One and All
The Logic of Chinese Sovereignty
Pang Laikwan



After three years of crisis mode, the Chinese government has finally stopped calling COVID-19 a national enemy. In fact, the pandemic is seldom mentioned in the public media anymore. Despite the widespread protests against its zero-COVID policy and the immeasurable human toll the sudden rescinding of this policy has taken, the Chinese government seems to have survived what has widely been regarded as the biggest challenge to its sovereignty since 1989. Many predictions of political havoc are also proven wrong, and business is back as usual. At a time when many of us are standing on a threshold of history in awed silence, let us go back to the fateful and uncanny moment when only Chinese people were concerned about the spread of the coronavirus. It might give us some insights into how China’s current sovereign logic is constructed and also lost in the interactions among the state, the people, and the enemy, which could be the virus or many other things.

Facing an unknown virus that was deadly and highly contagious, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) central government imposed a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei in late January 2020. Responding to the grievances, fear, and complaints heard everywhere in the country, the government worked to convince the populace of the omnipotence of state power under full control. Nevertheless, the PRC still struggled to pacify the grudging public, who suspected that a truth was being concealed.

Two weeks passed in which the PRC undertook major censorship and propaganda efforts regarding the spread of what would become COVID-19. On February 6, 2020, Doctor Li Wenliang died. His death unexpectedly triggered a new burst of national anger, one directed precisely against the government’s suppressive opinion control. This was because Dr. Li was one of the earliest whistleblowers who had alerted the people to a new deadly virus denied by the government.

It had been Li who, in December 2019, had sent a message to fellow medics on his own social media account, warning of a virus similar to SARS. But he—along with the handful of other medical workers who also mentioned the mysterious virus in their own social media accounts—was identified and condemned by the government for spreading rumors. After signing a letter of repentance, Li was allowed to go back to work; this led to him contracting COVID. When news of his death went viral late on the evening of February 6, Chinese netizens roared, protesting that the whistleblower’s death demonstrated the state’s relentless crushing of freedom of speech.

But Dr. Li died twice.

The news of his death was first circulated on the internet around 9:30 p.m. on February 6, Beijing time, and was quickly confirmed by major Chinese newspapers such as the People’s Daily and Global Times. Posts discussing his death on Weibo, China’s biggest microblogging website, reached a billion hits, and there was an avalanche of demand for freedom of the press.1 The World Health Organization (WHO) also announced Dr. Li’s death on its Twitter account. A subsequent report in The New York Times interviewed a fellow doctor who had treated Dr. Li that evening and confirmed that he died at 9:10 p.m.2 Later that night, though, news circulated that Dr. Li had not died. He was in critical condition, and he was undergoing emergency treatment at the hospital. But then the next morning, February 7, Dr. Li was finally pronounced dead in an official sense.

A rumor then widely circulated that Dr. Li had been attached to an ECMO machine for hours after his death was announced at 9:30 p.m. People suspected that this was to keep him alive until the government was ready to deal with the disaster. Some also speculated that keeping him alive was intended to shift the nation from anger to the wish for a miracle. Perhaps most importantly, the government wanted to buy time to control opinions on the internet. What is known is that, during the few hours between the two deaths, the government was able to wipe out most online discussion relating to demands for freedom of the press.

We do not know exactly what happened to Dr. Li. We may never know. But the fact is that the public did hear that Dr. Li died twice. And to many ordinary Chinese netizens, the period between the two deaths was one of the longest nights in recent memory.

China’s most symbolic COVID victim died in a most surreal way: he could not simply be allowed to die. Instead, his death had to be completely controlled by the propaganda apparatus in order to demonstrate the united efforts of the sovereign power of the PRC state to protect the life of its subjects. Dr. Li’s death crystallized the state’s intense anxiety caused by an unknown external threat to its population. And so, within those few hours, the government struggled to repackage that death from a force of destruction to one showing the sovereign state’s care of the people.

