Locked-down cities, flying machines, and growing weeds: A note from China’s Epicentre

Published 18 March 2020 / By Ou Ning

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Boris Johnson declared a "war against coronavirus" on the 17 March while I was reading Ou Ning’s piece (below) from China. The war metaphor is of course not new. Emmanuel Macron pronounced that France was at war the day before. Xi Jinping extolled China’s campaign as a “People’s War”; and China’s "grid reaction" indeed resembled a total war. It is clear who the enemy are. But where are they? Are they in the fields, in the streets, in the hills? They are inside our bodies. We soldiers are also the shelter of the enemy. Coronavirus relies on human mobility to survive which is why we have to slow down and even stop. If this is a war, our military target is ourselves, and our primary tactic is the regulation of our mobilities. In this sense the Chinese Taiji (Tai Chi) boxing may be a more accurate metaphor than war. Not only because we need to regulate our bodily movements, but more importantly we must discern the movement of the virus, and then move against as well as along with the virus. As Ou Ning reminds us here, virus, plants, animals, and now drones as a new part of our environment, are always moving with and against our movements. If we think of these relations as war-like, then we have to destroy the enemy. Can we? Should we? If we envision ourselves playing Taiji in the multispecies universe, as Ou Ning alludes to, we will probably move more wisely and play the game longer. Instead of looking forward to the end-of-war celebration and business as usual, we perhaps can use this opportunity to explore how social life, including our relations to both drones and nature, can be organized differently for years to come.

- Biao Xiang

I was on a research trip in Nairobi when Wuhan was locked down on 23 January. By the time I returned home to Jingzhou, about 200 kilometers from Wuhan, the whole Hubei province was locked down, affecting a total of about 57 million people. All my international trips were, of course, cancelled.

In that first week, we could go out to nearby supermarkets to buy food, but soon we were not allowed to step out of our homes at all. The building kept one entrance open only as the single checkpoint. People entering and leaving were required to wear masks and receive temperature tests. Food supply was organized by the neighborhood committee. Every three or four days, we ordered food online from the WeChat group set up by the neighborhood committee, and then went to pick up the food at the checkpoint.

For a while it was as if that we were living in an ideal world envisioned by ancient Chinese thinkers. Immobility is a common ideal in traditional Chinese social thinking. Lao Tzu (6th century BC) suggested “an ideal nation is small and with few people … they have no need to move to faraway places”.[1] This is what good governance was for him. Mencius (372–289 BC) recommended: “… people should not be permitted to go beyond their home village. If those befriend one another, look out for one another, and support one another in illness, the people will live in close comradeship.”[2]

But we clearly do not live in this idyllic world. Coronavirus creates a spectacle of Post-Anthropocene that until now was only seen in futuristic Sci-Fi movies. Some people keep moving fast: the police wearing facial recognition helmets are moving on the streets to search for people with high fevers. Drones are hovering over the cities to catch the people who do not wear masks and urge them for self-quarantine, the voice from the speakers on the drones sounds like Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984. On the toll roads in some not-yet lock-downed areas, the toll bar code is printed on a big piece of paper which is carried by a drone, flying to every car, to allow the drivers to scan the code and make payment with their mobile phones. It is not even necessary to roll the car windows roll down.

New connections are also formed. Normally in a car collision, the drivers often have a prolonged argument and even fist-fights on the spot, which attract a large number of spectators; but during the epidemic the drivers took photos of the damages on the car, added each other to their WeChat accounts, rushed back to their cars, and then argued with each other on their smart phones. Rumours and propaganda campaigns outbreak simultaneously like a “infodemic” on social media. Censorship machines equipped with AI have replaced human agents in monitoring posts on social media to cope with the 'catch-me-if-you-can' game kicked off by people in quarantine.

Despite these fears we  are not handing over the world to intelligent robots who are ruling the world with their mobility. A Wuhan resident found weeds have grown in her parked car lot while she was in quarantine. Spring is coming, and nature has clamped the vehicle, invented for human mobility.

By reducing human activities, coronavirus has broken down the spatial restriction of plants and animals, liberated the aggressiveness of weeds in Wuhan, and made places on the empty streets for the deer in Nara, Japan and the monkeys in Lopburi, Thailand. Animals have invaded urban centres in search of food as tourist numbers have plummeted. Tourism of course is the industry most reliant on mobility while mobility itself is an indicator of global economic growth. While the economy comes to a standstill, Wuhan’s sky is blue and the air is clean. An image from NASA’s Earth Observatory pollution satellites shows “significant decreases” in air pollution over the city since the coronavirus outbreak began. All of the signs are showing a fact: nature is reclaiming cities, taking the territory back.

Chuang Tzu (ca, 360 BC) imagined that “in the age of perfect virtue, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family.”[3]. In the competition between human and nature, coronavirus has immobilized people even though its survival relies on the mobility of its human host. The immobility of huge populations is a cost that we pay for the race against coronavirus. We absolutely need more time in order to find out the result of the human-nature race and to understand the lock-down's impacts on us.

About the author: Ou Ning is a multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker, and is currently a Research Fellow at the Center for Arts, Design and Social Research in Boston, US.


[1] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter Eighty

[2] Mencius, Mencius, “Duke Wen of Teng”

[3] Chuang Tzu, Nan Hua Jing, “Ma Ti”