On Thursday evening, September 10, the RCCS inaugurated its plan for global programming this year co-sponsored by Rutgers Global-China Office, making the best of the university demands for virtual meetings and social distancing. Professor GUAN Kai, Dean at Yunnan University, spoke on “Will COVID-19 Reconfigure Social Institutions? A View from China”.

Dr. Guan has degrees in French Literature (Peking University), Sociology (Peking University), Political Science (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) and Anthropology (Minzu University of China). With a career in minority and ethnic studies, he recently moved from Minzu University to take a post as Dean of the School of Ethnology and Sociology at China’s southwest province of Yunnan. He also serves as Editor of the Chinese version of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

On the screen from his home in Kunming, China, Dr. Guan showcased his penchant for wide-ranging philosophical thought by reflecting on how the coronavirus experience calls for humans to rethink their relationship with nature and to reconfigure their social institutions. He raised provocative points about the changing privilege of former social elites, about who stands to benefit from the COVID crisis, and about how we can envision collaboration that transcends disciplines and national borders.

The short lecture was followed by a lively discussion involving attendees from the US and China, and enabled by a splicing together of both zoom and skype, written chat and voice. It was moderated by Louisa Schein (Rutgers Anthropology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies) and hosted by Tao Jiang (RCCS director). Participants zoomed in from Hong Kong, Shanghai, San Francisco, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maryland as well as different departments at Rutgers. A few of Guan’s graduate students also showed up.

Flashpoints emerged among several interlocutors around the issue of whether coronavirus acts as an equalizer, or exacerbates existing inequalities, and about whether it forces institutional change or allows some institutions to further entrench themselves. Posing the question: if the virus represents nature itself how can humans avoid being anti-nature, Dr. Guan spurred a lively interchange with a Rutgers bio materials researcher who questioned whether humans change nature or nature changes humans. Either way, Dr. Guan underscored, there is urgent need around the globe for us to step up and reimagine society.