believes that God and the Chinese Communist Party will defeat the novel
Wuhan. Pray for China,” she urges me, referring to the capital of Hubei
Province, where the outbreak started. It is early February, a week and some
since Wuhan was placed under lockdown. My mother lives in our hometown in a
neighbouring province, and like most places in China, her city has enacted
quarantine measures. But she is relatively safe there, and knowing that brings
me selfish reassurance as I watch the crisis unfold throughout China: I am her
only child and live on the other side of the planet, which is still barely
touched by the coronavirus.
morning since late January, I have woken up in Chicago to a string of messages
from my mother. The emails and texts continue through lunchtime; occasionally
they pop up in the afternoon, and I know it’s been another sleepless night for
forwards me reports from Chinese state media about how the government is taking
swift action to combat the epidemic. She sends me screenshots of conversations
with friends, as they discuss life under quarantine and how to convince unruly
family members to stay inside.
passages from the Bible and shares prayer verses from her church. With indoor
gatherings suspended, the state-sanctioned church my mother frequents has moved
its services online. The pastor preaches via WeChat, the almighty Chinese
messaging app, which the parishioners also use to check on one another.
is a retired elementary schoolteacher. I was one of her students. She taught me
how to sing the national anthem and how to tie my red neckerchief after I
joined the Young Pioneers, the Party’s youth organization. As a child in the
late 1990s, I sat in her classroom day after day, the lessons about Chinese
characters doubling as an introduction to history and civics. There was never
any doubt in my mind that my mother believed wholeheartedly what she lectured,
and for a long while I believed it as well.
government-issued textbooks, simple as they were, contained all the answers
about how to tell the good from the bad and what gives life its meaning. The
Party is good; disobeying it is bad. Serving one’s country and its people is
the most noble form of living.
But for all
its tales of revolutionary martyrs, patriotic education does not teach how to
grieve. After the sudden death of my father 20 years ago, my mother started
going to church. She put copies of the Bible under both of our pillows, and
carried the holy book with her whenever we took a trip. I was 10 and ambivalent
about the existence of any deity, but I joined her every night for bedtime
prayer. It was not optional.
China in the summer of 2009 for graduate school in the United States, where I
continue to live and work. In the solitude of our old home, my mother has
become increasingly devout. Speaking to God eases her longings.
years, the Chinese government has tightened its authoritarian grip, cracking
down on Muslim minorities and underground churches that operate outside the
purview of the Party. I sometimes wonder if there will be a time when my mother
is forced to choose between her God and her Party. Has the possibility crossed
generation came of age when every belief imported was deemed a heresy and every
practice inherited was banished as superstition. As China emerged from the
abyss of political fanaticism, the Party learned a valuable lesson: In the face
of humanly desires that cannot be extinguished, be they about the pursuit of
material wealth or the need for spiritual comfort, it is more effective to
co-opt than to outlaw.
in the privacy of a home is suspect because such organizing capability can be
used for political purposes. But a grand church in the heart of a city, like
the one my mother attends, knows how to stay in the government’s good graces.
sees no conflict between her religious faith and her political loyalty. “Every
government wants what’s best for its people,” she says. “And every person of a
certain age believes in something.”
cases of Covid-19 were reported in Wuhan in late December, and human-to-human
transmission was confirmed in early January. But for fear of social disruption
and political blowback, Chinese officials censored the information. Revelation
of the cover-up ignited a firestorm. Many people voiced their anger online,
demanding transparency and accountability.
will be a teaching moment, I think to myself as I scroll through Chinese social
media: Hashtags like #Iwantfreespeech were trending in the early days of the
lockdown. I am under no illusion that the popular discontent of the day will
translate into a broader political awakening, but with a target group of one I
might be able to make some progress, and help my mother realize that the
government she worships is not beyond reproach.
