China and the Coronavirus: A Blame Game Gone Wrong

Amid this global pandemic, many Americans have adopted the sentiment that we should blame the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the coronavirus — but certainly “not the Chinese people!” And this does sound like a reasonable stance: it allows us to simultaneously oppose racism against Asian Americans, avoid demonizing Chinese citizens and criticize a government with a track record of ethics violations. However, this China-bashing — even if clearly directed at the Chinese government — is laced with Western supremacy and hypocrisy. This is not to say that the CCP deserves praise as a government, nor is it a normative judgement on whether the U.S. or China is a better world leader. Simply put, we must recognize that these criticisms reduce accountability for the U.S. and blur the line between politics and anti-Asian rhetoric.

One of the earliest coronavirus-related grievances toward the Chinese government is its failure to shut down wet markets, from which the disease likely originated. Calls for the CCP to permanently close these markets exemplify how critiques of a government cannot be divorced from cultural judgements. The typical wet market is equivalent to a farmer’s market, an open space where fresh produce is sold. The markets feature uncommon animals, but these animals are not necessarily wild-caught. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, stated that “it boggle[d] [his] mind how, when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we just don’t shut it down.” This type of statement generalizes all wet markets as hubs for disease, and fails to understand that many Chinese people depend on wet markets for income or low prices, and that wet markets are an important part of Chinese culture. It’s also worth noting that the 2009 Swine Flu, which originated on a U.S. factory farm and spread globally, did not provoke international outcry for the U.S. to shut down its farms. Statements like Fauci’s, which unfairly demonize China’s cultural and culinary practices, can easily devolve into harmful stereotyping of Asians as unsanitary and uncivilized. Anti-Asian harassment and hate crimes have risen as a result of the coronavirus, including vandalism portraying Chinese people as bat-eaters and disease-carriers.

High-level US officials also enjoy reminding the public that the U.S. is suffering because China’s underreporting of coronavirus cases prevented the world from understanding and preparing for the virus. A leaked dataset from a Chinese military university reveals city-specific information that the CCP had not made available, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lamented that the U.S. has fallen “behind the curve” because the “information that we got at the front end of this thing wasn’t perfect.” However, while the CCP may not have shared information properly, it would be ludicrous to say that the sole reason for America’s abysmal response to the virus was inaccurate Chinese data. China publicly confirmed the existence of the coronavirus on January 7, within days of its discovery. They released the genetic sequence of the virus on January 12, which the WHO subsequently announced to assist other countries in developing tests and treatments. By the end of February, China reported 43,000 cases of coronavirus. These numbers were obviously severe enough for countries like South Korea and Germany to respond vigilantly, while the Trump administration held a press conference downplaying the severity of the virus and the thousands of lives that it had already taken. If 43,000 cases was not enough to get the U.S.’s attention, how many would it have taken for the administration to care? The U.S. would have bungled its response regardless of the accuracy of China’s numbers, but those numbers now serve as a scapegoat for U.S. politicians to avoid accountability.

As the world took steps to contain the virus, Trump administration leaders continued to focus on maligning China. White House Adviser Peter Navarro stated without evidence that “their China virus … the virus was spawned in Wuhan Province,” and that the government “sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York and around the world to seed that.” He continued to say that “the Chinese did that to Americans and they are responsible now.” Such an accusation fuels the flames of xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiments. Many U.S. citizens will hear Navarro, a high-ranking leader, declare that the Chinese government has done something akin to bioterrorism and feel justified in resenting China and its people. 

Furthermore, claims like these demonstrate a more deeply-rooted but equally concerning fact about the current administration: the government’s clear desire to blame China for problems that were caused by poor domestic planning. Over the past three years, the administration has defunded the Center for Disease Control (CDC) by 20% annually and reduced the size of the CDC’s global health threat identifying task force to a mere three members. In January, health experts warned that the U.S. was underprepared for the coronavirus due to these cuts, as well as the abandonment of a nation-wide tiered epidemic response procedure and closing of federally-funded advanced treatment facilities. In March, even after seeing that the coronavirus had reached the U.S., the Trump administration continued to propose billion-dollar cuts to Health and Human Services, including the CDC and the Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund. Looking back, if the U.S. had been better prepared domestically, the coronavirus may not have taken such a severe toll.

Although both countries have made similar mistakes in handling the virus, the U.S. is the only one making no effort to move forward. A recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report suggests that China hoarded medical supplies in January while failing to properly inform other countries of the virus. In the same vein, the U.S. diverted medical shipments designated for other countries in April, including a supply of 200,000 N-95 masks en route to Germany which was confiscated during shipping. Additionally, the U.S. secretly outbid France and Brazil on medical equipment that these countries had already purchased and blocked shipments of donated ventilators for Barbados. Ironically, these shipments were supplied by China, the country that U.S. leaders have painted as selfish and unwillingly to share. China has also pledged to donate $2 billion to the World Health Organization’s pandemic fund. In an angry public letter responding to this donation, President Trump threatened to cancel all U.S. funding for the WHO, which he claimed had become “too dependent on China.” Alongside this incident, the U.S. called for an international investigation into China’s handling of the virus, attempting to place responsibility for the global pandemic on the CCP. This kind of behavior shows that the Trump administration prioritizes continuing to vilify China above contributing to the global pandemic-fighting effort.

Not only does China-bashing have no positive impacts on responses to the coronavirus,  it also actually prevents important progress. Increasing suspicion toward China has resulted in federal investigations into scientists with Chinese ties for alleged nondisclosure. In the past, nondisclosure was an issue handled internally at universities. However, the National Institute of Health has investigated 189 scientists to date, with a particular focus on Chinese connections, an unprecedented increase relative to their 2018 numbers. These suspicions have always existed, but increased tensions with China have translated into more stringent actions. In March, a Chinese professor at the University of Florida who was working on a diagnostic kit for the coronavirus returned to China after the NIH and FBI launched an investigation into his Chinese university collaborations. The professor completed the diagnostic kit at the University of Hunan in China, where it is not available for American use. The diagnostic kit provides results in under an hour and can even be used in non-medical environments, which would have been beneficial in the U.S., where many states lack testing capabilities. Chinese scientists at the University of Texas and the University of Louisville have also recently left the U.S. after being investigated by the federal government for ties with Chinese universities. It is ridiculous and embarrassing that suspicions toward the Chinese government have grown to a point where they impede important scientific progress in the U.S. that could save lives. 

I only encourage you to think twice before lambasting the Chinese government while the Trump administration and other western leaders make the same mistakes. Not only do these criticisms inflame and justify anti-Asian rhetoric, but they also distract from the pressing problem of our domestic health crisis and rising coronavirus numbers. We are in no place to be passing judgement on the pandemic responses of other countries until we hold our own government to the same standards.