The writer is an FT contributing columnist
Is there a setting on my iPhone to block incoming videos of crowds celebrating lunar new year in China, thronging temples and malls, city parks and food stalls, masked but otherwise unburdened by the coronavirus pandemic?
One such video arrived from a friend just as I was rolling through the desolate streets of Chicago’s Chinatown to collect the tower of styrofoam no-contact takeaway boxes that would have to suffice for our traditional lunar new year’s eve dinner.
We celebrate the holiday because my children are Chinese and we lived for years in Shanghai. But now we live near Chicago, a city of 2.7m, which is approaching its 5,000th Covid-19 death — more than died in all of China, a country of 1.4bn. (I know, China’s numbers are unreliable, but not by that magnitude.) Chicago recently reopened indoor dining, but the statistics made us feel we couldn’t trust our local leaders to know when it’s safe to dine with strangers. So we resigned ourselves to takeaway dim sum that was cold before we got home.
Lunar new year fell on another anniversary too: the end of my 11th month in quarantine — and the seventh haircut from my shears-wielding children. I am high risk for Covid-19 and have not been to the hairdresser in a year. They’re getting bored with being barbers, so it was a buzz cut. We are all fed up with lockdown, and watching Chinese friends crowding around barbecues or bubble tea vendors does nothing to improve our mood.
Are there lessons from this tale of two Chinese new years, beyond the fact that I should learn to make dumplings myself so they’ll be hot when I eat them? If Chicago lost more people to Covid-19 than China, it’s hardly a great advertisement for democracy, states’ rights, western individualism and the American way of life. Is a system that can’t keep nearly 500,000 Americans from dying unnecessarily even worth its weight in virus particles?
This isn’t a theoretical question: it could affect issues such as whether the flow of Chinese students, which bolsters US university finances, will decline because of America’s uncontrolled pandemic, political dysfunction, anti-immigrant policies and anti-Asian racism.
“We aren’t seeing any of this affect the interest of Chinese undergraduates or graduate students to come” to the US, says Allan Goodman, president and chief executive of the US-based Institute of International Education. The number of Chinese students in the US more than doubled over a decade to 372,532 in 2019/20; final figures aren’t yet available for the current academic year.
Geet Vanaik, head of Northwestern University’s international student office, says the US response to the pandemic has been “horrible”, but adds: “I don’t think it’s preventing Chinese students from wanting to come. The big issue is will they be able to?” Mainland scholars have faced visa and travel issues that have left many stuck in the US, or stuck in China and forced to study online.
Hannah Jiang, a Northwestern freshman in the city of Suzhou, is one: she’s been doing online classes, sometimes in the middle of the night due to the US-China time difference. The situation in the US “does worry me”, she says, “but it won’t change my plan because it’s been my plan since middle school”.
“JC” prepares Chinese children to attend high school in the US. She says there has been a “drop in demand” and some kids may take a gap year while families wait for the pandemic to ease in the US. But their long-term plans are unchanged. “Some are even sending their high school-aged kids to a third country to quarantine for two weeks before coming to the US,” she says. “They still have confidence, and I think they will still have confidence, unless the pandemic lasts forever or perhaps a Chinese child dies of Covid-19 in the US.”
For my part, I’m trying to cultivate the confidence that next year’s dim sum will be hot off the trolley at my favourite Chinatown food emporium, and not cold from the kerbside. That gives America nearly a year to clean up its act. I hope my homeland is up to it.