“We will win this war”. In March of 2020, Donald Trump began referring to himself as a “wartime president”. After months of downplaying the threat of Covid-19 in the United States, he declared war against an invisible enemy: a so-called “China virus”. The phrase was uttered dozens of times and captured in photographs of last minute amendments made to his speech scripts with a Sharpie. It perpetuated conspiracy theories and was repeatedly denounced as a racist contribution to increasing anti-Asian discrimination and xenophobia (indicative of the propaganda of another wartime era). This label, however, has benefited both President Trump and General Secretary Xi Jinping. It offers a unique perspective into the complex dialectics of China’s relationship with the United States.
China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic faced unprecedented domestic criticism. The Communist Party of China (CCP) silenced labs, suppressed reports of human-to-human contact and martyred doctors. It took a Wall Street Journal investigative report for the CCP to admit in public that an outbreak had occurred. China then responded with the largest lockdown in human history. Evoking Maoist rhetoric, a “people’s war” was waged against the virus. The country was brought to a standstill as inhabitants of Wuhan (and their relatives) were shunned and isolated under intense surveillance and suspicion. Meanwhile, China’s “mask diplomacy” worked to change international and domestic opinion of the handling of the virus by providing supplies to the countries in Europe that were hit the hardest. The US response to Covid-19, however, resulted in the largest shift of Chinese public opinion.
As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was accusing China of putting the world at risk for the repression of information, President Trump repeatedly praised Xi’s response, claiming that they are working together and that he has “much respect” for the General Secretary and the Chinese government’s handling of the situation. At the same time, Trump’s own response was undermined by blundering falsehoods and an overall lack of leadership. The number of US cases was rising as pretending the virus would just go away and allowing a patchwork of responsesdictated by the whims of individual state governors proved ineffective. When faced with mounting criticism, Trump followed in Xi’s footsteps. Distracting from his bungled response, he evoked war rhetoric. A “war” that was to be fought against what he had previously labelled a “china virus”.
This label perpetuated discrimination and rallied an “America First” base critical of China. Despite evidence to the contrary, theories claiming the virus was a Chinese government project designed in a Wuhan lab took hold, most recently voiced by the White House trade adviser, Peter Navarro. The national conversation successfully moved on from the mishandling and the rising dead count. In the months before the George Floyd protests, it shifted into denouncing racism and dispelling farcical conspiracies of a ruse to oust Trump from office through collusion between China and the US Democratic Party. Additionally, it fostered anti-American sentiment throughout China, firmly positioning public opinion behind Xi Jinping. It allowed him to become a “good emperor”, recovering from one of the most substantial criticisms of his “reign”.
A backlash against Trump’s remarks was amplified across all forms of China’s state owned, controlled and monitored media. In a counteroffensive on a scale rarely seen, anti-American sentiment gained traction across multilingual media outlets. An unfounded conspiracy theory stating that the virus was brought to China by a visiting American military athlete emerged in heavily censored spaces, supported by state media and vague public statements by top officials. Internationally, the backlash against Trump’s “China virus” label shifted attention away from the crackdown on Hong Kong and the over one million Uyghurs held in internment camps. This coordinated response indicates that China’s propaganda is increasingly capable of shaping perceptions outside its borders. Additionally, China’s “war” against the virus proved effective, leaving under 5,000 deaths and containing the initial spread of new cases.
In the United States, talk of war dissipated, but the spread of the virus continued. The hands-off approach put the fight (and all responsibility) in the hands of state governors. The death count climbed above 100,000, over 20 times that of China. Meanwhile, Trump continued to use the naming of the virus to capture headlines and attempt to rally a base for re-election. Despite the hypocrisy revealed by John Bolton, he claimed, “nobody has been tougher on China”. In campaign ads he referred to his opponent, Joe Biden, as “Bejing Biden”. A required questionnaire for anyone seeking tickets to his Oklahoma rally even asked attendees whom they would vote for, “President Trump” or “China Joe”. Such rhetoric has also resulted in Biden adopting a tougher stance against China, potentially affecting future relations irrespective of who is elected as the next US president.
On the one hand, critics argue that the United States hardline rhetoric against China could lead to further discrimination and usher in a new cold war. On the other, the power and agency of China (and its record of dealing with Europe) remind us that it is not rhetoric alone that will hinder bilateral agreements. Fundamental differences on the rules and norms of human rights are enacted across both countries, irrespective of the current US President’s problematic discourse. And yet, the “China virus” label has been successfully mobilized by both leaders to distract from preventable lives lost during the missteps of polar opposite approachesto managing Covid-19. It could backfire. As the George Floyd protests are echoed around the world, the United States’ rhetoric could shift along with a domestic and international focus on China’s treatment of ethnic minorities. Although it is more likely that rivalry will continue to fuel both administrations, leaving US and China relations to remain confrontational.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.