We might read this incident from two perspectives. First, Dr. Li’s second death—accompanied by the full implementation of a propaganda machine promoting national mourning—can be seen as the sacrifice the state presented to the community in order to avoid the predicted social violence from erupting. Many cultural theorists, such as René Girard, have shown the tendency of societies to resort to the sacrificing of an individual (human or animal) as a scapegoat: this is so members can identify with one another through the sacrifice and form stronger social bonds, while the scapegoat will be viewed as the savior.3 Dr. Li’s second death could indeed be understood as the sacrifice orchestrated by the state, designed to coincide with the state’s announcement of policies to fight the virus. Seen in hindsight, the second death of Dr. Li became the country’s passage into a period of war, a state of exception that allowed the sovereign to exercise its power at full throttle. In the three long years that followed, the PRC continued and intensified such rhetoric of “the state versus the virus,” simultaneously mediated by the people as objects of protection, management, and censorship.

There is another way to read Dr. Li’s death: specifically, in how it reverberates with Giorgio Agamben’s theorization of thanatopolitics—the politics of death—where the enormous power of the sovereign ruler is justified by his claimed ability to control/manage his own death as well as the death of his people. Agamben illustrates his theory by locating two different lives—one sacred and the other a bare life—embodied in the ancient Roman emperor and later the French and English sovereigns. When these sovereigns died, they were given two separate deaths, complete with two different sets of rituals. The king first died as an ordinary human, but an effigy was put together to extend his life so that he could be given a much more elaborate ritualistic death at an appropriate time. This reveals the throne’s dual embodiment of both the sovereign, whose power lasts forever, and the bare life shared by every one of us.4 To Agamben, the death rituals show the people how the sovereign is in full control of both lives.

Clearly, Dr. Li in 2020 was no king, but his “doctor identity” facilitated a metonymic slide between the sovereign and the care-provider in the age of COVID. The sovereign, like Dr. Li, dies with and for the people, but the sovereignty also lasts, to protect the people. Dr. Li’s two deaths reveal a thanatopolitics: who can die, who must live, and how to die. . . . If the PRC’s postsocialist sovereign legitimacy has been built on economic prosperity, COVID drastically changed the priority to the state’s capacity to protect the lives of the people from death, given the ineffable fact of death’s proximity. Similar to the king’s physical death, Dr. Li first died as a bare life, but this first death was quickly appropriated by the state to put forth a second death, which could be seen as a symbol of sovereign unity and the population’s perpetual life.5 Dr. Li was also presented by the government as a national hero who had sacrificed himself for the health of the people.

In Europe, a king’s death had to be ritualized to carry the symbolic values of the transcendence and eternity of the monarchic power. Correspondingly, the PRC also repackaged Dr. Li’s death, transforming it from a symbol of sovereign failure to one of state power—specifically, the power to enable the population to last forever. Agamben’s theory is most insightful in illustrating the innate connection between sovereign power and death.6 It is his power to undergo and transcend death that makes the king the ruler. Each of us—as members of sovereignty—will die, but sovereignty itself does not. Indeed, this is a most basic logic of sovereignty: the people, as an abstract entity, will persevere against all odds, also denying any outside power to rule the people.

But Agamben’s theorization of the omnipotence of the sovereign could be highly problematic, as it seems to display a silent affirmation of the state’s power, however critical he is of the state’s control over individuals and communities. Agamben’s critical exposition of state power could easily become an endorsement of such reasoning, just as description could become prescription. Maybe Agamben only reinforces our existing state-phobia. As Michel Foucault argues, “state-phobia” is a pervasive sentiment in the modern world, and it assumes that the state has an intrinsic tendency to control and expand.7 Indeed, maybe the state is never as powerful as we fear, and maybe the local community has its own ways to determine how lives continue.

This might explain why the second death of Dr. Li orchestrated by the state did not end the story. Dr. Li’s life continues on his social media account, as netizens continue to leave comments on his Weibo social media page. On this very special page, we see strangers sending Dr. Li gratitude and affection, sharing their own daily anecdotes or expressing their personal frustrations, constructing an online “wailing wall.”

However depoliticized they might be, the never-ending comments on this “wailing wall” demonstrate that he is not yet forgotten. Dr. Li’s second death was meant to seal the coffin, but the people insisted on giving (a third) life to his persona in the public sphere. Remarkably, they do so not to resurrect him as an eternal hero but instead to let each other see and be seen. There were more than a million messages left on his Weibo account within the first year after his death. The contents of the messages range from expressions of gratitude to exhortations to remember, from everyday greetings to the sharing of daily happenings, attested in the four most frequently appeared terms in these messages: “Dr. Li,” “today,” “good night,” and “hope.”8 After China dismantled its COVID controls in December of 2022, messages lamenting the death of their loved ones due to COVID also began to appear on this wailing wall.9

While these messages represent a tremendous diversity of sentiments and the mundane life of the people, the obscure thanatopolitics of trying to control Dr. Li’s death is also ridiculed. It is clear that these online messages are flimsy and fleeting, quickly replaced by others. They tend to be depoliticized, representing the people’s internalization of political discontent into their everyday life routine and petty struggles. It is also true that this Weibo account is monitored by the state, and it clearly does not represent an alternative Chinese sovereignty. Yet, taken together, the forgettable messages combine to build a resilient memory—at least the people do not just forget. Instead of seeing sovereignty as the manifestation of the singular will of a great number of people, this social account shows that sovereignty could be a community in which the diverse members are partially bound by hopes and suffering, through which they gain their limited autonomy from the dominant powers as well as the incalculability of the future.10

Dr. Li’s active afterlife in social media is actually nothing special, but it is like many other social media pages of the deceased: although the person is already dead, friends and family members still leave messages on their account, affording opportunities for the bereaved to maintain bonds with the dead. A public and performative mourning is constructed through the memories, bereavement, and remembrance posted in the account.11 These social media pages demonstrate that certain acts of reminiscence and publicness can rival state memories. It also shows that the individual is always situated in a community. However much state sovereignty is modeled on the self-mastery of an individual human agency, the state must learn how it is, first and foremost, a community made up of many individual citizens. The people are never One. It is through such recognition and actual experiences of plurality and change that pouvoir constituant could become resilient, supple, and constructive, engendering a polity that is the subject—instead of the object—of sovereign power.

Most recently, the Cyberspace Administration of China, PRC’s internet regulator and censor, announced that even artificial intelligence must submit to the country’s core socialist values.12 While critics in the US and the EU also push their governments to impose tough regulations on AI, China is the first of the world’s most technologically advanced countries to show the absolute will to keep AI under its jurisdiction. Facing an increasingly uncertain and fragile world, humankind has no option but to work with state sovereignty to find the fine balance between liberty and solidarity, to not lose their way in the jungle of self-interest and human emotions, while being faithful in building fair and accountable institutions to protect life and promote positive changes.

This is not another book trying to demonize the PRC. I am living in the reality of this sovereignty, and I do not have the luxury to abstract it into a totality. Instead, I want to address this sovereignty by reading its history critically. No one knows what the future holds, but with history in mind we should have the courage to walk further into the uncharted field, to develop a sovereignty that affirms life, cooperation, and an entangled humanity.

Hong Kong
May 5, 2023


1. Xiao et al., “How a Chinese Doctor.”

2. According to one media report, in the period from 9:30 p.m. on February 6 to 6 a.m. on February 7, Weibo recorded 670 million pageviews and 740,000 discussions of #李文亮醫生去世# (Dr. Li Wenliang passed away); 230 million pageviews and 209,000 entries of hashtag #李文亮去世# (Li Wenliang passed away), as well as 2.86 million pageviews and 10,000 discussions related to #我要言論自由# (I want freedom of press). See Lu, “Observing the Public Opinion.”

3. To Girard, the act of scapegoating is also simultaneously a reenactment of foundational violence and a promise for human institution. See, for example, Girard, Sacrifice, 30–61.

4. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 91–103.

5. For a comparable study of the Soviet Union’s appropriation of Lenin’s death, see Yurchak, “Re-touching the Sovereign Biochemistry of Perpetual Leninism.”

6. “The state of exception [bare life] actually constituted, in its very separateness, the hidden foundation on which the entire political system rested.” Agamben, Homo Sacer, 9.

7. Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, 75–78, 187–88.

8. Jiang, “Shengsi jiemian.”

9. Anonymous, “Cult of Li Wenliang.”

10. Arendt, Human Condition, 245.

11. Gibbs et al., “#Funeral and Instagram.”

12. Ye, “China Proposes Measures.”