COVID-19 Quarantine Day 3: Unpredictability

March 17, 2020 (China Standard Time)
Chaoyang District, Beijing

It was my birthday yesterday, but jet lag hit me hard. I didn’t get to write a post. The photo above is my birthday-in-quarantine dinner.

Yesterday, Beijing began to mandate 14-day hotel quarantine for all arriving passengers, with a few exemptions. I had arrived two days earlier before this policy went into effect. And today, Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would ban non-citizens from entering the border; had I left Boston a few days late, I probably wouldn’t have been able to fly through Toronto.

The truth is, everything has become unpredictable. More friends came back to Beijing yesterday and had to spend their next two weeks at a designated hotel, after 20 hours of flight travel.

Imagine being on plane a where everyone is in full protective gear, and nobody is telling you what to expect next after landing. As my friend said, it’s a post-apocalyptic (or perhaps pre-apocalyptic?) scene. Stress, anxiety, disappointment—the unpredictability and unknowing are a challenge our mental health, especially knowing that you, and travelers around you, may have the virus.

But know that in a time like this, there are very few things we can control. If there’s something that you don’t have control over, just let go of it.

I also wrote a thread about whether you should travel home to China, if that’s where you live, during this epidemic:

Back in the U.S., federal and state governments are finally taking more actions to discourage social gatherings. The situation will get much worse before it gets better.

My friend Larry Salibra from Hong Kong started a movement called #WearAFuckingMask. From Larry:  

Fucking surgical masks keep you from spraying droplets on other people when you talk, cough or sneeze. These droplets might contain Fucking viruses which will Fucking infect other people. Fucking masks protect other people as much or even more than they Fucking protect you. . . . I want to put an end to the Fucking stereotype that only people in Asia can wear masks in public. We all can get Fucking infected by SARS-CoV-2 and we all can Fucking infect others. Let‘s all #WearAFuckingMask.

Don’t touch your face. Practice social distancing. Wear a fucking mask.


COVID-19 Quarantine Day 1: Friday the Thirteenth

March 15, 2020 (China Standard Time)
Chaoyang District, Beijing

On Tuesday night, I booked a one-way flight from Toronto to Beijing for Friday. Hainan Airlines 7976, in economy class, for $566.10.

It’s only been a month since I shipped face masks that I had ordered from Amazon—which were, in fact, made in Hubei province—to Beijing, where my family had been since December.

That morning, Harvard was the first college to decide to move all classes online and evict students from dormitories with a five-day notice. As I was staying in Cambridge, I took a walk to Central and then Harvard Yard at noon, only to find students moving their belongings and bidding farewell to their friends. Massachusetts had yet reached 100 cases, but Governor Charlie Baker was already declaring state of emergency. (For those unfamiliar with U.S. politics, the state of emergency is a paper tiger—it’s mostly a measure to access federal funding and other forms of support.)

Flying back to Beijing was, at first, only a backup plan, in case my classes also get canceled because of COVID-19. Tickets were, in fact, already running out—as only a handful of airlines (mostly Chinese) were still running North America–China routes, and stopovers in Japan and South Korea would only bring me more hassles.

I had been on spring break. I wrote to an administrator at my school on Tuesday to see if there was any policy. The response wasn’t particularly helpful:

Hello, Tianyu.

Thanks for being in touch.

We are continuing to monitor the situation and will communicate any changes in policy and plan ASAP. I do think we will provide more info prior to Friday. 

But it soon became clear to me that—given the exponential growth of cases, the foolishness and incapability of the Trump administration, poor testing capacities, along with the underpreparedness of the U.S. public—there was almost no chance that classes would ever resume for the rest of the semester.

On Wednesday morning, before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I wrote to my school:

In fact, I have decided to return to Beijing on Friday regardless. This will mean I will not be able to return to the U.S. in at least a month, due to quarantine policies in both countries. The uncertainty of this epidemic—and the certainty that it will become significantly worse—has put me in a position where my family and I feel unsafe . . .

