1 WHO: fighting the common threat collectively made a decisive difference

In February 2020, a team of 25 experts from 9 countries spent 9 days (February 16–24) in China working on a World Health Organization’s project entitled The WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) [the Joint Mission, thereafter].Footnote 1 After a series of intensive field work across the country, including a two-day visit to the country’s hardest-hit city Wuhan (Fig. 1), the Joint Mission team released its 40-page report on February 28, 2020 (The Joint Mission 2020).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Cities the Joint Mission team visited. [Map based on Annex B Summary agenda of the mission in the Joint Mission report (The Joint Mission 2020, pp. 25–26)]

1.1 A rigorously implemented public health approach made a huge difference

The team was most impressed with “the apparent efficacy” of a “bold” yet “science-based, risk informed and phased approach” to containing the COVID-19 virus transmission (The Joint Mission 2020, p. 17, p. 18).Footnote 2 In the Joint Mission report, it writes (Ibid., p. 17; parentheses by the authors of this article):

China’s bold (yet “science-based, risk informed and phased”) approach … has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic. A particularly compelling statistic is that on (February 10) the first day of the advance team’s work there were 2478 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in China. Two weeks later, on the final day of this Mission (February 24), China reported 409 newly confirmed cases. This decline in COVID-19 cases across China is real (Fig. 2).Footnote 3

Fig. 2
figure 2

Source: Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, https://data.humdata.org/dataset/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-cases. Accessed 5 May 2020

Confirmed daily COVID-19 cases in China, January 22, 2020–May 4, 2020.

The team was equally impressed with “the uncompromising rigor” the nation demonstrated in implementing such a prudent public health approach (The Joint Mission 2020, p. 17):

In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history (Ibid., p. 16). … China’s uncompromising and rigorous use of non-pharmaceutical measures (under its “science-based, risk informed and phased approach”) to contain transmission of the COVID-19 virus in multiple settings provides vital lessons for the global response (Ibid., p. 19; parenthesis by the authors of this article).Footnote 4

1.2 People’s deep commitment to taking collective action was a sine quo non

The team attributes this significant advance on the battleground to, on top of other factors, the resolute, compassionate support from the people in China.Footnote 5 It praises (The Joint Mission 2020, p. 17; parentheses by the authors of this article):

Achieving China’s exceptional coverage with and adherence to these containment measures has only been possible due to the deep commitment of the Chinese people to collective action in the face of this common threat. At a community level this is reflected in the remarkable solidarity of provinces and cities in support of the most vulnerable populations and communities. Despite ongoing outbreaks in their own areas, Governors (of the provinces) and Mayors have continued to send thousands of health care workers and tons of vital PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies into (the hardest-hit) Hubei province and (its capital) Wuhan city.Footnote 6

At the individual level, the Chinese people have reacted to this outbreak with courage and conviction. They have accepted and adhered to the starkest of containment measures–whether the suspension of public gatherings, the month-long “stay at home” advisories or prohibitions on travel.Footnote 7

1.3 EndCoronavirus: China is among the 42 “countries beating COVID-19”

On February 29, 2020, the day after the Joint Mission team released its report, an international volunteer coalition EndCoronavirus was formed. Since then, a research team in the organization, led by American complex system scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam, has been tracking and analyzing the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic (EndCoronavirus 2020). In the team’s real-time, country-by-country assessment report, China, with her continuing progress after the Joint Mission team’s visit, is listed among the 42 countries or regions that are “winning” the battle by “beating COVID-19” (Ibid.; as of May 15, 2020).Footnote 8

1.4 Trump: “Great discipline is taking place in China”

It is noteworthy that the high praise the Joint Mission team issued for the Chinese people’s deep commitment to collective action resonates an admiring remark the US President Donald Trump made 9 days before the team’s visit to China. On February 7, reflecting on “a long and very good conversation (he “just had”) by phone with President Xi of China,” President Trump twitted, “Great discipline (of the government and the public) is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation (to counterattack the COVID-19 virus).” [https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1225728756456808448 (accessed May 5, 2020); parentheses by the authors of this article]Footnote 9

