An awful lot of world history — especially the parts in which diseases spread, leaders fall, and wars start — inspires the same modern-day reaction: “Nah, leaders wouldn’t do something that stu— oh, wait, they did.”
So when you glance up from juggling whatever combination of work, kids, elderly relatives, cash flow, and toilet-paper supply you’ve been struggling with in the last week to see headlines about the U.S. and China expelling each other’s reporters, blaming each other for creating the coronavirus, and generally behaving like this would be a great time to ramp up a conflict, you might think, “Nah.” Besides, President Trump fundamentally loves authoritarian leaders and hates the idea of actual war, so ultimately the Americans and Chinese are going to calm down and beat the virus together, right?
It doesn’t look like it. Instead, the two countries are engaged in diplomatic and rhetorical battle, with both sides promoting division just as we need unity. The fighting not only undermines international cooperation when it’s most needed, but has the pernicious side effect of stirring up anti-Asian prejudice, which has left millions of Asian-Americans fearful. And it supplies China with talking points to argue globally that it is the responsible leader, while the United States is bigoted and backward.
The spiraling tension flows from preexisting conflicts between the Trump administration and China’s leaders that many hoped would die down with the signing of an interim trade deal just eight weeks ago. But America’s defense and national security establishment sees China as the next great enemy — a view prompted not just by the country’s disregard for trade and intellectual property norms, but also by its pressure tactics in the South China Sea and on U.S. forces in the region. The Trump administration has exerted pressure tactics not just on China, but on people and institutions that partner with China on business and research — pressure that too often combines with the administration’s anti-immigrant stances to play out as prejudice.
Then, as Beijing struggled with its own early missteps and failed efforts to conceal and minimize coronavirus, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed with a title that harkened back to a slur from 19th-century colonialism: “The Real Sick Man of Asia.” The Chinese government seized on popular outrage to expel several Journal reporters (one of whom, in full disclosure, is a fellow at the think tank New America, where I run a project). None had anything to do with the op-ed or its title, but they had written groundbreaking reporting on corruption in Chinese officialdom and the mass repression of China’s Uighur minority, among other sensitive topics. In retaliation, the Trump administration limited the number of work permits for several Chinese media outlets, effectively forcing 60 Chinese personnel to leave the country. This week, China escalated further, announcing that it would boot reporters from the Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times out of the country.
In the weeks since that tit-for-tat began, first Beijing and now Washington have become consumed by the coronavirus, and by attempting to repair their governments’ respective initial missteps. Both countries benefited — much as it enraged their leaders — from reporters who hounded leaders, demanded answers, and put their own health at risk to be on the ground, including at the epidemic’s first ground zero in Wuhan, covering daily life under quarantine.
But Beijing was up to something else as well. Its citizens were enraged that the virus was not handled better, and the regime saw an opportunity to redirect that anger abroad. As Foreign Policy’s James Palmer puts it: “There’s this real concerted effort to push blame away from China … both for global propaganda purposes, but most pertinently for domestic. Because if there’s a second wave of infection in China, they’re really going to need somebody to blame. They’re already switching toward blaming foreigners …”
Specifically, Chinese diplomatic representatives have seemed to be part of a coordinated effort to claim that the virus started as a U.S. bioweapons attack, possibly spread in China by athletes from the U.S. military.
Ridiculous? Sure. But then you have the parade of U.S. officials insisting on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus. (Fun fact: The “Spanish” influenza of 1918 seems to have originated in Kansas.) Even more embarrassing was Senator Tom Cotton’s speculation that the virus originated as a Chinese bioweapon (an idea discounted by virologists).
Laura Rosenberger, who leads efforts to counter authoritarian interference in democracies at the German Marshall Fund, told me with more than a little frustration that this posture puts the U.S. in a “tit-for-tat about who started it … it’s hard for us to push back on Chinese Communist Party propaganda when we’re doing it ourselves.”
