Book Review: Social Contagion, By Chuang (Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co, 2021)
Review By Carob Chip
Social Contagion is a new book focusing on the COVID pandemic in China, written by a collective of anti-state Chinese communists. Their blogs and journals have highlighted struggles of workers across China against the government and factory bosses.
The book is named after its main essay, “Social Contagion,” which went viral online before getting revised and published here. In it, Chuang trace how the development of capitalism in China (and elsewhere) has created the conditions for a pandemic like COVID by exploiting labor and land.
In addition to their essays, there’s a casual interview with their friends in Wuhan about the lockdown, and a helpful English translation of a blog post from a mainland left group.
Social Contagion makes several provocative arguments which can richly inform our thinking and action. Based on their interviews and first-hand accounts, Chuangargue that the COVID virus was not contained in China primarily through authoritarian state measures, but mostly through largely voluntary mass mobilization of people to achieve the state’s goal of suppressing it. While Chinese media claims this globally as a triumph of state machinery, Chuang paint a different picture where the state’s power is far more distributed – reliant on village/building committees and private security guards with few ties to the Communist Party.
In the West, we are flooded with narratives of China as a draconian, all-knowing state, sometimes inflected with anti-Asian xenophobia. There’s also an emerging tankie boosterism which views China as the torchbearer of international socialism. (Twitter main characters Qiao Collective are the most prominent promoters of the latter line.) What all these perspectives lack is an analysis of China’s state-building from the perspective of the workers on whose backs it is built.
According to Chuang, “the Chinese Communist Party functions as a vanguard for the global capitalist class.” As the class war against workers and the rural poor intensifies, and the bill for decades of environmental plunder comes due, the Chinese government is building new tools to stay in power. Social Contagion expands our knowledge of what these tools might be and what (admittedly meager) flickers of resistance are happening in mainland China. Workers everywhere must build upon this hope to abolish global capitalism once and for all, before a pandemic abolishes us!