Stoke Canon, Devon, England. I have been told more than once that I have a penchant for driving along the worst roads that I can find in mountainous areas. This was yet another instance, it occurred to me, as I bounced my seven passengers along in an unwieldy SUV whose owner would probably be wincing to see where it was going. We slowly wound our way over dirt and rubble, with one fellow in the back voicing concern about the bits of rebar poking up here and there, as the track curved between wire fences on both sides. Beyond lay broken concrete slabs and other debris from smashed houses. It would not look much different if a battle had raged through and left a disaster zone. Eventually, we pulled into a small paved area at the centre of what used to be a mining settlement of a few thousand people but now had only a couple of dozen buildings left standing.
As we climbed out to stretch our legs, the peculiar quietness that usually dulls sounds in the rarefied air of 4,500 metres above sea level hung over the scene. The thick low clouds added a layer of grey to the subdued olive and brown patches on the landscape. Three men converged from different directions to meet us. One, who wore a broad black mask to ward off the cold of the Andean highlands, opened the rickety wooden door to an adobe building that apparently had served as a community meeting centre in better days. Some of us ducked beneath the weathered blue door frame and trod over the doubtful floorboards to reach a bench next to a stained billiards table, while others had enough misgivings about the setting to linger in the hallway or outside.
It had taken over five hours that morning to drive up from Lima, on a 150-kilometre winding artery full of slow-moving and accident-prone trucks. Two days earlier, I had wondered if the journey to the mountains would be possible at all. Protesters had blocked that highway and several others leading out of Lima. Violence had flared up, and to quell it the president had ordered a lockdown across the whole capital from 2am. Our scheduled meetings that day were reduced to looking at Zoom screens at our hotel while I contemplated the prospect of spending most of the week locked in, until we were relieved to hear that the lockdown was lifted in late afternoon of the same day.
I had brought seven students on this trip to Peru in early April, to explore China–Latin America relations on the ground. Our campus in China is in its fifth semester of virtual classes, with only a minority of students able even to live in the compound and most of the rest scattered across the world due to tight border controls. But as the last century taught many, it behoves one never to waste a period of exile. China’s vastly expanded global reach can be studied from elsewhere much more than a decade or two ago. This trip was an attempt to do just that, and to offer some respite from virtual graduate school. Over a little more than a week, we packed in meetings in three languages with a cross-section of those dealing with Chinese engagement in Peru, from a former foreign minister to mining company executives to NGOs and labour activists.
As it happened, a few hours before Lima’s curfew to quell protests, across the Pacific the whole of Shanghai went under one of the world’s tightest lockdowns. Rather than going on with rolling restrictions district by district, the authorities announced the confinement of 26 million people to their buildings, in the relentless pursuit of zero Covid as ordered from Beijing. In Peru, it takes a few deaths at a barricade to suspend social life; in China, it takes a few positive results from swabs up noses. Six weeks later, Shanghai’s lockdown drags on, with stories of food running out and forced removals to quarantine. The online censors scrub videos of protesters screaming from balconies and even, at one point, social media postings of the first line of the national anthem, “Arise, people who do not want to be slaves.” Around a quarter of China’s population is under some form of pandemic restriction, including those in other cities who go on any brief excursion worrying that their phone codes will change colour and prevent them re-entering their own homes.
Our well-travelled, policy-savvy, and socially aware students on this trip had ample experience of life on both sides of the Pacific. Just as such personal ties cut across the world, so too do threads of trade and influence. China is Peru’s largest trading partner and has poured plenty of investment into infrastructure and the natural resource sector.
Now, two days after Lima’s lockdown swiftly ended, and two days into Shanghai’s several weeks of torment, we were sitting in a meeting room with peeling walls, in a highland settlement that had been turned into mostly rubble and churned soil. Nearby was a huge open-pit copper mine owned by a Chinese state-owned company. In this forlorn place, far from the political indifference of Lima and even farther from the gleaming skyscrapers of Shanghai, globalised power and money intertwined and tugged at the lives of the poor. We were stopping first at this old settlement with a couple of dozen holdouts, before driving a few minutes down the road to the new settlement, where over four thousand inhabitants had already been relocated at the company’s expense.
Mass relocations, sometimes leaving standing for a while the so-called “nail houses” of holdouts who refuse to be moved, have been a common sight in the Faustian China of the last two decades. This was a rare case in Peru, and while paid for with Chinese money, the relocation had been carried through with much gentler methods than often were deployed across the Pacific, including some community consultation and a vote on the preferred site. The core of the project was the new settlement a few minutes away, with its neatly laid out streets, single-storey red-roofed houses, and assorted schools and other amenities.