The decision was hard. That I wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. anytime soon was one problem. If school does resume, and I don’t show up to classes because of travel restrictions, I probably won’t be able to graduate. This was my thought process:

  1. There will be a major outbreak in Massachusetts as well as the entire country;
  2. I don’t have a place in Massachusetts where I can self-quarantine for ~5 months;
  3. One has to meet several criteria to even get tested in the U.S.;
  4. It’s much safer in China, because people take COVID-19 seriously and know it isn’t “just like the flu” and won’t go away anytime soon;
  5. If I’m going to traveling internationally, I should do it ASAP, before more travel restrictions are imposed worldwide;
  6. My family members in China are extremely worried. It’s probably better to return to them.

I booked a Thursday flight from Boston to Toronto on Air Canada, using miles because the tickets had surged to ~$500 one-way. More schools delayed classes on Wednesday, if not canceling in-person classes for the rest of the semester. That night, Donald Trump gave another ultranationalist TV address to announce new policies confronting COVID-19. It was not unlike every Trump speech ever: He butchered numerous details, and other people in his administration had to wipe his ass afterwards.

Like many high schools, mine still hadn’t released any policy. I suggested in a Twitter thread that administrators were still trapped in their tunnel vision, and like the rest of the U.S. public, many hadn’t realized the significance of this situation.

The sentiment we’re getting at in the U.S. (and the West in general, perhaps) toward COVID-19 was that—like James Palmer of Foreign Policy has said—China isn’t real. It’s a faraway country that exists only in theory and on maps; that the experiences of Chinese people in Wuhan over the past months are so distant from us, that there isn’t a remote possibility that what’s happened out there could happen to people across the Pacific.

I was leaving anyways. On Thursday morning I packed up my clothes in my new Samsonite carry-on suitcase that I’d bought for my now-canceled Europe trip, dropped off a few keys at a friend’s place, and took off for Toronto. I knew I wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. for a few months; there wouldn’t be graduation, so I would—if I’m able to graduate—probably get my diploma via FedEx.

At passport control, the Canadian border agent—who had an attitude—asked me about my trip:

— I’m staying here in Toronto for a day and I’m flying to Beijing tomorrow.
— Why are you going to China?
— Because I have family there.
— Are you sure?

Having noticed that I had post-it’s on my passport asking officers not to stamp on new pages, the agent was unhappy, telling me it was “the weirdest request” he’d encountered:

— It’s for saving pages so that I’ll be able to use it for longer.
— If all the pages will be used up eventually, why does it matter?

I smiled, picked up my documents, and simply walked away. (By the way, this is actually a rather common practice among frequent travelers. You should try it, too.)

On Friday the Thirteenth, my school finally came up with a plan. Spring break extended, and classes will move online until April, when the crisis management team will re-assess the situation.

I rode the UP Express from Union Station to Toronto Pearson. As I was entering the airport, I put on a face mask while in the elevator.

When I mailed masks to my family in Beijing, I’d saved a few for myself, keeping them in a ziplock bag. Until then, I hadn’t worn one. Social stigma in the U.S. and anti-Asian racism had made me a reluctant mask wearer, despite their effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 during its asymptomatic stage.

I mean, how do you even wear a mask? Is there a specific etiquette? Do you take off your mask when you go through security? If a passer-by asks about it, how do you respond? But at YYZ, everyone at Hainan Airlines’ check-in counter was wearing a face mask—some were in other protective gear.

Wearing a mask at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Photo by Tianyu M. Fang.

We were the only passengers wearing masks in the airport. All of us. It was about safety, but more importantly, it was a sign of solidarity.

I tweeted about the entire process, from boarding to arrival to quarantine, in a thread (also available on Thread Reader:

Twelve hours later, I was back in Beijing, after filling out several forms and waiting on the aircraft for about 50 minutes. The entire arrival process took around 3–4 hours, and eventually we were sent to 新国展, an expo center in Shunyi, where I was sent home after registering with officers from my district.

