They dance and fight, smash down front doors, test house cats for Covid-19, and sometimes get kicked around by old ladies – the so-called Da Bai (大白), China’s Covid helpers in white disposable protective suits have become a symbol of the lockdown craze in the People’s Republic. The nickname, which translates as “big white,” derives from the friendly, inflatable robot Baymax from Disney’s eponymous animated film.
Under the polyethylene suits are police officers and medical personnel, but also volunteers from all professions and walks of life. Foreigners have also joined the appeal to give something back to China, as the state-run Shanghai Media Group reported. Some “Da Bai” have written encouraging slogans on the back of their suits: “Shanghai, you can do it!” Or, “When this is over, we’ll all have a milk tea together!” If you’re going to seal off a metropolis of 26 million with dystopian-looking plague troops, at least do it in a friendly manner.
During the Covid outbreak in Wuhan in 2020, these white helpers were already staged by state propaganda as heroes on the front line. They were seen disinfecting buildings around the clock, sticking swabs down throats, taking fevers, and distributing food. They often did not even get to take off their suits to go to the bathroom, it was said. Despite such inconveniences, the “Da Bai” allegedly always kept a cheerful demeanor. But because it’s hard to see that under the face masks, plastic hinges and hoods, China’s state media happily shared videos of protective suit choreography. For example, an article from Xi’an at the beginning of the year went viral, in which the white giants performed a rabbit dance to the pop song “Penguin’s Game”.
But China wouldn’t be China if its citizens didn’t do their own thing as far as possible. Videos of “Da Bai” sword fighting, Covid testing of fish and chickens, Jackass-like stunts and disinfection frenzies on deserted streets are circulating on social media channels. Even on China’s dating apps, lasciviously opened protective suits are now a selfie trend.
However, many videos that have circulated recently no longer show the “Da Bai” as cute chaotic characters, but as violent and obedient Stormtroopers who seem to be out of control on a quarantine death star. The list of documented incidents is as long as it is horrific: There are “Da Bai” yelling in citizens’ faces with megaphones, killing pets, and forcing elderly people into quarantine centers against their will.
Meanwhile, the Covid helpers are even referred to as “White Guards,” in reference to the Red Guards, who culminated their newfound power in a sadistic fashion during the Cultural Revolution. The outrage over the “Big Whites” actually suits the government, says Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese politics at Oxford University in an interview with the JapanTimes newspaper. “They divert the anger of the population away from the central authorities.”
Earlier this week, footage surfaced of such empty white suits being lashed in front of building entrances to keep residents from going out the door. The “Da Bai” has now become a scarecrow – let’s see how long the population will allow itself to be scared off by it. Fabian Peltsch