2 History: fighting common threats collectively has saved China many times

The kind of compliments abovementioned comes as no surprise at all to those who are familiar with China’s culture and history. People’s deep commitment to taking collective action in fighting common threats is indeed a hallmark of this “oldest living civilization in the world” (American Historical Association Historical Service Board 1944, p. 59; Makeham 2008).Footnote 10 Solidarity, participation, discipline, and readiness for self-sacrifice, among other forms of this commitment, have enabled the Chinese people to overcome extreme difficulties and survive unpredictable vicissitudes in nature and life for more than 5000 years. As such, what the Joint Mission team observed, the EndCoronavirus team discovered, and President Trump learnt in 2020 is nothing other than a recurring instance, the latest in China’s history, of nationwide, efficacious collective action in the face of a calamity.

2.1 People’s collective action in the combat against SARS pandemic (2003)

A recent example is the battle against SARS pandemic in 2003.Footnote 11 After a period of uncertainty and confusion in the early stage of the pandemic (Huang 2004, pp. 117–123), the Chinese people collectively waged a “nationwide war on SARS” the government declared on April 20, 2003, with the aim “to halt the epidemic” (Mahmoud and Lemon 2004, p. 14). Besides adhering to a series of large-scale quarantine measures, people partook in a mass “Patriotic Health Campaign” (Huang 2004, p. 125), which was initiated by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1952 when the country was plagued with epidemic diseases and shortages of medicine (China.org.cn 2020). In the hardest-hit Guangdong Province alone, for example, 80 million people were mobilized to clean houses and streets; in the countryside, virtually every village was on SARS alert, with roadside booths installed to examine people who entered or left (Huang 2004, p. 125). With the widespread, steadfast support from the whole people, this government-led, nationwide “crusade against SARS” (Ibid., p. 117) triumphed on August 16, 2003 with the last two SARS patients discharged from a hospital in Beijing (Ibid., p. 125).

2.2 People’s collective action in the resistance against Japanese aggression (1931–1945)

From 1939 to 1940 during the second Sino-Japanese war,Footnote 12 according to Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi (吉見義明), “Japan not only expended more than ten billion yen and suffered more than one hundred thousand deaths in (its aggressive) battle (in China). It also absorbed several hundred thousand repatriated soldiers who had accumulated raw experiences of China and its battlefields” (Yoshiaki 2015, p.87; parentheses by the authors). Many brought back diaries in which they had recorded these experiences. Some of the diaries were made public after the war ended in 1945 (Mark 2015, p. 15).

Drawing largely on these diaries and other personal documents written during or shortly after the war (Mark 2015, pp. 15–16), Yoshiaki Yoshimi conducted a nuanced, critical yet compassionate examination of personal war experiences of these repatriated soldiers. He published his findings in 1987 [For the English editions of his works on this topic, see Yoshimi (2012, 2015); For an intellectual biography of Yoshiaki Yoshimi, including an introduction of the research process he went through for this project, see Mark (2015)]. Besides graphic descriptions of the soldiers’ atrocious behaviors in implementing the notorious “Three Alls Policy” [“kill all, loot all, and burn all”—Fan (2016, p. 183)], he found two common themes in these diaries. One is “a deep-seated fear towards the total Chinese popular resistance and the feeling that the war was not easy” (Yoshiaki 2012, p. 125, p. 129), and the other “a pointless, misplaced sense of superiority … in dealing with Chinese people” (Ibid., p. 112). He wrote (Yoshiaki 2015; italics and parentheses by the authors),

(These repatriated soldiers) had developed a deep fear of the Chinese resistance that involved the country’s entire people, … whose solidarity extended to the elderly, women, and children” (Ibid., p. 87, p. 78).Footnote 13 “[T]he fierce, relentless war against the Japanese (aggression) far surpassed (their) expectations … (and was) difficult (for them) to comprehend according to what had been Japanese popular “common sense” (of their superiority over China and other Asian nations) (Ibid., p. 78).

