The Poison Kings: Markers of Mobility and Morality
This essay looks at the so-called poison kings—people who, knowingly or otherwise, became transmission vectors of Covid-19. We explore the history of the term and its relationship to the corona-shaped virus. The examples we bring demonstrate how the label was deployed mostly as a moral category during the Covid-19 pandemic, even though sometimes there were legal implications. Through different cases, we observe how the term was also used to manage novel freedoms after the lockdowns.
In October 2022, a young couple from Inner Mongolia, who had just secured new jobs in high-tech companies in Nanshan District, Shenzhen, spent several days house-hunting in nearby Bao’an District. Whether they knew it or not at the time, the couple was subsequently confirmed as carriers of Covid-19. As they visited prospective homes in several residential communities in Bao’an, they did so in the company of realtors. These realtors—probably themselves migrant workers—then took the virus home to the big urban village of Buxin (布心村). Along the way, at least according to official data, they infected several people they met, leading to more than 800 positive cases. The entire city village of Buxin was put under quarantine. In a WeChat video describing the young Inner Mongolian couple’s house-hunting journey in Bao’an, a local government official called them ‘poison kings’ (毒王). Pointing to the chains of infection that had passed from the couple to the realtors and on into the urban village, he remarked that ‘as they go, not even a blade of grass grows’ (所到之处寸草不生)—a paraphrasing of the Tang-era poet Liu Zongyuan’s parable of the Snake Catcher (捕蛇者说).
In this essay, we explore the emergence of the ‘poison king’ label. We follow it from its appearance during the late stages of the pandemic, at a point when most of the world had lived through the most intense phases of infection and had started to reopen but the Chinese authorities maintained their zero-Covid policy. Against this background, being marked as a ‘poison king’ was an everyday risk. Lists began to emerge online, on television, and on government websites of where people had been before their positive diagnosis, along with the suspected numbers of people they had infected. Drawing together different instances of ‘poison king’ narratives, from WeChat groups to the authors’ own experiences in Shenzhen, we explore how the concept condensed concerns about—and anxiety over—good social conduct along with fury towards those seen as flouting rules.
Origins of the Label
The phrase ‘poison king’ pre-dates Covid-19 and was initially used to refer to the strength of a virus strain rather than specific individual carriers (Sina 2022). In particular, it was used to describe sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) viruses, which are collectively known as corona viruses due to their protein spikes that, under magnification, resemble crowns. As such, the moniker ‘poison king’ has been used to refer to ever more virulent strains of this category of viruses. Omicron, for example, took the crown in July 2022, when a headline announced that the ‘poison king’ had arrived in Xi’an, Beijing, and Macau. On that occasion, the term did not refer to individuals on a journey infecting people along the way, like the couple from Inner Mongolia mentioned in the opening, but rather to variant BA.5 (Omicron), which had been detected across various cities that month.
Only during the Covid-19 pandemic did the ‘poison king’ terminology become a means of speaking about individuals who transmitted the virus far and wide or, in the words of the World Health Organization, ‘super spreaders’. In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, the Jinjiang Poison King (晋江毒王)—a man surnamed Zhang who had returned home to Fujian from Wuhan—gained notoriety, popularising the concept. When he was asked where he had been, instead of admitting he had been to Wuhan, he told local authorities he had come from the Philippines. He then attended several big banquets and wedding ceremonies in his village, involving thousands of participants. His conduct resulted in 3,557 people being put under quarantine, and he was eventually charged by police with ‘crimes against public safety’ (Haitian Times Review 2020).
While Mr Zhang’s partying had widespread consequences, other poison kings had lesser impacts. In February 2020, in rural Beijing, a local resident surnamed Wang had a friend who was confirmed positive attend an event at his home. However, when he felt sick himself, he did not report to the local authorities or go to hospital. Instead, he went out and hosted a dinner with his relatives. These decisions led to 46 people being required to undergo quarantine. The official report recorded the stress this situation put on the local managers of Covid-19 containment, arguing that ‘Mr Wang’s behaviour has put huge pressure on our tracing and isolation work’ (Haitian Times Review 2020). Nevertheless, Mr Wang was not arrested.
