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In China, where the first outbreaks of COVID appeared and the first controls were implemented, the public has consistently demonstrated a high level of compliance with some of the most restrictive infection control measures in the world. As a result, as of early 2022 China has achieved remarkable and lasting control of a virus that had devastating effects in most other parts of the world. In this presentation we take seriously the complexities of a simple question: why have most Chinese citizens so readily chosen to comply with the state’s strict COVID-19 control measures? Based on 14 months of ethnographic research in Shanghai, China between June 2020 and August 2021, we argue that high levels of compliance with COVID-19 control measures in China were achieved through a combination of enlightened self-interest, nationalistic pride, and clear-eyed trust in governmental competence. This trust emerges from reasoned risk-benefit analysis, along with what we call a “rational indifference to transparency” in government disease reporting.
Katherine A. Mason is a medical anthropologist at Brown University. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in China and the U.S. Her research addresses issues in medical anthropology, population health, bioethics, China studies, reproductive health, mental health, and global health. Her first book, Infectious Change: Reinventing Chinese Public Health after an Epidemic, based on fieldwork she conducted in southeastern China on the transformation of public health in China following the 2003 SARS epidemic, was published by Stanford University Press in 2016. Infectious Change won the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness Book Prize from the British Sociological Association in 2019. Her scholarly work has appeared in American Ethnologist, American Anthropologist, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, The China Journal, International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, and the Journal of Infectious Diseases, among many other venues. Since January 2020 she has provided expert commentary on the Covid-19 pandemic to news outlets around the world, including The Atlantic, The Telegraph, The Observer, South China Morning Post, and Popular Science.
Yifeng Troy Cai is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Brown University. He has a master’s degree in public health from Brown. His major research interests include exchange theory, intimacy, queer theory, digital anthropology, medical anthropology, and urban sociality. Currently, he is writing up his dissertation based on three years of fieldwork in Shanghai, China, on urban gay men’s experiences of intimacy, kinship, and competition in an increasingly digitalized China. He is simultaneously conducting a project on social change under the impact of COVID-19 in China. Prior to Brown, he received training from University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, and Renmin University of China. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, Luce Foundation, among others.