When I list
the evidence of deception and mismanagement by the authorities at the beginning
of the outbreak, my mother explains it all away. The government did not hide
anything; the virus has a two-week incubation period. The lockdown did not come
too late; it gave people time to go back to their hometowns. Residents of Wuhan
welcome it; inside the city, life goes on as usual.
incredulous about how my mother toes the party line. She senses my
exasperation. “It’s not your fault,” she says, in a voice so gentle it almost
sounds foreign. “You have been away for too long. You are misled by Western
only reads Chinese and does not know how to scale the Great Firewall. But even
if she and I consumed the same information, we would still have opposite
watches the rapid construction of makeshift hospitals in Wuhan, and applauds
Chinese efficiency; I worry about safety being compromised to meet an overhyped
deadline. My mother sees roadside checkpoints and neighborhood patrols
sprouting up overnight, and praises the government’s thoroughness; I wonder how
much the state has appropriated a public health crisis to expand its
mobilization of armed forces to the aid of Wuhan reaffirms my mother’s worship
of the military: There was a time in her youth when she dreamed of putting on a
uniform herself. I view any state tool of violence with deep scepticism and
believe the people would be better served if the resources were spent on
education and health care.
considered the possibility that a government can use its powers for harm,
including against its own people?” I write to my mother.
very thoroughly and ask interesting questions,” she responds. “God punishes
those who do bad things. If the people listen to God, they will be protected.”
tell if she is invoking God as the ultimate check on state power or if she is
implying that the state, like God, cannot be questioned.
remember what happened outside Tiananmen Square 30 years ago?” I feel the words
burning at my fingertips, but I refrain from typing. The subject is forbidden
in China. Instead, I raise the example of Nazi Germany, the dangers of
unchecked state power and the complicity of ordinary people.
have time, read some Hannah Arendt,” I suggest. “Her books are translated and
not hard to find.”
writes back to confirm the Chinese names of Arendt’s titles. “If my daughter
recommends them, I will definitely read. You have a doctorate; I have never
been to university.”
tells me she made a stir-fry using only orange peels. It’s mid-February. She
has not left her apartment for over two weeks, and is running low on
online. They are rich in vitamins!” She congratulates herself on her
resourcefulness: “I’m so smart. It’s too dangerous to go outside.”
gripped with guilt. I realize that I have not asked my mother how she’s doing.
I monitor the case count in our hometown and calculate the likelihood that she
will get infected. I deduce from the number and length of her daily messages
her most probable physical state: She appears rather energetic since she’s
spending so much time online! I tell myself that she resides in a safe
neighborhood with plenty of shops, that she has friends and family nearby, that
she has her church and her support groups.
my conscience by thinking that I’m being rational, and respecting her autonomy.
I have turned our daily communications about the epidemic into an ad hoc lesson
on philosophy and governance. But maybe I’m resorting to logic, math and
argument because I dare not ponder the prospect of my mother in decline, the
inevitable curse of time.
unwavering faith in the higher powers unsettles me; it suggests resignation.
She believes. She repeats what she’s told. She has packed away her rage and
For as far
back as I can remember, my mother was always angry. She was angry at her
parents for favoring their sons. She was angry at her brothers because they
were doted on. She was angry at my father when he was alive and after his death
was angry at herself for not cherishing the time she had had with him. She was
angry at the bullies in her workplace, the rowdy students in her class, the
street vendor who overcharged her for produce. She was angry at me, for every
reason and for no reason at all.
gave in to her anger, but I left home as soon as I could. I put an ocean and
two borders between myself and my mother’s wrath.
after I moved to the United States, she began asking for my forgiveness. She
credited God for opening her eyes to her sins and apologized profusely for the
ways she had treated me. “Make me the outlet for all your displeasure!” she
urged. “Pour into me all the dirty water, all the vile words!” I do not think
my mother believes in revenge as a form of justice, but I recognize the
self-hatred in her plea for punishment: She had to detest herself so much to
repeatedly hurt what she treasures the most, her only child.
my mother has expressed the wish to come live with me. That’s unrealistic, I
have told her. She does not speak the language and has no friends in America.
