Coronavirus and the U.S./China clash of civilizations

For all the talk about European values, Italy seems to have embraced large parts of the Chinese response to the coronavirus. Movement in the country is now severely restricted, after measures exceeding anything ever tried in a European country since Word War II. Travel is allowed only for “urgent, verifiable work situations and emergencies or health reasons.” To encourage people to stay in, bars and restaurants are allowed to open only during daytime, and only if it is possible to keep a distance of at least a meter between customers. All museums and cultural venues are closed, as well as nightclubs, cinemas, theaters, and casinos, which have been shut since the weekend.

In the way they place social stability above everything else, China and Italy are discovering, perhaps to their surprise, a shared cultural substratum. The United States seems to be moving in a different direction. President Trump is taking the enormous gamble of assuming that Americans are different in that they can deal with higher levels of risk. His plan is to manage the outbreak rather than stop it. To be reconciled with society as a field of danger and contradictions and to abandon all plans to improve it might reveal a deeply conservative, even an atavistic, disposition, but perhaps Americans no longer think of society as a home. In that classic American genre, the western, the town does not provide a home for the cowboy — it is not the safe and conveniently anonymous field of experience a European city promises the romantic flaneur — but is rather a hostile place, full of conflict and danger.

For the time being, China seems to be ahead in the geopolitical game. After some initial moments of hesitation, the Chinese state has shown that it can react on a gigantic scale and obtain high levels of allegiance from its citizens. All 14 shelter hospitals in Wuhan have been closed as the number of infections in the city continues to drop. But is the game over? To say that would be to make the same mistake of those commentators who argued two months ago that the Chinese Communist Party could not survive the coronavirus.

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