These two cases found their way to a list of the ‘Top Ten Poison Kings’ that circulated widely on Chinese social media, the range of which makes evident that poison king is not just a moral category but also one that indicates likely legal and criminal consequences (Haitian Times Review 2020). Many of the people involved in the listed cases were investigated by public security bureaus or arrested on the grounds of being a threat to public safety. Unsurprisingly, news about the poison kings spread on both mass media and in WeChat groups, often with accompanying details of their travel itinerary, people they had met, and the consequences they were facing. As the examples we discuss below illustrate, this both illuminated a range of expectations about what constituted good conduct and carried the increasingly heavy moral expectation that once one became ‘toxic’, they must stay home.
Unsealing and Its Consequences
At the end of November 2022, the citywide lockdown in the southern hub of Guangzhou was suddenly lifted, with districts and housing compounds ‘unsealed’ (解封). Temporary control orders were removed and widespread PCR testing was halted. Yet, after weeks of lockdown in the face of rising case numbers, as December began, the city did not simply revert to a pre-lockdown atmosphere. Instead, many people continued to feel hesitant.
One reason for this hesitation was the knowledge that, in resuming everyday activities, from getting a haircut to going to the cinema, the locations one visited could form a trace—a record constructed through digital means—which, once assembled, could circulate widely. Figure 1 illustrates how that trace is anticipated, taking the form of a meme that circulated on social media platform Xiaohongshu (小红书) in the weeks after lockdowns were lifted. The focus is on the mundanity of the activities, rather than the surveillance technologies in the background that would subsequently confirm them. Typed into a phone’s notes app, Figure 1 shows a long-awaited activity list for the first day of the end of lockdown: having a haircut, dining out, watching a movie, and taking a walk. A list of things to which anyone might look forward to make up for lost lockdown time, albeit a densely populated schedule. Reading to the end, however, one finds that the second day is not an activity list. Instead, it announces that the list has become the ‘confirmed case’s activity track’, serving as a reminder that if they tested positive afterwards, their personal information and previous activities might be recorded and publicly announced. While the meme operates as a form of humour, confirmed cases would have had their movements documented in conversations with health or data workers post infection and, if necessary, those accounts would be confirmed by digital tracers (Thylstrup 2019). The list shifts from being a prospective agenda of nice things to do to a retrospective report, reconfigured as condemnable conduct. Thus, the meme, operating as a hypothesis and a warning, asks whether the risk of day two is worth all the delights of day one.
To those who viewed it as it circulated on Xiaohongshu and other social media apps, the meme conveyed feelings of both fear and ambiguity about going out, despite the end of lockdown. It relayed the existential question: ‘If I go out, will I become the next poison king?’ For those of us based in southern China during the nationwide shifts in pandemic policy, it was always difficult as an ordinary citizen to negotiate the tension between individual desires (to go out) and moral expectations (to stay home). As such, an innocuous list like a person’s (imagined) daily schedule risked—as day two of the meme shows—becoming retrospectively stigmatised as immoral behaviours, should they subsequently test positive. Throughout the pandemic, numerous confirmed cases, especially super spreaders’ activity tracks, were discussed and criticised by netizens. In some cases, as in the list mentioned above, super spreaders’ names, jobs, and contact information were exposed, followed by public shaming. The post illustrates a general messaging tendency that emerged during periods of lifted lockdown, which emphasised a moral obligation to stay at home.
Poisoning from a Thousand Miles Afar
While our first example shows how people weighed the risk of going out with the possibility that their day’s itinerary might become public knowledge, some were labelled as poison kings without a chance to do anything about it. When two of the authors, Hailing Zhao and Han Tao, returned to China in 2020 and 2021, respectively, they quickly became aware of circulating buzzwords that linked Covid-19 to overseas returnees, especially international students. From the early days of the pandemic, national and local authorities categorised those who returned from overseas and tested positive as a single group under the label of ‘confirmed cases imported from abroad’ (境外输入病例)—a category used in daily official reports on new confirmed cases. This cemented the existence of this group as a cohesive whole within the popular imagination. Entering China from overseas, these individuals were frequently suspected of causing ‘poisoning from a thousand miles’ (千里投毒).
