When there are people, but no policies: International interaction during COVID-19 政策不足、人口有余:新型冠状病毒时代的国际互动

By Hope Parker


NANJING, China — When political scientists recommend intergovernmental cooperation, rather than competition, they frequently turn to low-level relationship building. International travel and educational exchanges are touted as means of developing mutual understanding, to encourage governments to cooperate. It seems people have listened. In early April of 2020, the New York Times reported that nearly 40,000 Americans had traveled from China to the U.S. since January. Although those travelers may have done their part by learning about China, the Chinese and American governments are behind the times. China is increasingly connected to the rest of the world, but the government was not prepared for how those connections would translate into a viral spread. In a similar vein, the U.S. government was not prepared for how more individual-level relationships with China could affect its domestic populace.

中国南京 — 当政治学家们建议国际政府进行合作而非竞争时,他们经常推出低级关系发展。国际旅游与留学项目被当成增进相互理解的办法,在长期会有助于政府间合作。似乎人们都听懂了。2020年4月初,据《纽约时报》报道,自1月份以来,近四万美国人从中国回到美国。虽然那些旅游者可能现在更深地了解中国,但中国与美国政府已经落伍了。中国跟全世界的联系越来越强,但是其政府并没有对这些联系将会如何促成一个病毒的传播而做好准备。同样,美国政府也没有准备好如何应对与中国更个人层面的关系将对国内人口产生的影响。

SARS-COV-2 first appeared in Wuhan, on December 8th, 2019 and cases continued to grow in number over the course of the month. Municipal authorities’ first move came on December 30th, when they detained and silenced a doctor for “spreading rumors” about the new pneumonia cases. The following day, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, China alerted the World Health Organization to a “cluster of pneumonia cases” in Wuhan. However, as the number of cases grew, instead of working with the international tools available, the Chinese government turned inwards. Despite offers in January from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to send teams to Wuhan to observe and help with the crisis, China delayed international officials’ access to the epicenter of the outbreak. Not only would access benefit healthcare workers and sick patients in Wuhan, it could provide more understanding of the virus and lay the foundation for better global management as the virus spread globally.


Flags marking China’s increasing international ties in the China (Jiangsu) Pilot Free Trade Zone Suzhou Area on January 31st, early in China’s lockdown.
Photo Credit: Hope Parker

The Chinese government may have locked Wuhan down on January 23rd, but by that time, many locals had already embarked on travels outside the city. This year Chinese New Year celebrations began on January 24th, meaning Chunyun (春运), or the Spring Festival Travel rush, often referred to as the largest human migration in the world, had already begun. The virus was already set to travel outside of Wuhan; from other cities, it could easily travel internationally. Questions about China’s experience with the virus continue to emerge as other countries’ death tolls far surpass what China reported.


China’s choice to contain information about the virus is hardly new. Such a decision is just one of a series of policies meant to contain information for the sake of political stability. Negative information can damage the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power and lower levels of government know that. It was not just that the Chinese Central Government chose not to share information, Wuhan’s municipal government also restricted the flow of information because it could hurt them in the eyes of the Central Government. This choice of keeping information from others in order to maintain stability displays how the country is unprepared to interact with the rest of the world. COVID-19 has shown that in the global age, it does not matter if knowledge is restricted, events impact people in other countries and they will learn the relevant information eventually. Political stability goals may be domestically oriented, but in this case they were carried out at the expense of global public health and economies. If China wanted to show international leadership in a crisis, it would have allowed international experts into Wuhan for the sake of protecting their own communities and the international community.


From the American side, there is also room for improvement. The U.S. government’s early response to the spread of the novel coronavirus was to keep foreign nationals who had been in China in the previous 14 days out of America. This policy overlooks all of the people travelling back to the United States who are American citizens or permanent residents. Just looking at American study-abroad students, the number studying in China has increased fivefold between the 1998-1999 and 2017-2018 academic years. American policies were ineffective as they failed to address those who had traveled to COVID-19 hotspots and could be vectors of the disease within the U.S. population. 


Although numbers have dropped since the peak in 2012, five times more students attended institutions in China in 2017 than in 1998. 
Data courtesy of Institute of International Education

On January 28th, the U.S. Department of State issued a Level 3 travel warning for China, advising citizens to reconsider traveling to China, and on January 31st the warning increased to a Level 4, instructing citizens not to travel to China at all. Many Americans in China quickly made arrangements to travel home during the following days. After the quick progression in warnings from the State Department, they were surprised by a lack of precautions in U.S. airports. Although the Department of Homeland Security announced travelers were being screened upon arrival in the U.S., travelers themselves have reported lax measures. When I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport — one of the airports that was supposed to have early screening tools — from Shanghai, China on February 1st, virus screening consisted of a temperature monitor that multiple people could walk through at once and it had little oversight.

2020年1月28日,美国国务院发布了针对中国的三级旅游警告,建议美国公民重新考虑去中国旅行,而在1月31日,该警告提高到四级,指示美国公民不要去中国旅行。许多住在中国的美国人在之后的几天内纷纷计划回国。在国务院警告的快速进展之后,他们对美国机场防范措施的匮乏感到惊讶。虽然国土安全部宣布旅行者到美国的时候会进行体验,但旅行者们自己报告说检查措施松懈。我在2月1日从上海飞到旧金山国际机场 — 一家本应有早期检查工具的机场 — 病毒检查却只包括一个温度检测器,多人可以同时通过,几乎没有监督。

In theory, strict screening measures were supposed to have been implemented on February 2nd, but travelers continued to report limited screening procedures. Some, but not all, returning travelers were advised to self-quarantine for 14 days. These lax restrictions were not limited to travelers returning from China. As the virus spread and formed new hotspots, travelers from Europe also reported little screening upon their return home. The U.S. is not just ill-prepared for increased interactions with China, citizens’ increased travel around the world requires more attention. 


From trade to global governance, much of the China studies world is focused on China’s current moment of transition. Public health is yet another angle of how China interacts with the rest of the world. Today the country is clearly a more internationally interconnected nation, meaning its behavior has a greater impact on other countries. Experts propose individual-level contacts as a method to improve foreign relations. Students and travelers have responded and despite already high study-abroad rates, the number of Chinese study-abroad students in America has continued to rise, as have tourists — though how these numbers change during- and post-pandemic remains to be seen. Likewise, Americans are traveling and studying in China at much higher rates than in the two decades prior.

国际贸易全球治理,中国研究的很大部分都专注于中国当下的转型时期。公共卫生是中国与世界互动的另一个角度:显而易见,中国是一个与世界联系更紧密的国家,也就意味着中国的行为对其他国家会产生更大的影响。专家提出个体层面联系来促进对外关系。学生与旅客对此作出反应:除了已经很高的海外留学率,在美国的中国留学人口持续升高,旅客也是一样 — 不过大流行病时期与大流行病之后,这些数据的变化不清楚。相似的,在中国旅游与留学的美国人比两十年前更多。

But governance policies have not kept pace. On China’s side, officials need to share information internationally more openly and expeditiously. The information will emerge eventually, but by sharing knowledge efficiently they can reduce potential harm. In the U.S., officials should recognize that all of the scholarship programs the government has expanded to encourage students to go overseas have worked, but the government needs to be prepared for when those students return. The U.S. needs to be ready for what returning study-abroad students bring back to American society, whether it is in the form of education and increased cultural understanding or harmful pathogens.


Hope Parker is reporting from Penngrove, California.


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