I am under self-quarantine for the next 14 days, along with everyone in my apartment, until March 28. Until then, I’ll write once in a while, read a few books, and continue to monitor the situation.

Stay safe, wash your hands, and wear masks.

Only In China

Introducing China’s Propaganda App on Sky News

In March, I wrote on SupChina about how China’s tech-savvy citizens used open-source software to cheat in the country’s popular propaganda app, Xuexi Qiangguo.

I talked to Sky News about this ‘little red app.’ And here I was on TV:


Francis Fukuyama and Identity

While I was compiling a list of my favorite books of the year, I realized that I needed a separate blog post to discuss Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Recognition

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama (2018)

My interest in Francis Fukuyama originally came from his debate with Shanghai-based Fudan University professor Zhang Weiwei, a prominent proponent of the Chinese political model. After spending a lot of time reading Fukuyama’s work, his political research—despite all the controversies—seems very enticing to me. Identity came out shortly after I finished Fukuyama’s acclaimed book, The End of History and the Last Man, so I immediately got a copy in early September.

Among three essays published on The American Interest celebrating the 25th anniversary of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, the one by political scientist Francis Fukuyama—titled “Huntington’s Legacy”—is the most noteworthy. Fukuyama, a student of Huntington’s, famously proposed his version of the “end of history” theory in his 1989 essay “The End of History?” published on The National Interest. The year after, Huntington wrote on Foreign Affairs “The Clash of Civilizations?” in response.

Both later became books: The End of History and the Last Man was published in 1992; Clash in 1996. This year, I had the chance to reëxamine both of their arguments through the two texts.

Fukuyama wrote in his August essay regarding their “debate”:

“Since Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations has been contrasted with my own End of History in countless introductory International Relations classes over the past two decades, I might as well begin by tackling at the outset the issue of how we’re doing vis-à-vis one another. At the moment, it looks like Huntington is winning.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

But Fukuyama still believes that only the world of Islam has “identifiable numbers of people who think in such civilizational terms.” He suggests that identity, in lieu of civilization, should be the core of Huntington’s arguments. 

“Identity is a much broader and more flexible concept with which to understand contemporary politics rather than religiously based culture or civilizations. Identity is the modern concept that arises out of the belief that one has a hidden inner self whose dignity is at best being ignored or at worst being disparaged by the surrounding society. Identity politics revolves around demands not for materials goods or resources, but for recognition of the dignity of one’s ethnicity, religion, nation, or even one’s unique characteristics as an individual.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

He transitions into his criticism of identity politics—which he delineates in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.

“In both the United States and Europe, the Left which had been built during the first part of the 20th century around working class solidarity came to embrace these new identity groups, even though this tended to alienate older working class voters.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

Fukuyama blames both the Left and the Right, arguing that alt-right white nationalists have also fit themselves into an identity group that is in opposition to marginalized minority groups on the Left:

“The rise of identity politics on the Left has stimulated and legitimated new assertions of identity on the Right. Donald Trump has received support for being politically incorrect, that is, for not respecting the identity niceties that characterize contemporary American political discourse. In doing so he has greatly abetted the rise of white nationalists and the alt-right, which see themselves as persecuted and marginalized minorities in much the same way as the leftwing identity groups.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

A key point in Fukuyama’s End of History is that mere economic satisfactions do not suffice humans. We see this argument coming back in Identity, in which Fukuyama bases his arguments on the philosophical debates of dignity and recognition. He returns to the concept of thymos, Plato’s third part of human soul.

He uses the word “invisible” to describe Donald Trump’s voter base: The prevalence of identity politics marginalizes a certain group of conservative WASPs—not only are they victims of unemployment and other economic problems, they are also looked down upon by liberals. 