I’m a junior academic, my work is unstable, the hours are long. None of this
matters, my mother has said: As long as she’s with me, she’ll be content. She
will cook and clean for me. She has her savings and her pension. She will not
be a burden. She only wants to help. This is her attempt at unconditional love:
Anything that I am and you have use for is yours.
mother is not a maid, I have tried to explain. Emotional dependence is
unhealthy. Please, develop a hobby. Please, live for yourself. I know my mother
hears my suggestions as the ultimate rejection — that she should find her own
life because it is no longer a part of mine.
better part of a year, my mother has been paying uncharacteristically close
attention to world affairs, not so much out of newly found interest, but as
another attempt to connect with me and correct my wrong-think. I have been
writing regularly on Chinese politics and society for English-language
publications, often criticizing the government’s abuses. Knowing how it
pressures its critics and their relatives, I have never mentioned my articles
to my mother: She cannot read them anyway; the language barrier, as well as our
physical distance, should be her protection.
she has found out. My seditious writing has created a giant negative space
between us. We do not speak about it explicitly. But my mother brings up the
topics I write about and presses on with her views, always aligned with the
government’s. I push back. Each time I poke holes in her arguments and
challenge her value system, a part of me craves that if I rub her senses close
enough, there will be a new kindling.
I miss our
old fights, not for the wounds they inflicted, but for the woman I remember and
am afraid of losing, the indomitable force who never settled. I see my mother’s
submissiveness today as foreboding decay, like a rock that loses its edges
before crumbling to gravel.
“You are a
good child with a strong sense of justice,” my mother writes when I tell her
that I worry about the old, the poor and the disabled in Wuhan under lockdown.
Then she attributes my grievances about state oppression to the oppressive ways
she raised me, and writes that my political disobedience is little more than a
child’s rebellion against a parent.
irritated by her suggestion. “It is not always about you!” I type. I look at
the words, followed by the flashing cursor, on the screen and flinch at their
cruelty. I hit “send” anyway.
beginning of March, Covid-19 is becoming a global pandemic. With the outbreak
growing in the United States, my mother asks if I have enough face masks. “I
just learned of this website from a former student’s father. His son is
studying in the U.S.” She types out its name: A-M-A-Z-O-N.
buy as many masks as you can,” she emphasizes. “Gloves too. If they are sold
out, let me know and I will send them to you.”
government’s draconian methods have halted the virus’s spread in China, but not
before it reached foreign shores, where the authorities and the public have
been slow to react.
feels fully vindicated in her steadfast support for the Party. “Freedom,
democracy, human rights: They are all lies! Nothing compares with the need to
spends her days sifting through the internet for the latest developments
outside China, about the mounting number of cases and Western governments’
messy responses. She drills on about her tried-and-true tips for surviving the
epidemic, including what she wore when she finally went shopping for groceries:
two layers of masks, two layers of gloves, two layers of plastic bags over her
shoes, sunglasses because she does not have goggles and a hooded overcoat with
its collar clasped tight. The security guard at her residential compound
complimented her effort, my mother tells me, giddy: “He said his family should
learn from me.”
for photos of inside my cabinets, so she can grade my emergency preparedness. I
tell her that I have everything I need, and that hoarding supplies only makes a
community less safe. “If you cannot stop worrying, worry about the most
vulnerable. The homeless. The uninsured. The migrants on the border. The people
in prison and detention centers.”
right,” my mother responds. “I was only thinking about you, because you are my
daughter.” She goes on to question why a developed country like the United
States does not provide universal health care: “In China, everyone gets
treatment, and everything for the coronavirus is free.”
you saying this? We both know it’s not true.” One can acknowledge the problems
in America without making China into a utopia.
the times when I accompanied my mother to Sunday Mass as a teenager. The
church’s corridors would be filled with parents from nearby villages and their
visibly ill children: With slim hope of finding a doctor, they had come to God.
As we walked past them, my mother would tell me to look away.
