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chāo zuòyè | 抄作业

Asked to write a dialogue about resolving a problem with a classmate, this student scripted a scene in which they copied someone's English assignment. (Source: New Weekly)

In late January 2020, as the novel coronavirus started to move from Wuhan to other parts of China, netizens criticized provinces that were slow to impose lockdowns and other restrictions that may have mitigated the spread of the disease. According to a post by Matters user @hannah0905, around January 20 exhortations started popping up to "copy the homework" of more "hardcore" provinces like Henan and Zhejiang.

It was not long before netizens redirected their derision abroad, ridiculing other nations that failed to follow China's lead, which included unprecedented measures such as the "dramatic action" of quarantining a city of 11 million. State media also picked up the homework analogy, a February 25 Beijing Daily story was titled "Multinational Call to Copy China's Homework: Three Trends Welcomed by the Situation" (多国喊话向中国抄作业,形势迎来3个新变化). The third trend listed in the article was that "WHO experts have confirmed that China's efforts have succeeded." Amid the pandemic, the WHO and China both received criticism for insufficient efforts to verify initial information on the outbreak, a move that highlighted Beijing's efforts to influence the organization.

Wrapped into the "copying homework" analogy is the idea of China's superiority as a star pupil whose work is worth copying. As journalist Chang Ping commented at Deutsche Welle Chinese on March 6 (translated by China Change):

[...] I can hardly celebrate the way many are doing across the strictly controlled social media environment, because the fact remains that there were nevertheless 119 people confirmed infected, 143 suspected of having the virus, and 38 people who succumbed to it. It’s difficult for me to accept this jubilation. More incredible is how the propaganda these days is patting China on the back for supposedly being the “class star” [in fighting the epidemic]. It beckons foreign countries to learn from China’s example like slow-witted students copying “homework” from the bright ones, ridiculing foreigners for “not even knowing how to copy our work.” [Source]

A New Weekly opinion piece put it this way: "As the 'Copy Homework Party' would say, 'I'm letting you copy me for your own good. It's your fault if you don't, and might hurt me, too.']" Reflecting that in the beginning it was certain provinces within China being told to copy the homework of others, @hannah0905 writes, "To look at China as a single entity, as the straight-A student whose response to the epidemic should be emulated by other countries, is to forget the pain before the scar has healed. It is 'absentminded.'"