Viral Imaginaries: Infectious Disease and Society in Contemporary China

 conference poster5 to 6 December 2013
Room 436, 4F, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, The University of Hong Kong

5 December 2013


10:00am – 12:45pm

Section I: Framing Disease

2:15pm – 4:30pm

Session II: National and Global Imaginaries

6 December 2013


9:30am – 11:45am

Session III: Spillovers

2:00pm – 3:30pm

Session IV: Round Table Discussion

China is often represented in the West as a ‘hot spot’ in the ‘battle’ against emerging infectious diseases. Outbreaks of Avian Influenza in 1997 and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002/3 drew the world’s attention to the region’s vulnerabilities. International public health reports and scientific publications, newspaper articles, fictional accounts, and the movies, invariably depict China as the ‘frontline’: a place where disease thrives, and where social, political, and economic forces are drivers of an imminent global pandemic.

Viral Imaginaries seeks to challenge these stereotypes by asking: How do the storylines, images, and identities of infectious diseases differ in China and the West? What are the consequences for global health of these differences? How are biomedicine and public health intertwined in China with issues of social order and identity? And to what extent has an increasingly globalized world, characterized by social media, transformed the ways in which local disease events are understood and responded to?

The conference will bring together scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including the history of health, cultural and media studies, comparative literature, anthropology, and political science, to reconsider the critical role that infectious diseases have played in the constitution of – and contestation over – national imaginaries. The aim is to explore disease as a ‘viral’ phenomenon; that is, in relation to diffusions of information, ideas, and affects, through socio-cultural networks. The focus is on the circulation of discourses of health and disease, and on representations of infectious threats as a ‘grammar of difference’ in the formation of regional, national, and transnational identities. Viral Imaginaries thus aims to furnish a platform for exploring the multi-dimensionality of current and future epidemics.

The scope of the conference is chiefly on the period after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with particular emphasis on the decades after 1980, which witnessed China’s ‘liberalization’ and the emergence, globally, of many novel infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. However, attention is also paid to the historical contexts provided by earlier disease outbreaks. A key emphasis is on how contemporary ‘viral’ imaginaries recuperate and rework earlier Western anxieties about China as the ‘sick man’ of Asia – and, reciprocally, on how they articulate Chinese anxieties about ‘Western’-driven disease. Viral Imaginaries thus seeks to promote fresh thinking about disease emergence from a comparative China-West perspective, bringing much-needed social, cultural, and historical perspectives to research on communicable disease.

Participants include: Dr. Corey Byrnes (University of California, Santa Barbara), Professor Richard Fielding (University of Hong Kong), Dr. Ari Heinrich (University of California, San Diego & University of Sydney), Dr. Shao-hua Liu (Academia Sinica), Dr. Christos Lynteris (University of Cambridge), Professor Gina Marchetti (University of Hong Kong), Dr. Jeff Martin (University of Hong Kong), Dr. Robert Peckham (University of Hong Kong), Dr. Carlos Rojas (Duke University), Dr. Shao Jing (Nanjing University), Ms. Maria Sin (University of Hong Kong), Dr. Ria Sinha (University of Hong Kong) and Professor Priscilla Wald (Duke University).

* The Conference is supported by the Hsu Long-sing Research Fund through the Faculty of Arts at HKU.

All welcome. Free admission. Registration: