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The “Chinese Virus” is a Chinese Virus

January 23, 2021

And reminds us that the world should beware of Beijing

January 20 marked not only the inaugural of the 46th US president but also the first anniversary of his Chinese counterpart’s disastrously belated admission of the severity of the Covid outbreak. Of course, the two events are related: 25 days of foot-dragging by President Xi and his cumbersome communist apparatus prevented the rest of the planet from taking measures to fend off the virus; Donald Trump, whose own response to Covid-19 was less sinister but more inept, failed to gain re-election in part because of the ensuing pandemic.

This is not to claim that Xi Jinping unleashed Covid on the world to unseat one of his loudest critics – though he may well have bet that his authoritarian regime would contain it more effectively than most other governments, allowing China to accelerate its drive to overtake the USA and the EU as the world’s largest economy. It is to suggest that, one year and 2 million global deaths later, the Biden administration needs to maintain a tough stance on China – preferably, as The Economist has argued, in unison with other democracies rather than via Trumpian unilateralism.

It is also to say that we should never lose sight of Covid’s cultural and, more importantly, political origins. Put simply, the “Chinese virus” is indeed a Chinese virus.

A recap: For most of Trump’s presidency, China policy meant holding the country to account over its currency manipulation, theft of intellectual property, expansionism in the South China Sea, environmental abuse, persecution of its Muslim Uighur minority, repression of civil rights activists in Hong Kong, and its persistent communist authoritarianism. Then a new concern emerged: Covid-19, which Trump soon labelled “the Chinese virus”.

Since Trump is a morally fetid and clownish xenophobe, and since most US cultural gatekeepers are hypersensitive to the politics of language, many media were quick to label the term racist. Reports of Chinese Americans being verbally attacked bolstered the case against its use. The World Health Organization (WHO), as per its 2015 policy on virus naming, asked us not to attach the disease to any nation, a line paraphrased by Unesco as: “Viruses have no nationality”.

That idea is nice but infantile. It has prompted such absurdities as the prestigious British magazine Nature apologizing for the “error” of “associating the virus with Wuhan and with China” – as though the first outbreak had not occurred in Wuhan. It is true that the exact origins of Covid-19 are unknown. This month a team of WHO scientists finally travelled to Wuhan to try to determine them, although given the history of stalling of Covid researchers by the Chinese government we should not hold our breath for answers. Meanwhile, the competing origin theories both point to Chinese culpability.

Theory A, the more popular, holds that Covid-19 jumped to humans via a live-animal “wet market” in Wuhan. As eminent Chinese academic Yi-Zheng Lian wrote in the New York Times on “the cultural causes [sic] of this epidemic”, the problem with Chinese wet markets is their common inclusion of exotic animals, due to folkloric notions about their curative powers. As people rarely have contact with such fauna, their diseases are especially dangerous, for generations of humans have not had the chance to develop immunity to them. Another problem is that Chinese authorities have failed to stamp out such sales, despite the precedent of the 2002 SARS virus. This too probably originated in a Chinese wet market and – following the usual official attempts to hide it – went on to kill some 800 people.

Theory B holds that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan research laboratory and somehow escaped. This theory was popularized by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May. At the time it sounded like one more conspiracy theory of the many that Trump and his minions propagated, so most media at first dismissed it. However, Theory B has since gained traction among more respectable minds, such as Jamie Metzl of the Atlantic Council think tank. In June, the former head of British Intelligence (MI6), Richard Dearlove, publicly stated that he believed it. In November, a Stanford University microbiologist wrote that the theory needed to be taken seriously.

Whichever theory is right, the Chinese state tried to conceal the outbreak. It castigated the doctor who had revealed it on December 30. It then claimed, in the face of ample evidence to the contrary, that there was little or no transmission between humans – a lie that the WHO naively disseminated. Only on January 20 did President Xi admit the severity of the virus. By that date, we now know, Covid had already infected thousands of Chinese and had arrived in Thailand, Japan, the USA, and France.

Three specifically Chinese factors explain that fiasco. The most obvious is the instinctive unwillingness of officialdom – that is, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – to admit problems; all governments are like this to a point, but CCP reticence is extreme. Next is what Professor Yi-Zheng calls “China’s long, long history of punishing the messenger”, which deters junior officials from sounding the alarm. Third, and returning to the culpability of the state, the CCP does not allow a free press, of the kind that reports bad news and holds the powerful to account. In its annual Press Freedom Index, French NGO Reporters Without Borders ranks China 177th out of 180 countries surveyed.

Ironically, the real and widespread phenomenon of Sinophobia serves the Chinese state, for it gives its leaders a cover: attempts to link Covid-19 with China are routinely undercut in the West with charges of “racism!” – charges that well-meaning but self-censorship-prone US media and universities have shown themselves willing to level. These include the University of Cincinnati and Syracuse University, which suspended professors who used terms such as “Chinese virus” in writing.

By disconnecting Covid from China, Western editors and educators are facilitating a long-running propaganda offensive of the CCP. Compare how, for example, Chinese officials have been pushing the idea that Covid has multiple global origins, none of them in China. Or how a foreign ministry spokesperson this month floated the conspiracy theory, which promptly went viral, that Covid was born in a US military lab. These are borrowings from the Donald Trump fake news playbook: throw out baseless claims, trusting that “patriots” and know-nothings on social media will make some of them stick.

We may choose not to call it “the Chinese virus”, but we should not punish those who, in an informed fashion, do exactly that. (The more specific “Made-in-China virus” might be a better alternative.) We should not let the sensitivities of the Chinese diaspora and the nationalism of many young Chinse, active on social media, obscure the larger fact that the CCP is mostly to blame for (so far) 2 million deaths, 100 million infections, saturated health services, economic depression, and ten months-and-counting of lockdown malaise.

And governments should not lose sight of the lesson that Covid-19 teaches: the People’s Republic of China cannot be trusted. As former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten noted last week, this has been especially the case since the 2013 accession of President Xi, who amid fears of globalization’s threat to CCP power, promptly launched “a values war against the West”. In the words of former White House national security adviser HR McMaster, writing about the CCP in The Atlantic: “The party has no intention of playing by the rules associated with international law, trade, or commerce”.

Democracies like Britain and Mexico that are susceptible to the lure of Chinese investors and the assurances of Chinese officials need to tread carefully.

(Article updated 31 Jan.)

Nota: Una versión más breve de este artículo apareció anteriormente en Arena Pública.

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