In the last chapter of End of History, Fukuyama contended that while megalothymia (the desire to be recognized higher than others) is inherent to human beings, it can be achieved via channels other than politics—such as business. Guess who was the lucky real estate developer that he had handpicked? 

He argues that, if only driven by economic interests, Trump’s supporters should have supported social liberalism—i.e., the Democratic Party. But mere economic interests do not satisfy them, as human beings naturally desire political recognition. 

Fukuyama has interesting political views. On one hand, he is a liberal—he has publicly supported Barack Obama’s presidency and the Democratic Party; but he sure isn’t a conventional one. While he believes in a strong state—on which he wrote extensively in Political Order and Political Decay—he also favors a strong national identity. He believes that America’s creedal national identity (i.e., a de-ethnicized version of Protestant values), not multiculturalism, should remain America’s shared national identity. He wants immigrants, children of immigrants in particular, to assimilate to American culture through public education.

Fukuyama contended that the American creedal identity actually justifies his pro-immigration stance: 

Compared with Europe, the United States has been far more welcoming of immigrants, in part because it developed a creedal national identity early in its history. As the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out, a U.S. citizen can be accused of being “un-American” in a way that a Danish citizen could not be described as being “un-Danish” or a Japanese citizen could not be charged with being “un-Japanese.” Americanism constitutes a set of beliefs and a way of life, not an ethnicity.

Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics”
“Against Identity Politics” on September/October 2018, Foreign Affairs

In “Against Identity Politics,” an essay he wrote for Foreign Affairs this September, he argued that Europe’s multiculturalism “minimizes the importance of integrating newcomers into creedal national cultures”:

“Today, the American creedal national identity, which emerged in the wake of the Civil War, must be revived and defended against attacks from both the left and the right. On the right, white nationalists would like to replace the creedal national identity with one based on race, ethnicity, and religion. On the left, the champions of identity politics have sought to undermine the legitimacy of the American national story by emphasizing victimization, insinuating in some cases that racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of systematic exclusion are in the country’s DNA. Such flaws have been and continue to be features of American society, and they must be confronted. But progressives should also tell a different version of U.S. history, one focused on how an ever-broadening circle of people have overcome barriers to achieve recognition of their dignity.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics”

In the Ezra Klein Show, Fukuyama calls out Ta-Nehisi Coates. He maintained that Coates’s argument of racial discrimination being in America’s DNA neglects the progressive efforts in American history. 

In a book review published on The New Yorker, Louis Menand perfectly summarizes the view of Fukuyama’s critics:

“Fukuyama acknowledges that identity politics has done some good, and he says that people on the right exaggerate the prevalence of political correctness and the effects of affirmative action. He also thinks that people on the left have become obsessed with cultural and identitarian politics, and have abandoned social policy. But he has surprisingly few policy suggestions himself.

[…] Fukuyama concedes that people need a sense of national identity, whether ethnic or creedal, but otherwise he remains an assimilationist and a universalist. He wants to iron out differences, not protect them. He suggests measures like a mandatory national-service requirement and a more meaningful path to citizenship for immigrants.”

Louis Menand, “Fukuyama Postpones the End of History”

While I do not agree with some of Fukuyama’s standpoints, I do believe that he’s made a remarkable point here: 

The Democratic Party, in particular, has a major choice to make. It can continue to try to win elections by doubling down on the mobilization of the identity groups that today supply its most fervent activists: African Americans, Hispanics, professional women, the LGBT community, and so on. Or the party could try to win back some of the white working-class voters who constituted a critical part of Democratic coalitions from the New Deal through the Great Society but who have defected to the Republican Party in recent elections. The former strategy might allow it to win elections, but it is a poor formula for governing the country. The Republican Party is becoming the party of white people, and the Democratic Party is becoming the party of minorities. Should that process continue much further, identity will have fully displaced economic ideology as the central cleavage of U.S. politics, which would be an unhealthy outcome for American democracy.

Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics”