The Controversies Over Lockdowns for the COVID-19 Pandemic: Toward an Open Society | Yu-lin Lee

by Critical Asia

by Yu-lin Lee, June 2022】

In May 2022, the COVID-19 cases in both Taiwan and China surged rapidly. This was late compared to the pandemic trajectory in Europe, North America, and in Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. This wave of the pandemic was also different from the previous ones. Unlike during the pandemic’s first breakout two years ago and its first few waves, today the majority of citizens are vaccinated, and more importantly, the current Omicron variant is not as deadly as its predecessors, e.g., the Alpha, Beta, and Delta variants, despite its higher transmission rate. No one knows for sure when the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end, but it is also conceivable that the virus will continue to mutate, and humans will continue to face threats from the virus for years to come.

Interestingly, in the face of this different wave of the pandemic, Taiwan and China have adopted two very different policies to hopefully contain the virus. China has taken extremely strict control measures to prevent the spread of the virus by using lockdowns, whereas Taiwan is using a relatively flexible method that aims at letting people lead normal lives and co-existing with the virus. These two conflicting policies have provoked heated debate. In order to reveal the different management styles of public life, this short essay thus focuses on the two distinctive ideologies, namely “openness” and “closure,” that underpin the contrasting policies.

Regardless of their different policies, the various measures imposed by these governments are not simply procedural rules based on virology and epidemiology, but rather are more about the concerns for the economy and politics. The common expression, “to die of illness or of hunger,” suggests that any decision on the means of control becomes a strategy that is seeking a balance between the pandemic and the economy; the decision thus becomes also a political one. Further still, such a decision has a great impact not only on the individual, but also on the communal, national, regional, and even global scales. The disruption of various supply chains and the chaos in the economic, financial, food, and other markets caused by the Shanghai lockdown is a perfect example of the decision’s immense impacts.

The policies adopted by Taiwan and China are often considered as consequences of their different political systems: one is a democracy, the other an authoritarian regime. Indeed, despite its strict regulations on border control and accurate case investigation, the Taiwanese government maintains complete transparency of pandemic-related information while letting its people lead normal lives; the government’s ultimate goal is of co-existing with the virus and the rest of the world. China, in contrast, reiterates the zero-tolerance principle while emphasizing the collective will of the people and the efficiency of governmental responses to achieve that incredible goal. Apparently, the zero-tolerance principle is not simply a dominant strategy to prevent the spread of the virus, but also an absolute social and political guideline that must be followed. However, to suggest that these contrasting policies are a result of different political regime types seems oversimplified and fails to explain sufficiently the different approaches to management of public life that underpins the policies, which actually exemplify two quite different modes of biopolitics.

It clearly appears that the term “control” has become the central idea of the various strategies to use against the pandemic. This understanding may also evidence the fact that the current society has become “a control society,” as Gilles Deleuze describes it,[1] and no longer a disciplinary one in the Foucauldian sense. A brief review of how the pandemic policies are practiced in actual situations would thus further benefit the discussion of the modes of biopolitics in a control society.

First of all, the discursive formation remains significant. The scientific knowledge of virology, molecule biology, and epidemiology, e.g., the coronavirus gene structure, the mechanism of human immunization, the transmission index (CT value, R0 value) and other indexes, such as hospitalization rate, death rate, etc., have been woven into the ongoing discourse on pandemic prevention. Further, this scientific knowledge has become information that communicates rapidly and extensively through the various old and new media, including official documents, TV programs, and broadcasts. Despite the fact that information sometimes combines fake and twisted ideas in the communication process and is always regulated by computational algorithms, that information constitutes the core discourse of the specific polices on the pandemic preventions. Along with the logistics of supply of both prevention and non-prevention resources, information also plays a key role in the success of any pandemic prevention.

As stated, all measures for containing the virus, including discursive formation, communication, and logistics, are also legal means and thus have an immediate political impact. One can observe that the updated rules have suspended laws and regulations and even superseded them, thereby creating what Giorgio Agamben calls “the state of exception.”[2] One might also notice that regulations imposed by the Chinese government seem consistent and more coercive, whereas in Taiwan, the information tends to be divergent and even conflicting at times. The situation in Taiwan, however, should not be considered a matter related to either the efficiency of the government or to freedom of speech, but rather one of “flexibility” in terms of the actual means of control. 