People returning from overseas were asked to observe isolation and make ‘truthful declarations’ about their itineraries, but stories circulated about returnees who did not do this. Whether they had taken medicine to hide their fever before boarding a flight (Xinhua 2020) or travelled widely on arriving home, eventually causing many people around them to have to isolate themselves (Sohu 2020; Tencent 2020), a general atmosphere of hostility towards overseas returnees increasingly took hold in both private and public discussions. Some commentators openly expressed a sense of mistrust, suggesting that the travellers were coming back from far-off places to poison others.
In Figure 2, responding to an article in which an international returning student complained about their quarantine hotel, Weibo commentators say: ‘You are not here to build our nation, but you are first in spreading the poison from afar. What is even more ridiculous is that there are still compatriots who allow these overseas Chinese to return. This is really a case of spreading the poison from afar.’ The second comment, with more than 800 approvals, states: ‘You are not here for the construction of the motherland, but you have been the first to poison her … Those who have gone abroad, please don’t come back.’
Among returning travellers, Chinese international students were the most likely to post about their journey online; they were also the most likely to be morally judged through the narrative of ‘poisoning’ others. Despite expensive flights, strict PCR testing, and quarantine requirements, many who had been studying abroad returned home during the pandemic. In addition to sharing the complex logistics of their journeys on social media and group messaging services, some also shared complaints about the quality and cost of quarantine hotels, occasionally quarrelling with hotels or health workers over food delivery, testing regimes, and other aspects of the strict hotel quarantine rules by which they had to abide before any onward travel. When one such student, Xiao Yang, returned to Shanghai from Italy and posted a vlog about his experience, commentators welcomed him home, reminded him to drink lots of water, and expressed concern about his potential to bring infection into the country (The Paper 2020). The more aggressive comments contrasted the good treatment of the student by China with the immoral treatment of China by the student, stating things like ‘the motherland treats you well, and you return the favour by taking advantage of her’ (祖国拿你当亲人, 你把祖国当冤大头).
Later that same year, in July 2020, Han returned to China. To do so, she completed two weeks of hotel quarantine, during which she returned five negative PCR tests (Zhao et al. forthcoming). Yet, on emerging from hotel quarantine, she was still considered a ‘risk’ until she had completed a further seven-day quarantine, this time at home. On the final day of her home quarantine, three fully equipped health workers (大白) arrived at her door for the last PCR test. By that afternoon, Han was no longer ‘poisonous’.
This shows that international students could find ways to rid themselves of the poison king label; once they finished their hotel quarantine and self-isolation at home, they generally ceased to be considered ‘poisoners from afar’. However, not all categories to whom the poison label was applied had this option, as we demonstrate below.
If we return to the house-hunting couple to whom the label was applied in our opening vignette and follow the ‘poison’ into the communities where it spread, we find another version of how ‘poison’ is attributed to different sources, with consequences for how local lockdowns were managed in increasingly tense contexts.
The local government worker who labelled the couple ‘poison kings’ in the video circulated in Hailing’s WeChat group was clearly frustrated. As a leader in the street-level government (街道办主任), he found himself surrounded by a crowd of residents attempting to destroy the barricades that had kept their urban village blockaded for weeks as a result of the infections. The inhabitants of Buxin were mostly migrants, working as salespeople and cleaners for the nearby shopping malls and middle-class communities. After weeks of being locked in, they found themselves jobless, with no end in sight to their isolation. In the video, the local government official reiterated the cause of the quarantine of Buxin, tracing it back to the migrant couple who had just travelled from Inner Mongolia. The urban villagers in the video were angry not necessarily because of these migrant poison kings (most of the villagers themselves were migrants from other places), but because of the long-term strict quarantine rules that were making their daily lives more and more difficult. As the urban villagers were trying the destroy the barricades themselves, the street-level government leaders had to come out and speak to them directly. Even though they attempted to calm the situation with the promise of prompter government services, in the end they had to concede. In just one day, the barricades were removed, and the quarantine was ended.
