THE CHINESE LANGUAGE is rich in concise, sardonic sayings, many of which reflect universal truths. It also includes lots of phrases steeped in a world view that is distinct to China. One such is yi buguo erdai, meaning “no doctor’s child becomes a doctor”. This may be accompanied by a cynical shrug, perhaps after reading about the latest Chinese hospital boss arrested for bribe-taking or a fresh scandal involving fake medicines. The saying is also used on hearing news outlets describe another stabbing or assault of a doctor at work—for fully two-thirds of doctors told the Chinese Medical Doctor Association in 2017 that they had been attacked or threatened in a hospital, often by their patients’ angry relatives. Small wonder that in one survey after another, few want their children to be doctors.
Elsewhere, doctoring is such a family business that journals of medical ethics devote papers to the subject. One such study found that one in five American medical students has a parent who is a physician. In China the profession is neither very prestigious nor especially well paid: even senior doctors typically earn just over 100,000 yuan ($14,500) a year—hardly a fortune in a big city.
Then came covid-19. Communist Party leaders have declared their handling of the virus a triumph, and are willing to give doctors and nurses a share of the credit. Much of China feels normal now, even celebratory. Case numbers are so low that authorities are easing strict lockdowns and border closures imposed months ago, though they are in no hurry to dismantle digital tracing systems that oblige urbanites to scan QR codes with a smartphone when entering a public building or taking a train or aeroplane.
Early cover-ups, which saw officials in the city of Wuhan conceal the severity of the outbreak for weeks, punishing doctors who sounded the alarm, have no place in official narratives. Medals and honours have, however, been bestowed upon selected, stateapproved doctors and scientists who prodded the central authorities to act. A new art exhibition at the National Museum in Beijing, devoted to covid-fighting medics, opens with a giant portrait of Zhong Nanshan, a celebrated 83-year-old lung doctor who used his seniority to reveal in late January, on national television, that covid-19 was spreading between people. The doctor, depicted against a stormy sky, his eyes brimming with tears, is captioned: “Communist Party member, Zhong Nanshan”. Another artwork depicts young doctors from an elite Beijing hospital taking a break from volunteer service in Wuhan to express their patriotic fervour in a letter to the party chief, Xi Jinping. The show is reserved for Chinese nationals, so Chaguan has seen only photographs of his favourite work, a Tibetan scroll-painting, or tangka, showing three figures in traditional robes prodding leering, cartoon-like coronavirus spheres into a fiery pit, watched by a yak in a face-mask.
Propaganda about heroes in white…