It is also worth noting that all measures take affect into consideration. As Rosi Braidotti points out, affect is in fact connected with the political economy;[3] therefore, control of the pandemic is also management of people’s affective responses. The Taiwanese government considers people’s affective response in its designing of prevention strategies. In China, with maintaining stability as its principal guideline for all measures, taking control of people’s affect becomes predominantly essential. Affects caused by the pandemic, such as worries, loneliness, anxiety, anguish, fear, and panic, etc., not only concern personal health, but also reflect concerns about the community, which is closely related to maintaining the overall stability of the society as well as of the state.

The above discussion highlights less the actual different prevention measures than their similar functioning for two contrasting policies. Take, for example, the use of information technology that has been widely used both in Taiwan and in China as a means or tool to control the pandemic. The Taiwanese government uses information technology to monitor cases of infection, distribute resources, administer telecare, and assist with many other tasks related to the pandemic. In China, the use of technology is even more wide-ranging for almost every aspect of daily life. Clearly, the use of information technology itself cannot be and should not be a factor in determining the different kinds of policies, although it is used to a different degree for each policy and applied in different fields. The lockdown strategy adopted by the Chinese government has come under severe criticism. One might suggest that the true reason lays in the fact that the Chinese-made vaccine is less effective than others in preventing people from being infected by the virus and in avoiding a great number of deaths, so the lockdown has become an inevitable choice. Some scientific facts may support this argument, and yet, considering the current domestic political struggles in China and the current geopolitical situation, as well as the related key economic and financial factors, some would also argue that this theory may contain within it a political conspiracy.

I would suggest, on the other hand, that the different types of vaccines used by China and Taiwan may characterize different conceptions of an organism, which accordingly leads to different modes of the biopolitics. What China uses is the so-called “live attenuated vaccine,” which is a weakened form of the virus that can still grow and replicate, but does not cause illness in humans. When injected, because it is simply a weakened version of natural pathogens, the human immune system will respond as it would to any other cellular invader. The entire immunization process involves killer T-cells (which identify and destroy the infected cells), helper T-cells (which support antibody production) and antibody-producing B-cells (which target the pathogens lurking elsewhere in the body, e.g., in the blood). In contrast, the majority of the Taiwanese people are vaccinated with messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. Unlike live attenuated vaccines, the mRNA vaccine is an artifact entirely created in the laboratory. When injected, it will instruct the human cell machinery to produce a harmless piece, what is called the spike protein, found on the surface of the coronavirus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic, thereby triggering the same immune response as live attenuated vaccines would trigger.    

There are of course advantages and disadvantages to the different types of vaccines. I have no privilege and intention here to pass judgment on their safety, efficacy, or sustainability, but rather to point out that the invention of the mRNA vaccine may suggest a new conception of an organism and thus an alternative mode of biopolitics. In short, the laboratory-produced mRNA is not an inactivated copy of the virus, but instead a simulation of it. How successfully the immune response can be triggered depends mostly on the degree of likeness between the mRNA vaccine and the virus. What is at stake is not simply the intervention of biomedical technology (live attenuated vaccines also require sophisticated techniques and need to be developed in the laboratory), but rather the making process of the mRNA vaccine that, along with the entire immunization process, functions in-between the organic and the inorganic, the human and the non-human. Further still, this functioning does not simply exist in the organism; it can also be extended to the entire human species.

Indeed, the development of the mRNA vaccine implies a redefinition of the boundary between the human cell and the virus. In order to survive, the coronavirus relies on re-duplication by the DNA in the human cell. On the other hand, the human body strives to survive through its immune system fighting the cellular invader. It is an ongoing process wherein the virus continues to mutate to seek better chances to integrate into the human cell as well as to transmit across the host species. This is why the Omicron variant has a higher transmission rate and a lower death rate compared to its previous variants, at least according to available data. In this regard, as Thomas Pradeu argues, since “any organism is heterogenous, partially comprising exogenous entities,” it appears insufficient to define it — suitably for applying the concept of “individuality” to it, since by definition an individual is indivisible — using the distinction between “self” and “nonself.”[4] Instead, Pradeu concludes that the organism must undergo a process of “immunological-physiological individuation” through which the immune system itself marks the very borders of what constitutes an individual organism.[5] 