But helping China score propaganda points isn’t all American politicians are doing. Much worse, the Trump administration is encouraging racism directed against people who are, or appear to be, of Chinese or Asian descent here in the United States. This tendency also didn’t begin with the coronavirus. For some time now, Trump cabinet officials, including the ones who posed as responsible adults, have been encouraging bureaucrats, academics, and the private sector not just to think carefully about Chinese investment and partnerships, but to actively mistrust any Chinese presence in their midst — and they haven’t been at all careful to distinguish between the Chinese government, Chinese people, and Americans of Chinese or other Asian descent. The result, even before the virus, has been a growing feeling of discomfort among Asians and Asian-Americans, and — along with some spectacular cases of untruthfulness about Chinese funding sources — a sizable exodus from the U.S. of professionals whom we really would have liked to keep here. Cases in point include a chemistry professor from Florida who, back in China, invented a fast test for COVID-19. Asian-Americans complain that the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, in the process of investigating allegations against a few scientists, profiled or pushed out nearly a dozen — one of whom went on to run a major Chinese region’s response to the epidemic.
The coronavirus, and the Trump administration’s eagerness to emphasize its origins, has taken that climate of fear nationwide. Civil liberties groups are reporting slurs, threats, and even acts of arson against Asian-Americans. CBS reporter and native West Virginian Weijia Jiang had a White House official refer to the disease as “kung flu” to her face. “I wonder what they call it behind my back,” she tweeted.
Now yet another group of Americans feels afraid, alienated, unwelcome. This is the last thing society needs at a moment in which we maximum solidarity and trust are paramount. But that’s not all, because guess who has been carefully watching for signs of racism toward Asians — and using it to distract from their own policy failures?
That’s right, the government in Beijing. The same people who have profiled, separated, and imprisoned millions of their own citizens in Xinjiang for the crime of belonging to a Muslim minority are not embarrassed to tweet, “Racism is Not a Tool to Cover Your Own Incompetence.”
As Rosenberger told me, “China has long used charges of xenophobia to deflect legitimate criticism. This plays right into the Chinese Communist Party’s hands.”
Right now, Beijing is riding high. It is sending assistance to Italy, after Rome’s fellow E.U. capitals ignored requests for help; it is advising its students to return home from danger zones like the U.K. and the U.S., and it is reporting zero new cases of the virus to a grateful public. That means it can present itself to the world, with some justification, as the global leader in fighting the coronavirus, with a successful model that foolish Americans declined to follow.
The celebration in Beijing may be premature. We don’t know if the data is accurate, and there’s very likely to be more cases. Someday we will learn of the numbers that have been suppressed, the deaths in prisons and Uighur concentration camps. With some of the intrepid journalists who traversed China to tell those stories now forced to leave, this process will take longer.
In the meantime, the U.S. is turning away from China altogether. An American president could announce that the U.S. would share all of its research and clinical data on the virus with others, or pool resources toward treatments and vaccines, and urge Beijing to do the same. An American president could discuss which of China’s anti-coronavirus measures the U.S. had adopted and which — like threatening local officials with punishment if they reported new cases — it found counterproductive.
And an American president could propose that China’s leaders be invited to join meetings (via webinar, just like the rest of us) with the Group of Seven industrial democracies (U.S., Japan, U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada, plus the E.U.) or the G20 global economies to plan measures that would help restore shared economic growth.
This would be a style of leadership — accepting China as an equal partner, while not staying silent when its shortcomings put others in danger — that might help begin to repair Washington’s damaged credibility. It would certainly save lives and help get the global economy back on its feet sooner rather than later. And it would express the understanding that, since no major society succeeded in walling itself off from the virus, we’re just going to have to fight it together.
Instead, though, we’re likely to see Washington ratchet up the rhetoric further at home. President Trump seems to believe his political survival depends on Americans believing this crisis was made abroad. And that’s not a path toward health — physical, economic, or social.
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