It was also something of a Rorschach test. According to the company, the new town was vastly more comfortable and healthier than the squalor of the old settlement with its leaking tin roofs. Even squatters who lacked clear title had been paid compensation and given generously sized modern houses. That was just what they would say, one NGO warned us in advance. The holdout activists noted that those who refused to move had their rudimentary electricity and water supply interrupted. Talking later that afternoon with some locals who were whiling away the hours in a café in the new town, we appreciated the tasty cake and the cleanliness compared to more typical highland villages in the Andes. Yet several echoed the holdouts’ complaint that economic opportunities had not materialised at the new site. They felt misled and regretted agreeing to relocate farther from the main road. Outside, some children played a short way away. Their voices petered out in the thin air, as a quiet ennui pervaded the grid of tidy paved streets.
I wrote often on Front Porch Republic some years ago about other communities where I have spent time in the Andes, and about my meanderings in China as well. In the last decade, the bonds of trade across the Pacific have tightened. As I was now dipping more into what these emerging circuits of global power meant, however, this odd case on the ground did not quite fit into any of the templates that had come up in my earlier observations.
The resettled people here were not the sort of traditional peasants whom I knew well elsewhere. This bleak setting had no indigenous village with generations of rootedness. It dated back a century or less, having started as a remote mining settlement with opportunity seekers from elsewhere. Unlike in some of the more tragic instances in twentieth-century China or in the Peruvian civil war a generation ago, no one had been forced at gunpoint to leave home. The company executives and staff, while practised and polished in how they told their story, also genuinely seemed to want to make a difficult situation work by pouring ample resources into the project. Conversely, those who regretted moving or who were holding out in depressing surroundings did not come across as the sort of hotheads or opportunists who, in some more dysfunctional settings, often mobilise for the sake of it and demand every penny they can extract by being difficult. They had good reason to feel displaced and pressured and hopeless.
The global landscape shifts. Dystopian images emerge from places like Shanghai that aspire to become its new hubs. The question weighs on us of whether what has happened in this cold corner of the Andes has a Chinese air about it, and whether more of it is everywhere to come as the post-Western world tightens. While the locked-down in Shanghai and the relocated in this Peruvian mining town are poles apart geographically and in their material circumstances, they are linked by more than just the commodity chains of late capitalism. The Chinese company that paid for the relocation is state-owned, and quite a few critics whom we met in Peru saw it as an arm of the Chinese state. They also perceived Chinese companies in general, and the Chinese embassy, as approaching Peruvian society with a certain tone deafness and stonewalling. Habits of driving hard bargains and dealing with the state over the heads of the populace were being imported from their homeland.
Anyone who has worked his or her way up within a top-heavy state apparatus accustomed to managing a weakened society no doubt carries certain styles of communication abroad, even into commercial activity in a very different country. I imagine that the students on our trip would have been surprised had they heard the opposite: that Chinese SOE executives or diplomats were eager to have a frank give and take with NGOs, activists, and other such unruly folk with alien motivations. The cavalier attitude of public health officials who have carted powerless people off to quarantine, bludgeoned potentially infected pets to death, and ordered keys left in doors so apartments can be sprayed down as they compete to (be seen to) implement edicts from above, also comes from long acquired habits and institutional pressures.
But I think it would be too easy to wrap up in a red flag whatever common story links white hazmat suits on one side of the world with an eerily quiet resettled town on the other. That version of the story would egg on the enthusiasts of geopolitical crusades. It would offer little insight to those who still seek humanity amid both skyscrapers and mountain peaks. While the elements with Chinese characteristics are real, some uneasy facts should give pause to anyone who would reduce the Chinese state’s tight control of Shanghai and the global reach of its interests and practices to a single story.
One such uneasy fact is that for every wary Chinese executive or diplomat who opted not to meet with us, there were multiple Peruvians who spoke warmly of Chinese investment in Peru, were managing the relationships, and were overseeing the bulk of the work in running projects like the resettlement. It was clear that they believed in a win-win alignment of more or less universal interests in what was going on. And, at the higher levels, such people would have been recognisable in any corner of the world. Indeed, several of them spoke English fluently, some with little or no accent, and had been educated abroad in the same sort of institutions as our own group. Much of what one might say about their view of the world could also be said about a good number of our own colleagues and classmates.
