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Mobility, Responsibility, and the Covid-19 Pandemic in China (Juan ZHANG, University of Bristol, UK)
Tuesday, April 20, 2021, 04:00pm
Contact Louisa Schein (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

The video recording of this talk can be found on our videos page.

This is co-sponsored by Rutgers Global-China Office. This is a guest lecture in Louisa Schein's "Anthropology of China" class. It is open to the public, but registration is required. Click here to register.

Juan Zhang


Since early 2020, when the world was unexpectedly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, the fear of uncontrolled contagion and severe disruptions of everyday social life have led to the normalisation of immobility across borders. One year on, when transnational mobility continues to be closely associated with contagious diseases and fatal infection, a stigmatising discourse around transnational movement is quickly developing and has profoundly changed the social and political meanings of being mobile. Transnational migrants have now been seen as human carriers of a deadly virus, spreading it across borders and putting “healthy” populations and economies at risk. When the pandemic was more or less under control in China in the late spring of 2020, a new danger emerged from outside its national borders when returned Chinese migrants brought the virus back in from new epicentres in Europe and north America, where infections were seen as spreading out of control. Migrant returnees, most of whom students, professionals, and their family members, had been reported of fleeing the Global North en masse during the first wave in search of safety and protection afforded by China with its successful pandemic response. Despite a nation-wide track, trace and isolate programme across Chinese immigration check points, and the tremendous efforts of putting in place separate mandatory quarantine procedures (14+14 and 14+7) for migrant returnees, positive coronavirus cases have been reported alongside incidents of migrant non-compliance of quarantine rules. International students have suddenly become the culprits of bringing danger home as a public sentiment emerging in Chinese social media that condemns their mobility and freedom. International students and other migrant returnees are criticized heavily for being “ the least involved in building up the motherland” and “the most adept at bringing home the virus” (建设祖国你不在,千里送毒你最行), a popular phrase in wide circulation in popular Chinese discourse. Qianli songdu – spreading the virus for a thousand miles – captures vividly the stigmatisation of transnational mobility in a pandemic situation spinning out of control, fortifying and legitimising new biopolitical borders on the basis of public health and civic responsibility. “Du” in its most literal translation signals meanings beyond the virus; it means poison, toxin, and the fatal consequences if a healthy body is in contact or gets infected. Human carriers of such toxicity are seen as deadly agents whose movements bring only danger and harm, and migrants’ return has been tainted by a growing shame of sabotaging China’s public health success. Based on 10-month of virtual fieldwork and interviews with Chinese migrants who travelled between China and the UK during the successive waves of the pandemic, this talk looks into how digitally enhanced surveillance tracks and exposes such ‘toxic mobility’ and legitimises the immorality of return, and shows a paradigm of responsibility interwoven with the rise of Chinese health nationalism.


Juan ZHANG is Lecturer of Social Anthropology at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Bristol. Her research interests include transnational mobilities, borders, labour migration, and casinos in Asia. She has published in journals including Environment & Planning D, Environment & Planning AGender Place & CulturePacific Affairs, and Mobilities among others. She co-edited a book The Art of Neighbouring: Making Relations Across China's Borders with Amsterdam University Press, 2017.


Location Zoom (registration required)