This concept of an organism articulates the most radical difference that live attenuated vaccine and mRNA vaccine may imply in terms of an organism identity. At the molecular biological level, the live attenuated vaccine remains a form of the virus that will be recognized as a foreign entity by the human cell; in contrast, the mRNA vaccine produces a simulation of the virus by inducing the human body’s own cell production machinery. The boundary between mRNA and the human cell thus blurs, and it seems impossible to distinguish between them or to divide them. Both become necessary opponents that allow the immunization process to function properly and successfully. In this regard, the idea of an organism becomes a process of individuation, in which immunology provides the criterion for that organism’s identity.

This biological mechanism of immunization can be further applied to the functioning of a society. Based on his etymological research, Roberto Esposito points out the close relationship between immunity and community. With a negative and privative meaning, the term immunity indicates a privileged positioning of immunization within a community that helps to sustain the organization and functioning of that community.[6] For Esposito, the term “immunity” in the biomedical field, which refers to a response by a living organism when faced with a given disease, can be linked to the language in the political-juridical domain that alludes to the exemption of a subject from exterior obligation or responsibility. In Esposito’s eyes, immunization becomes a paradigm of biopolitics in which life and politics emerge as its two constituent elements. He thus states that “politics is nothing other than the possibility or the instrument for keeping life alive.”[7]  

Considering the measures imposed by both the Chinese and the Taiwanese governments for containing the virus, it is suitable to compare their means of control to a paradigm of immunization as Esposito has described it. What interests us most is that by applying this immunization paradigm, Esposito seeks an invention of a new form of life, an affirmative mode of biopolitics that is derived from Deleuze’s conception of “life” being understood as the potentiality of life immanent in itself.[8]

This affirmative biopolitics echoes the “open” — rather than “closed” — policy to contain the virus while seeking to co-exist with it. It means opening up the boundary of a living organism in which the encounter of a human organism with the virus is recognized as an ongoing process of individuation. This process is in fact the immunization mechanism of a living organism for a disease. This mechanism is not simply a means to maintain the “integrity” of an organism by excluding foreign invaders, but also the manner that makes the process of individuation actually possible. The intervention of biomedical technology is inevitable. In fact, biotechnology has become the elemental vehicle and a necessary environment where both the human cell and the virus enter a process of evolution, given the fact that the human’s immune response to COVID-19 triggered by the mRNA vaccine is in fact the machinery of a human cell.

It is also suitable to employ this immunization mechanism at the molecular and biological level in the social, national, regional, and even the global situation. There is no place outside this world. Or to put it differently, we can only have a planet where humans and other species constitute a common community. To co-exist with the virus becomes a predictable destiny. However, this destiny is not necessarily a pessimist fate, but rather an evolutionary process of an organism and a community, which, in return, promises numerous possibilities of a new life and the rebirth of a future community.

Yu-lin Lee, Academia Sinica, Taiwan


[1] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University, 1995), p. 177-82.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University, 1998).

[3] Rosi Braidotti, R. “‘We’ Are In This Together, But We Are Not One and the Same,” Bioethical Inquiry 17, 465–469 (2020).

[4] Thomas Pradeu, The Limits of the Self: Immunology and Biological Identity, trans. Elizabeth Vitanza (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p, 268.

[5] Ibid., 269.

[6] Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011), p. 11.

[7] Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and philosophy, trans. Timothy Campbell (Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 2008), p. 46.

[8] Ibid., 191-94.


Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University, 1998.

Braidotti, Rosi R. “‘We’ Are In This Together, But We Are Not One and the Same,” Bioethical Inquiry 17, 465–469 (2020). Accessed May 31, 2022.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on Control Societies,” Negotiations. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University, 1995.

Esposito, Roberto. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011), p. 11.

—. Bios: Biopolitics and philosophy. Trans. Timothy Campbell. Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 2008.

Pradeu, Thomas. The Limits of the Self: Immunology and Biological Identity. Trans. Elizabeth Vitanza. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

You may also like

Leave a Comment