Another uneasy fact is that, while those looking from a distance at Shanghai’s lockdown now tend to be as appalled as those suffering it, a soft spot for zero-Covid heavy-handedness was long the case among some educated circles in the West. The governments of Australia and New Zealand only gave up on it because they lost control, not because they were averse to the idea of self-congratulatory isolation from the plague-ridden outside world. Respect for China’s methods in stamping out the virus prevailed for a long time. Neil Ferguson, the so-called “Professor Lockdown” whose studies informed Britain’s confinement measures, remarked that Italy led the way in showing, contrary to initial expectations, that a Western country could “get away with” the same controls that China had deployed in Wuhan. And I vividly remember a bright-eyed NHS doctor last summer who, while doing paperwork before giving me a vaccine dose, expressed her admiration for everything China had done.
If some tendencies appear more vividly in Chinese institutions, that may be less because the tendencies are Chinese, but simply because the conditions for those tendencies to flourish have been more entrenched there. The threat to the human spirit is, troublingly, more universal than easy geopolitical jingoism or cultural stereotypes would imply. To be sure, sometimes a settlement may need moving from a squalid and unviable location, just as sometimes contagion may require public health measures. But the readiness of late to do such things more often and on vast scales, and to see those measures as markers of progress, bespeaks something darker that inheres everywhere in late modernity.
The defenders of lockdown in places like Wuhan and Shanghai, and their sympathisers abroad, see it as a testament to the success of public-spirited technocracy and a more convincing model of how to reduce risk for large populations living in an ever more complex global society. One of the executives proud of the mining resettlement remarked, while flashing impressive photos up on the screen above the conference table, that it was “a dream come true for lovers of Legos.” Conversely, whether for those screaming from their balconies in Shanghai or gesticulating in a gloomy meeting room in a near-abandoned village, such displays of progressive capacity were also eroding important aspects of liberty and dignity. Mere health and comfort, no matter how well intentioned—if, indeed, such measures really secured health and comfort—would not fully satisfy.
The French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel, in his book On Power, observed that “[i]t is not as an element in the happiness of the individual that the loftiest spirits have vaunted liberty, but rather because it consecrates the dignity of his personality and thus saves the human being from playing the merely instrumental rôle to which the wills of authority tend ever to reduce him.” Such liberty has shrunk as the modern state gained ground in recent centuries: “Power has imposed its will. It is now no longer one small dot in society but a great stain at the centre of it, a network of lines that run right through it.” Such an impulse goes beyond mere material interest. The exercise of technocratic power affords “this intoxicating pleasure of moving the pieces on the board of the social game.”
Since Jouvenel died in 1987, we have had over a generation of further technological progress. States’ capacities for surveillance with contact tracing and health codes on phones would have been unimaginable not long ago. Beneath the surface, too, the proportion of power in the hands of the upwardly mobile and risk averse, who share common ideas about administering the herd for its own good, has grown along with higher education’s funnelling of talent through similar institutions across the world. What happens now with mines and dams and contagion will no doubt be scaled up for climate change, rising sea levels, and all manner of other future perils that spur the enlightened onward in technocratic urgency.
Still, the capacity and temptations of such macro-level exercise of power are just half of the story. The other half is the micro-level understanding of human flourishing. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben noted at the beginning of the pandemic, lockdown followed in a long genealogy of rhetoric about terrorism and security. The latest “state of exception,” as Italy followed China in early 2020, justified draconian public health measures. Human gatherings to fulfil other economic, political, social, and religious needs were sacrificed to preserve what Agamben called “bare life.”
To be sure, sometimes public power does need deploying to preserve life or accomplish other common ends. There was not much dignity for those who, in the worst moments of human experience, wondered whether they were more likely to perish of plague, famine, or banditry. We can recognise those hard facts rather than lashing out in juvenile fashion against all of today’s technocratic impositions. But, from their different philosophical vantage points, both Jouvenel and Agamben pointed toward something deeper happening in modernity, bound up with the understanding of power, prosperity, and personhood.
Whether being confined to their homes or relocated to new homes, those who push back against the progressive exercise of power implicitly are pushing back against a narrowing of how their own good is defined, even as things are being done to them for their own good. Flourishing shrinks, depending on the challenge of the moment, to a measurable dimension of money or physical health or human capital (or, in a Chinese twist, sùzhì or “population quality”). This narrowness comes partly from the cultural and spiritual vacuum in which the ambitious today tend to move. Bare life and monetary gain loom larger when the satisfactions of traditional life thin out. Narrowness is also easier to operationalise. Politicians scared of the headlines, bureaucrats scared of those bearing down on them from above, and business executives scared of the quarterly report, all find simple yardsticks of success tempting. Modern institutions can deal better in numbers of positive nose swabs or square metres of concrete housing than in loneliness or uprootedness or loss of hope. The board of modern life on which the pawns get moved around is inscribed with algorithms, not poetry.
