The deadly danger of globalization: On the political iconography of the corona virus
Guest contribution by Teng Yuning, Peking University/Universität Hamburg
The corona virus continues to claim victims across the world, it impairs social, cultural, scientific and economic relationships and casts a long shadow over the possibilities and dangers of globalization, which – from an art historical and cultural studies point of view – has also been a longstanding focal point for the research project »Bilderfahrzeuge – Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology«. When Aby Warburg, faced with challenges on an even greater scale during the First World War, saw himself compelled to research and analyze the propaganda of the warring countries with the instruments of his own methods, he focused primarily on the visual production of the media of his time. And today, too, it is pictures that can give us information on how current news coverage is used for political purposes: from visual polemics to an aestheticization of the crisis. The following guest comment by Teng Yuning, Deputy Director of the Centre for Visual Studies at Peking University and PhD student at the Art History Seminar at the University of Hamburg, describes the reactions within China to German reporting of the unfolding crisis. Iconic set pieces of political iconography – here: the colors and the composition of the Chinese flag – become tantamount to vehicles for a political and cultural-historical debate, the exploration of which from a global perspective is at the core of the research undertaken by our project.
On the 23rd of January this year, China announced the implementation of a lockdown strategy in Wuhan, a city with a population of 11 million people and the center of the corona virus outbreak. Very quickly, public life in the country came to a near standstill and panic began to spread throughout the population. It was hard to believe that quarantine measures on such an enormous scale could be possible in the modern world.
A few days later, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel featured a photograph on its cover showing a Chinese man wearing a red raincoat as a protective suit, a large and striking gas mask, goggles, earphones and holding a red Apple iPhone (the identical photograph was also used on the cover of Focus, 1 February 2020) (ill. 1). The headline “Made in China” is highlighted by a large-sized font in yellow letters. Placed directly above this, in a smaller font, appears the word “Corona-Virus,” although this wasn’t mentioned as a part of the title when Der Spiegel put the headline on their Twitter account. The subtitle states “Wenn die Globalisierung zur tödlichen Gefahr wird.” (When globalization becomes a deadly danger).
The cover as an individual image was quickly disseminated throughout much of Chinese online social media and provoked an outcry of public indignation. Obviously most people in China had no idea of the content of the German article beyond the cover illustration, because if they had read it, they would have found that its aim was a critique of globalization in general, not China as a nation in particular. However, an overwhelming majority interpreted the image as an alarming sign of racial discrimination and xenophobia. Very quickly, matters became more serious and escalated into a diplomatic incident, with China’s Berlin Embassy harshly reproaching Der Spiegel for causing panic and unfairly focusing blame for the epidemic on China.
Just a few days earlier, a similar case of diplomatic controversy aroused by an image had broken out between China and Denmark. It was a caricature published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (27 January 2020), which showed the Chinese national flag with yellow virus particles in the place of the five symbolic stars (ill. 2). Faced with criticism from China’s Embassy, Jyllands-Posten refused to issue an apology and, moreover, the editor-in-chief Jacob Nybroe attributed the ensuing political dispute to “two different cultural views” suggesting that China was incapable of understanding the strong tradition of freedom of expression and caricature in Denmark. Similar to the Danish caricature, the cover of Der Spiegel also used a red-yellow color symbolism to make a visual allusion to the Chinese flag: the red of the man’s raincoat formed the background color, the air filters on his gas mask and the color of the words “Made in China” are printed in yellow.
Perhaps European media, in this instance represented by Jyllands-Posten and Der Spiegel,are simply not attuned to the depth of emotion felt by the Chinese people toward their national flag, which relates to the memory of the bloodshed before the founding of the New China: “The flag was reddened by the revolutionary predecessors’ blood” is what Chinese pupils are always taught. The national flag is thus regarded not only as a state ensign, but also as a symbol of survival and overcoming of war and death by the Chinese people. This may go some way to explaining why the Chinese felt deeply offended and hurt by the satirical allusion to their flag, especially considering their desperate position, standing in the front line facing the threats of the novel virus.
By comparison to the Danish caricature, the image on the cover of Der Spiegel, taken as an ‘image vehicle’ in Aby Warburg’s sense, effected a more complex public sentiment in China, specifically against Germany. On WeChat, one of the most influential social media platforms in China, an independently operated account run by a user under the pseudonym “Zhongsheng Jiang” (重生酱), posted a commentary with the title “Der Spiegel: the living corpse of Neo-Nazism, the demon-revealing mirror of art history”. The article linked the figure from the cover image wearing a gas mask to two works by Otto Dix: one being the 1924 etching “Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor” (“Shock Troops Advance under Gas”) and the other the 1932 painting “Der Krieg” (“The War”, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden) (ills. 3-4). The author proposed that Der Spiegel transferred the figure with the gas mask from the scene of World War I gas war into a common man in Wuhan, tampering with the anti-war theme of the original works and reinterpreting the image in terms of racism, even incitement to neo-Nazism.
In fact, the analysis provided in this article has some obvious defects in its logic: key among them is the forceful imposition of nationalist feelings on the interpretation of the cover illustration, leading to an over-simplified conclusion by the juxtaposition of apparently similar figures. However, when this article was shared in various online chat groups and platforms populated by scholars and students with an art historical background, few dissenting voices arose to express disagreement. Most of the time, people simply read and forwarded it silently, sometimes leaving a crying, sad or angry emoji: silence is a typical sequela of disaster. For anyone who lives in the eye of the epidemic and information storm, it is difficult to maintain rational thought under tremendous pressure, and at this moment, images can easily trigger repugnance and impulsion. Even if Dix’s work is less well known in China than elsewhere, even if the aforementioned article is not particularly convincing, the masked figure and aggressive slogan on the magazine cover alone sufficed to make Chinese people believe there was a negative, even hostile feeling towards them in Germany. Further developments along the chain reaction following the dissemination of the image in China also exposed a deeply ingrained bias towards Germany, considered a hotbed of racialism and Nazism.
A concern shared by many in China is that the impact of the corona virus to our generation is tantamount to a growing fear about a possible third World War. While the pandemic itself will eventually pass, its negative influence in many respects will certainly last for quite a while. Perhaps most significantly, and as the article in Der Spiegel originally sought to point out, our beautiful illusion of globalization has been shattered. For some considerable time, the great development of international exchange and internet communication has made too much too readily available, has made us used to grabbing information and knowledge from rapidly-transferred images, and moreover, made us tend to believe in the subjective comprehension of images. But just like the cases mentioned here, the conflicts caused by images force us to face the big gap of incomprehension, misunderstanding and bias amongst cultures which we have ignored for much too long. During the crisis, disappointment in the failure of humanity appeared quite often, but it cannot be blamed solely on the pandemic. It is not the virus which makes civilization retrogress, but rather it is only through the catastrophe that the truth of the fragility of human civilization, not yet as advanced as we may have liked to imagine, is revealed. It might be a positive result that after the crisis we should understand this reality more clearly, try to reaffirm our efforts towards a greater humanity, and avoid letting antipathy and prejudice among cultures become a terrible “post-traumatic stress disorder”.