Admittedly, being surprised and puzzled with the sheer tenacity of Chinese resistance, these repatriated Japanese soldiers were not alone—so were the Americans who had long been sympathetic and eventually, in 1942, became an important ally fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Chinese.Footnote 14 To many if not most of them, it was almost incomprehensible that the undergirding solidarity, defiance, and readiness for self-sacrifice could burst out of a people who had been labeled as “the sick man of east Asia” (“东亚病夫”) by the Western powers since the late nineteenth century after the Opium Wars.Footnote 15 Taking note of this was American sinologist Owen Lattimore (1900–1989), whose intellectual work and life experience “strongly shaped American public opinion toward China and Central Eurasia in the twentieth century” (Perdue 2018).Footnote 16 In Our Chinese ally, a 1944 pamphlet prepared for the United States Armed Forces Institute (American Historical Association Historical Service Board 1944), Owen Lattimore and his wife Eleanor write (Ibid., p. 57):

China’s heroic resistance to the modern military might of Japan has caused many of us to wonder in astonishment how such a non-industrialized, loosely organized nation could carry on as it has. We have been inclined to accept the continued resistance of the Chinese as an unexplainable miracle.

Throughout Chinese history, it is indeed this sort of recurring “unexplainable miracle” in the eyes of admirers, or haunting “deep-seated fear” in the minds of enemies, that has saved the nation many times (Fan 2016; Makeham 2008). Suffice it to say, fighting common threats collectively, be they from natural disaster or human conflict, has been, and will continue to be, a signature hallmark of this oldest living civilization in the world.

3 What has enabled the Chinese people to fight common threats collectively many times?

In asking this question, we share a similar curiosity with Owen and Eleanor Lattimore who ask the intriguing question in their 1944 pamphlet: “What is there about the Chinese that has enabled them to resist Japan for seven years, almost with their bare hands?” (American Historical Association Historical Service Board 1944, p. 1)Footnote 17 Their answer: “[M]oral and spiritual forces”(Ibid., p. 57)—”values of culture” that “have existed in China so long … (and) have soaked right through the whole people” (Ibid., p. 21). They regard having these long-standing cultural values “a very real advantage” of the Chinese people (Ibid.).

We concur. In fighting common threats to their survival and well-being, Chinese people’s deep commitment to taking collective action, in the forms of solidarity, participation, discipline, and readiness for self-sacrifice, as showcased briefly in this article, is simply a natural outgrowth, a manifestation, of a strong cultural belief in collectivism they hold for thousands of years.Footnote 18 Best exemplifying this deep commitment and its undergirding, long-standing cultural belief in collectivism is the song March of the volunteers (The State Council 2018). Written and composed in 1935 by Chinese playwriter Tian Han (田汉) and composer Nie Er (聂耳) during the 14-year War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931–1945), the song has ever since been inspirational to the Chinese people from all walks of life, so much so that it was adopted as the national anthem in 1949 for the newly established People’s Republic of China (Ibid.). Below are the lyrics (Ibid.; italics by the authors of this article to highlight expressions of both the collectivist commitment in the face of a calamity and the cultural belief in collectivism; for audio track, go to http://english.www.gov.cn/audio).

March of the volunteers

Arise, we who refuse to be slaves!

With our very flesh and blood,

Let us build our new Great Wall!

The peoples of China are at their most critical time,

Everybody must roar defiance.

Arise! Arise! Arise!

Millions of hearts with one mind,

Brave the enemy’s gunfire,

March on!

Brave the enemy’s gunfire,

March on! March on! March on, on!

4 Nothing as inspirational as a good example

To conclude, it should be noted that taking collective action in fighting common threats is an innate human ability essential for survival and well-being. Throughout human history, there is a myriad of powerful examples from around the world in which people’s deep commitment to taking collective action made decisive difference in fighting common threats, be they from natural disaster or human conflict. Examples of this kind, including those showcased above, are invaluable heritages that belong to the entire humanity. “There is nothing as inspirational as a good example” (Xiang 2020, p. 126)—by throwing sharp light on the power of taking collective action in fighting common threats, these examples help build a greater sense of optimism among all the people in the world both in the present fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.