Pandemic-hit Britain could learn from this dystopia past

You can learn important lessons today by examining presumptions of the past. I recently finished reading a novel of dystopian science fiction set in Britain in the early 21st Century that contained a revealing detail.

UK Flag (CC Stefano Brivio)

The Stone That Never Came Down, published in 1973 by John Brunner, portrayed a UK plagued by permanent unemployment, its streets menaced by violent Christian culture warriors assaulting and mugging strangers, urban decay, poverty, terrorism, power cuts, and a Glasgow occupied by soldiers routinely attacked by out-of-work Scottish squatters.

Yet even in this dark vision of the future of Britain, there was a staffed, but overworked, Epidemic Early Warning Unit, made up of “people who run a computer watch on notifiable diseases [and] try and catch an outbreak before it spreads”.

Looking at the futures past is a great way to understand the expectations of the time. Even for a book with dystopian elements that ring true – in The Stone That Never Came Down Italy is in an economic and trade crisis that threatens its place within the European Common Market – the presence of the government in public life is much more discernible than it is today, at least from watching reports of the British government handling coronavirus today.

Even in a dystopia, it seems, the government had an undisputed role in protecting the lives of citizens.

Meanwhile, today, the UK like the US, both seem afflicted by a kind of dissociation between government and the public. Watching Boris Johnson defend Dominic Cummings’ road trip to Durham, or watching Donald Trump golf as tens of thousands of Americans die, there is a disconnect made possible by the reigning ideologies of past decades, populist disregard, and of course, communitarian communication technology that allows people to simply opt-out of information they disagree with.

A book written in 1973 is an interesting exercise in understanding the perception of the role of the government in the past. The year 1973 was less than three decades since the end of World War II, an event the British people could not have survived without a strong government. Now, as a real pandemic kills tens of thousands in the UK, the question is: how much longer do modern citizens of democracies have to endure the laissez faire hangover of the late 1990s? How much lower will the credibility of the Anglo-American model of government fall before a new iteration, a new relationship between the citizen and state comes to pass?

The Republican 2020 ‘attack China’ strategy

Contained below, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s 2020 strategy document urging candidates to make China a campaign issue.

This previous post surveys some of the propaganda network aimed at Americans around the issue of China in the 2020 election.

Here is a commissioned strategy document.

Sample question:

Q: Isn’t this Trump’s fault?
Note – don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China. (Emphasis mine).

Clearly, this is playing with fire, especially as the death toll mounts in the US from coronavirus.

The China side of MAGA, and the CCP’s racism claim

Donald Trump has claimed China’s handling of the coronavirus is proof that Beijing “will do anything they can” to make him lose the presidency in November. While on the surface, it’s a fanciful claim, the invocation of “China” as an all-around boogeyman is a trend that is being amplified online. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has been quick to claim “racism” as the motivator for its many critics.

Here is an excellent little summary of one wing of the coronavirus debate: anti-CCP activity backed by Guo Wengui (aka Miles Kwok) who owns GNews and former Trump-adviser Steve Bannon with his anti-CCP website America’s Voice.

From Graphika:

Guo Wengui and his media outlet GNews, along with Steve Bannon and his anti-CCP website America’s Voice, are pushing a pro-US, anti-CCP narrative. Wengui is a Chinese billionaire who now lives in the US and works with Steve Bannon. This partnership has often been accused of stoking tensions between the US and China using sensationalist and often conspiratorial content. Popular content … includes videos featuring Guo Wengui that claim the coronavirus is a bio-weapon and that the death toll has been underreported by the Chinese government. This narrative appears to have spread to other conspiracy groups, including the dedicated coronavirus “news” group, where GNews is among the most shared domains…Their goal, as stated in their website description, is to be the bridge between breaking Chinese news and the Western world, though their main outputs are Fox News and America’s Voice clips that have been translated into Mandarin Chinese. Similarly, the English account translates Guo Wengui and GNews clips into English.

The COVID-19 “Infodemic”, Graphika

But the Bannon-Kwok axis is just one side of the effort.

The Epoch Times, founded by the Falun Gong, has “evolved from a nonprofit newspaper that carried a Chinese-American religious movement’s anti-communism message into a conservative online news behemoth that embraced President Donald Trump and conspiracy content.”