Similar narratives about ‘poison kings’ reappeared shortly afterwards in Guangzhou. On 14 November 2022, migrants in Kanglecun, an urban village in Haizhu District, Guangzhou, started a huge riot that they called ‘rushing the barrier’ (冲卡) (Lianhe Zaobao 2022; see also Nellie Chu’s essay in this issue). Kanglecun is known for its small textile factories and most of its factory workers and businesspeople are from other parts of China, especially Hubei Province. Since the large Covid-19 outbreak in Guangzhou in early November, Kanglecun had been seen as the ‘source of poison’ on many Chinese social media platforms, as those migrant workers were considered ‘factors of uncertainty’ (不稳定因素) by locals. As more and more cases were found in the district around Kanglecun, increasingly discriminatory restrictions were imposed on the villagers. More and more factory workers who had tested positive were moved to quarantine centres by force, and more jobless people in the village became angry with the zero-tolerance policy. Some videos shared online by factory workers (which soon disappeared) showed that some PCR testing centres were open only to so-called locals, meaning the landlords who rented out their properties to migrant workers. Their tenants, the migrant workers, could only queue and wait to be tested after the locals. And how were tenants and landlords distinguished from one another? Their ability to speak Cantonese. Demonstrations and confrontations escalated—first, between the migrants and locals and then between all the residents and government workers. Finally, armed police were sent in to pacify the confrontations.
The question of ‘who was the source of the poison’ soon spread across Guangzhou and the internet. When the riots happened in Kanglecun, similar discussions also occurred on a WeChat group that Hailing had joined. The group had 310 members, most of them owners of properties in a gated middle-class community nearby Kanglecun; but there were also community workers from the street-level government and several local police officers. The lively discussions saw exchanges between two divided parties, with the dominant faction, typing in Cantonese, blaming migrant workers as the ‘source of the poison’. These people demanded the migrants go back to their hometowns and insisted that the property management company should shut all the exits. Given that about 70 per cent of the migrant workers in Kanglecun are from Hubei Province, most of the WeChat group participants called them Hubei lao (湖北佬), a derogative term in Cantonese to describe migrant workers from that province. A minority of users in the WeChat group were people typing in Mandarin claiming that Hubei lao could also understand Cantonese and be property owners in Guangzhou. The existence of voices from Hubei property owners seemed to be a particular surprise to so-called locals in the WeChat group, who had not considered that their middle-class community might also be home to better-off migrants from Hubei. Some of the group members soon made statements that none of the ‘property owners’ in the community should be stigmatised and the term Hubei lao was just a joke to demonstrate the close connections in the neighbourhoods; the rather heated discussions finally ended with repeated clarifications that ‘Guangzhou is an open city’.
In this essay, we suggest that the poison king concept focused concerns and anxieties, and refracted existing tensions as it circulated and was put to use. Studying how it did so has allowed us to uncover an ethics of a surveillance culture that was ‘normative, contextual, disclosive and relational’ (Lyon 2017: 835), especially in the morally evaluative era of pandemic conduct. Our essay has followed the label’s expansive capacities, from the individual staring at her phone wondering whether a trip to the hairdresser was going to be morally costly, to groups of people experiencing secondary levels of access to testing facilities on the grounds of their language abilities. Moreover, it is important to note that this is not a static or singular category. As the examples illustrate, it can be applied across social classes, from overseas students to businesspeople to migrant workers. In some cases, it clearly operated along existing lines of tension, as in the final example of immigrants and migrant workers where conflicts between ideas of rurality and urbanity already shape social relations in fragmented and changing urban and data landscapes.
Clearly, to be labelled a poison king is undesirable, but it does not have the same implications or power for everyone or in every situation. The bearer’s social position influences what is required to escape the stigma and, as we have shown, how the label impacts lives. From hesitating to go out in the anticipation of becoming a poison king, to returning home from overseas only to risk being called a poison king, different groups of people experienced both the risk and the impact of the label differently. In our final example of contestation over a barricaded urban village, it became evident that existing divisions, assumptions, prejudices, and projections shaped both how the label was assigned and how it was left behind.
This piece has been produced as part of ‘Moving Data-Moving People: Reorganizing Trust through China’s Social Credit System’, a project funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark / Danmark’s Frie Forskningsfond and hosted at the IT University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University (0133-00089B)
Featured Image: Plague Doctor Inspired Leather Mask. PC: Dmitry Demidov (CC), Pexels.com.