I do not
know if she is doing the same thing with news about the coronavirus epidemic in
China: Her messages never diverge from the Party’s narrative of resolve,
progress and imminent triumph. But the official narrative is not the whole
I fix my gaze
where my mother averts her eyes. I tell myself that if I cannot offer
assistance on the ground, the least I can do is to bear witness. Sometimes I
feel I am obsessed with tragedy and wonder if that’s selfish: I am trying to
drown my feelings in an ocean of human suffering so that my own troubles will
seem minuscule by comparison.
onions,” my mother writes. “The flavor makes you cry, and that expels the
virus.” I shake my head. If tears were a disinfectant, I would be invincible.
I accuse my
mother of being narrow-minded, tell her that instead of fretting about me, she
should pay more attention to the less fortunate. I sound noble. I make
scientific sense. But really I feel intense discomfort at being the recipient
of her affection: I have so utterly failed at the most important relationship
in my life, that with my mother. I do not deserve to be loved.
think about dying/About disease, starvation/violence, terrorism, war/the end of
the world/It helps/keep my mind off things,” the English poet Roger McGough
wrote in “Survivor” in 1979.
updated the poem recently. The new version begins: “Everyday/I think about
coronavirus/about Brexit/about global warming.”
I have been
messaging with a dear friend in Italy. On March 19, after the coronavirus death
toll there has surpassed China’s, he writes to say he and his family are OK. He
shares photos of Italian flags draped over windows in his neighbourhood in
Rome. He describes people singing the national anthem from their balconies,
February, my mother had sent me a link to a video clip showing residents under
lockdown in Wuhan singing “The March of the Volunteers,” the Chinese national
anthem, from their windows. “You must watch this,” my mother had said. It had
moved her to tears.
government has now relaxed quarantine measures throughout the country, and it
is trying to construct a narrative of total victory against the coronavirus.
The lockdown of Wuhan is expected to be lifted on April 8. In my mother’s city,
people are allowed to go out and about, but not many do: Some fear a second
wave of infections.
epidemics on just about every continent, for some weeks now, many overseas
Chinese have been returning to the motherland; China today seems like the safer
place to be. But in the face of reduced airline routes and soaring ticket
prices, some students have been unable to find a flight home. “Pity the heart
of their parents!” my mother writes. She sees in the stranded students a
reflection of me.
consider coming back as well?” my mother had asked over the phone in mid-March.
Had I been
talking to anyone else; I would have quipped that if I returned to China, I
might be put under another kind of quarantine — the kind that usually lasts
well beyond 14 days. But I bit my tongue. Sadness swallowed me.
mother has been sending me prayers she wrote for her church group, asking for
God’s help in defeating the virus. “We are all in a shared body of humankind,”
reads one, quoting the catchphrase coined by President Xi Jinping. She mentions
my name every time she asks for God’s blessing.
years ago when I was preparing to leave China, my mother impelled me to do two
things: get baptized and join the Chinese Communist Party. She was petrified at
the thought of me alone in a foreign country. She wanted me to carry the
memberships like talismans so that the two most powerful entities in this world
and the next one would bless my journey.
neither of her wishes. I am not a Communist, and I do not believe in God. I am
a scientist and a writer. It is the responsibility of my vocations to ask the
questions obscured by simplified answers. But what happens when the questions I
ask can never be answered, when a puzzle has no solution, when every option is
It is now
the beginning of April, and the United States has the most reported cases of
Covid-19 in the world. On the first day that the people of Illinois were placed
under a shelter-in-place order, when the clock struck 7 p.m., thousands of
Chicago residents walked to their balconies to sing Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a
sets over the city I call home today, it is a new morning for my mother in
China. I can picture her standing in our old kitchen, her greying hair tied up
in a messy bun. She adds nuts and dried fruit to her congee. She reads the news
from state media. The kettle chirps on the stove. She fills two thermal flasks
with hot water and looks out the window. She thanks God for her meal and asks
him to look after her only child.
will soon light up again with messages from my mother. She will continue to
write while I sleep. I imagine a tunnel opening up through the planet, where
our thoughts meet.
Cheng is a particle physicist and a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell
Headline: Of the Virus and God, Orange Peels and the Party
Source: The New York Times