Epoch Times‘ ads were blocked from Facebook last year for trying to evade Facebook’s review system. At the time it spend some “$2 million worth of ads that promoted the president and conspiracy theories about his political enemies.” That was more than the Trump campaign itself at the time.

(Hardcopies of the Epoch Times are distributed free in various locations in Australia. It’s not difficult to find them.)

I have no evidence Bannon-Kwok axis and Epoch Times are coordinated between each other, just that the share similar pro-Trump, anti-CCP goals.

To give a sense how this international meta-blame game is being directed with focus into the 2020 election, see how Trump, in recent weeks, has claimed that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has been weak on China.

Biden has responded in kind, drawing attention to Trump’s initial trust of China on the coronavirus in the early phases of the pandemic.

From the Los Angeles Times:

President Trump’s intensifying criticism of China isn’t just about deflecting blame during the coronavirus crisis — it’s opening up a new line of attack against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee…. Trump’s reelection chances now rest heavily on his ability to successfully frame the choice voters will face in November as a referendum on China, according to the president’s campaign aides and allies.

For Trump, it’s an update of the unapologetic nationalism he ran on four years ago, when he played up dangers supposedly posed by Mexicans and illegal immigration, and cast opponents as weak and naive… Unwilling to let Trump’s arguments go unanswered, Biden’s campaign battled back Friday with a spate of ads disputing his alleged support for China, and going on offense — blaming Trump for being too trusting of President Xi Jinping as the coronavirus spread.

April 17, 2020

Amping up a loathing for “China” (rather than specifically “the Chinese Communist Party and its various organs”) can create a level of tension that cuts through the ambient noise of the US political information sphere. At the same tine, the emotion of fear and loathing for “China” could overwhelm voters’ creeping anxiety for Trump’s record. (60,000 US dead of coronavirus so far).

A campaign stretching around the world and involving perceptions of China and Trump would likely hit all the right notes: blame-shifting away from Trump and the US, towards China and Biden. Specific stories can be seeded in global media this way. But the real power would the scale and persistence.

Already I see friends on social media with Asian backgrounds calling out a resurgent anti-Asian bigotry (comments, signs in public aimed at “Chinese.”) The Biden campaign has come under fire of its ad assailing Trump’s handling of “China.”

Part of tension arises from the fact that the parties involved, China-born Falun Gong members, people of ethnic Asian backgrounds, people with no -Asian identity have real feelings about the China and its rise. Instrumentalizing existing organisations like the Epoch Times helps embed the feeling more deeply into individuals already invested in them. Why reinvent the wheel? The Kremlin did something similar with WikiLeaks fans and the cadres of Noam Chomsky leftists, who adopt views that the Kremlin promotes – all in the name of combating Western “imperialism.”

There is another dimension that many people outside of China, many people in the US may not realize: The Chinese Communist Party itself – the actual rival to the US government (not the Chinese people) uses race and claims of “racism” as a way to advance the regime’s goals.

As John Garnaut has written of the Australian example:

A key to the party’s operations in Australia is collapsing the categories of Chinese Communist Party, China, and the Chinese people into a single organic whole—until the point where the party can be dropped from polite conversation altogether. The conflation means that critics of the party’s activities can be readily caricatured and attacked as anti-China, anti-Chinese, and Sinophobic—labels that polarize and kill productive conversation.

Mind your Tongue, ASPI, 2019

The CCP has access to some huge megaphones to project this message.

All of which means that the hot blast of racism around the issues of “China” and people who are “Chinese” may be flowing from both side of the Pacific. The Trump campaign is happy to marshal anti-Chinese racism for domestic political gain. The CCP, meanwhile, would seek to conflate racism with any criticism of the authoritarian party.

In this world view, the CCP calling itself “China” speaks for people as unrelated to mainland China as former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, for example.

As always, the defense against the polarization on race, identity and otherness is to refocus the debate onto issues of governments, politics, actions, and the ideals that define democracy.

In our current information environment, imprecise, reckless communication is easier than ever. The issue of “China” in the 2020 election will likely prove that.