The micro and the macro thus converge in the empty streets of Shanghai and the rubble of this highland mining settlement. The problem, and the defensible enough intentions behind it, are bigger than any régime of the day in Beijing or any company’s bottom line. That problem lies in the deeper constitution of society, so to speak. Neither lockdowns nor relocations would be so likely to occur—or at least to be handled in the same way—in a more traditional sort of society with a greater diversity of power centres and aspirations. For the same reason, the solutions most readily on offer in public and private rhetoric are more appealing on the surface, in these cases, than satisfactory as a guide to action.
Some Chinese netizens play cat and mouse with the censors in reposting legal analyses of the lockdown as unconstitutional. Such a mode of rights-consciousness is unsurprising in Shanghai as stereotypically the most consumerist and Westernised of Chinese cities. Rights would rein in some of the abuses, to be sure. But the indignantly rights-conscious in Shanghai today were, as I have heard several people remark lately, quite unempathetic about the less advantaged locked-down in Xi’an and Changchun earlier this year, or about the travel restrictions that did not much inconvenience them personally while China could keep earlier variants out. A pivot to living with Omicron now would not reshape the smoothly administered and atomised existence that a high-capacity state affords to comfortable strata in normal times. I suspect that having takeaway food deliveries restored will not alleviate the rat-race depression that hangs over daily life for too many individuals in urban China.
Likewise, the language used by the holdout activists and their sympathisers struck me as rather different from what I have heard from peasants in more traditional villages in the Andes over the last three decades. Unlike those with deeper roots and some of the older texture to life, most of their demands were for either a more generous payoff or tighter state regulation of big companies. Some years ago, I framed the perennial problem of both right and left in Peru as wanting to turn peasants into something other than peasants. The people in this mining settlement were not really peasants. They already had more of a transient and modern air about them. The billboard above the meeting hut framed their cause as a “political movement.” They said they were aligned with, but already swiftly disappointed by, the recently elected populist president. Such billboards implied seeking emancipation through political power if only it could be captured and deployed properly. As Jouvenel put it in his critique of the modern scramble to redirect the swollen state, “the idea of result holds the entire field.” I wonder if social democracy really would feed the soul as well as the belly, if it ever came to Peru.
Neither the resettled in the Andes nor the skyscraper screamers in Shanghai are peasants. They are already waist-deep in modernity, hence they discuss solutions that are intelligible to the technocrats who move them around on a board. Down the hill in the new town, questions to one of the managers about the lack of local economic opportunity kept bringing her back to modern education as the best route out for the next generation. So, too, may the public health officials in Shanghai—when stress does not catch up with them, as it did with one who killed himself a few weeks ago—believe that success will mean that today’s infant will avoid long Covid, enabling him to score high on the college entrance exam, become a productive taxpayer for a few decades, and eventually settle into a comfortable high-tech nursing home with enough robots around 2100.
Sometimes it may indeed make sense to compensate people in an unviable and insalubrious environment and encourage them to move, just as sometimes one has to contain a plague. But the judgement on whether to do so is perhaps less central than the question of how one does it, and what one is hoping to accomplish. Whether in the impulse for efficiency, safety, comfort, or some social democratic idea of justice, society in all its messy plurality gets lost along with any multidimensional image of the human good. Narrow aims map on to large institutions, public or private. That mapping inherently pairs with a weakening of society. It matters little, in the end, whether in any given part of the world the little platoons have been crushed by totalitarianism or merely dissolved by market-driven mobility.
I wish I could end with a more hopeful call to action, more fitting for these cases than for others about which I have written before. But it is hard to wax enthusiastic. The old neighbourhoods are not coming back amid the glass and concrete of today’s Shanghai. Half of the Andean countryside is beginning to look less like villages and more like mining settlements whose denizens want to leave. And the last few years have shown that liberty and truth are felt less in the bones by each new cohort of educated élites who will go on to craft policy. Still, something more timeless does come through in the frustration that I see growing on the faces of young Chinese on my Zoom screen, as they say they feel more like pawns on a shrinking board than ever before, and in the firm handshakes of the stubborn activists who will not yield and who appreciate the chance to talk with anyone sympathetic. Perhaps screaming from a balcony or blocking a road will not do much in the short term. But we are usefully reminded that the pawns on the board are alive, and that boards, or at least the hands above them, have come and gone many times in history.
The views expressed here are in a personal capacity and do not represent the author’s institution.