It’s crucial for our health and safety that the United States push back against the Chinese government’s efforts to rewrite the history of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also crucial we don’t fuel racism or stigmatize Chinese citizens or Chinese Americans while doing so. The key to accomplishing both goals is to separate the way we talk about the Chinese people from the way we talk about their rulers in Beijing.
President Trump insists on calling coronavirus “the Chinese virus.” His rationale for doing so is simplistic but technically accurate: Chinese officials are intentionally spreading the lie the virus may have originated in the United States to deflect blame from their own early failings. “It’s not racist at all, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate,” Trump said Wednesday.
As many have noted, accuracy is not the only consideration the president should take into account. Trump is ignoring the history of racism against Asians and Asian Americans in this country and neglecting vital context: a real rise in racist incidents against ethnically Asian people in this country since the crisis began.
An Asian American reporter said a White House official used the term “Kung-Flu” in her presence. That’s unacceptable. The Asian American Journalists Association asked news organizations not to use the term “Wuhan virus,” in accordance with World Health Organization guidelines warning that referring to the geographical origin of an illness in the name stigmatizes the people there.
Surely, many who are using the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” are not racist. And surely, some are. For the person on the receiving end, there’s no difference. But there’s a well-founded way to honor the truth about the virus and hold those responsible to account without causing undue offense.
We must all be specified in blaming the Chinese Communist Party for its actions. It was the CCP that hid the virus outbreak for weeks, silencing doctors, jailing journalists and thwarting science — most notably by shutting down the Shanghai lab that publicly released the first coronavirus genome sequence.
The Chinese people are heroes in this story. Chinese doctors, researchers, and journalists risked their lives and even died fighting the virus and warning the world. The Chinese public’s community solidarity holds lessons for us as our own situation worsens. The Chinese are also victims of their own government’s draconian measures, which caused massive extra suffering.
“It is critical to remember that the Chinese people have no meaningful say in the measures taken by their government,” said Christopher Walker, vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. “In the haze of authoritarian information curation and disinformation now coming from Beijing, we can’t lose sight of the massive authoritarian governance failure at the global pandemic’s point of origin.”
This is not just about the coronavirus; it’s a crucial point relative to our whole approach toward China. Our beef is not with the Chinese people; our problem is with the CCP — its internal repression, its external aggression, and its malign influence in free and open societies.
Part of the CCP’s strategy is to divide us along political, ethnic and racial lines. Chinese officials routinely toss out the racism accusation to rebut criticism of their government. They also accuse the United States of racism to distract from their own horrendously racist policies, such as interning millions of innocent people in Xinjiang on the basis of ethnicity.
In the United States, most people aren’t attuned to this dynamic. In Australia, the political class has been debating CCP influence operations for several years. One report put out by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute suggested some clear guidelines on how to avoid the trap. The report states that we should avoid generalizations, clearly distinguish between the Chinese government and the Chinese people, and take care not to alienate ethnically Chinese citizens at home. In turn, we must also be careful not to attribute racist motives (unless justified) to those who criticize the Chinese authorities.
“Above all, the CCP has engaged in wedge politics to undermine legitimate public debate on Chinese Government policy and conduct within Australia,” wrote John Fitzgerald in the report. What's happening in the United States as well.
This is not political correctness run amok. This is about recognizing when an authoritarian regime is using our sensitivity to racism against us. We must avoid making accusations against the Chinese government unless supported by evidence. We must continue to press Beijing for more transparency and truth, which are crucial to stopping the spread.
Have we learned nothing from the Russian interference in 2016? We must not aid and abet the CCP’s efforts to stoke internal divisions and spread disinformation. Have we learned nothing from the post-9/11 demonization of Muslims? Chinese and Chinese Americans need our support during this crisis and bring great strength to our response.
Let’s stop saying “Chinese virus” — not because everyone who uses it is racist, but because it needlessly plays into the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to divide us and deflect our attention from their bad actions. Let’s just call it the “CCP virus.” That’s more accurate and offends only those who deserve it.