro-level perspectives. Agamben’s failure to recognize Italy’s coronavirus pandemic was not a result of his failure to attend to the on-the-ground situation, but rather a failure to apply to evaluate the macro-level data correctly. After all, an epidemic is inherently a macro-level phenomenon.

Putting aside Agamben’s failure to recognize the severity of Italy’s epidemic at the time, the more general point he was making was, I think, useful. In State of Exception, Agamben famously describes how governments take advantage of exceptional circumstances to assert an extralegal order that then becomes part of the status quo. For instance, we saw how many of the measures that the US government took in response to the 911 terrorist attacks were never rolled back, and instead became part of the status quo. Essentially, we’re still in a permanent post-911state of exception. Similarly, in Melancholy Order, Adam McKeown argues that attempts to restrict Chinese immigration in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century United States and other countries led to the establishment of the national border-control system that has now become standard around the world. The Chinese Exclusions laws may have been lifted, but the border control system that they helped inspire remains ubiquitous. With respect to the current COVID-19 crisis, I think it will be interesting to see how many of the “emergency” measures that governments take to respond to the pandemic will end up having a more permanent legacy.

Shiqi Lin: Great thanks for these insights. We’re approaching the end of the panel, and now we want to open the floor to everyone who wishes to address your question directly. Please feel free to unmute yourself and show your screen.

Stephanie Polsky (Goldsmiths): I just want to pick up on Shiqi’s point about this crisis being continuous with something before the coronavirus, and now being the official manifestation of the crumbling neoliberal institutions and recession predicted in several countries, including China and the US. You also made reference to the surveillance capitalism that we were talking about even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. An example would be the “Internet of Things,” linking back to Shoshana Zuboff’s argument that the next frontier of surveillance capitalism would be the Internet of Things, which would be a window into the business demand and the desire of domestic tracking. How is the coronavirus actually speeding that entry, as a kind of neoliberal normative is starting to reshape around the crisis?

Kaiyang Xu: Here is one more question from Keyun Tian (Cornell). She asks, “Following up on Prof. Belinda Kong’s reference to Agamben’s pieces, I have a question about how the COVID-19 pandemic might prompt us to reflect on some patterns of thought in certain strands of critical theory. At the risk of overgeneralization, much poststructuralist-inflected critical theory seems to be characterized by a skepticism toward ‘safety’ (hygienic or otherwise) and a valorization of uncertainty or even risk-taking. However, what does it mean to think through the current moment in these terms? And how might we reassess the ‘ethos’ of critical theory in this time of precarity?”

Shiqi Lin: Both are very hard questions. I can take a stab at answering Stephanie’s question, in terms of how the coronavirus is affecting neoliberal technologies of governance. As Stephanie you have pointed out, I was hoping to trace how, over the past decade, social changes have already been happening long before the COVID-19 crisis, in the name of neoliberalism, but not a conventional sense of neoliberalism. I think it’s more accurate to say we are talking about how neoliberalism is changing its form and connecting with an unchecked surveillance culture and strengthened social control today. So what happens with neoliberalism is not just economic deregulation, but how it’s bonded with the ideological and social changes desiring for stricter borders across the world. In this sense, I think the coronavirus operates like a mirror. It is a mirror reflecting the ideological changes that have seeped so deeply in different societies of the world today, and provoking our reflections to make sense of and respond to these changes. This issue also goes back to our earlier discussion of “border,” about whether this is a moment for coming together or a moment of strengthening borders. This question applies equally to neoliberalism. It is very hard to say which direction we are going towards today. On the one hand, it seems that in the minds of the power holders, their automatic response is to intensify various forms of border control, and the ultra-right are quite active in manipulating the narrative of what is to come. However, on the other hand, I do think, at least for scholars and for minds who are critical of the current mode we are trapped in, this pandemic crisis is a moment of critical reflection to generate new languages, and at least not to give in. I would say this is at least the bottom line that we can guard at this moment.

Kaiyang Xu: I can add something to Shiqi’s response, as I’m thinking about Jenny’s question of why we are so fascinated by social media. Social media have already mediated people’s everyday life. How can we negotiate with social media through which people’s lives are being simultaneously freed from and divided into multiple forms of borders? For instance, social media gives us an illusion that we can communicate freely with the world across national borders, but censorship and nationalist discourses never retreat from social media. In fact, they are strengthened on social media especially in the current global crisis. So, where is the media border, and how does the media change our imagination about borders? We can keep thinking about these questions.

Now we are pretty much done. Thank you everyone for being here. This is a wonderful conversation. Thank you to all the panelists. Please feel free to contact us if you’d like more conversations. I hope this panel was a positive experience for everyone.

Belinda Kong: Thank you, Shiqi and Kaiyang, for organizing this wonderful conversation. This was my first cloud panel, and I feel like I crossed a lot of borders. Thank you so much. It is also nice to see everyone’s face. 

Shiqi Lin: Thank you everyone for joining us. We truly appreciate your presence. 

Carlos Rojas: Thank you. 

All: Good night and good morning, everyone!


[1] This document archives the discussions and thoughts at the time the panel was being held. Given the rapidly changing situations of the pandemic, readers may notice that public opinions on topics such as mask wearing have taken significant shifts since this panel.


Jenny Chio is Associate Professor of East Asian Languages & Cultures and Anthropology at the University of Southern California. Her training is in cultural anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking, with a focus on media ethnography, visual studies, and critical tourism studies. She conducts research on the cultural politics of ethnic minority identity, rural social transformation, and vernacular media practices in the People’s Republic of China. Her scholarly work includes a book and an ethnographic film on rural ethnic tourism, as well as articles and essays on amateur/independent documentary media-making and the rural public sphere in contemporary China.

Belinda Kong is associate professor of Asian Studies and English at Bowdoin College. Her research focuses on contemporary literature by Chinese diaspora and Asian American writers. Her current book project, which is titled What Lived Through SARS: Chronicles of Pandemic Resilience, examines global pandemic discourses around the 2003 SARS epidemic and cultures of epidemic life at the outbreak’s epicenters.

Shiqi Lin is a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. Her research interests include contemporary Chinese literary and media cultures, political theory, care ethics, translation studies and urban studies. She studies politics of documentation across Chinese media cultures including literary nonfiction, documentary, speculative fiction, popular music and social media.

Carlos Rojas is a professor of Chinese cultural studies; gender, sexuality and feminist studies; and arts of the moving image at Duke University, and is the co-director of the Humanities Research Center at Duke Kunshan University. He is the author, editor, and translator of numerous books, including Homesickness: Cultural, Contagion, and National Transformation.

Kaiyang Xu is a PhD student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California. Her research fields are contemporary Chinese cinema and media studies. She is interested in studying ethics, power dynamics and representation across fiction films, documentaries and new media forms.