By Ralph W. Beha
Every four years or so, in the run-up to our presidential election. the United States goes through a ritual flogging of “China” (as though “China” were a monolithic entity in an almost super-human personal form). Blaming everything from job losses created by automation and technology to income inequality and globalization on “China” has become a predictable, if unfortunate, political gambit, on both sides of the aisle.
In the past, the noise has usually subsided and the administration, regardless of party, has gone on to forge a coherent policy of engagement, drawing the Chinese government into international organizations, forging multilateral treaty solutions to thorny situations, and conducting useful, if protracted, negotiations on matters of bilateral concern. During the past several decades, these engagement efforts have led to a broad and deep opening of China to the West, reductions in geopolitical tensions, alleviation of poverty in China, and highly productive and prosperous trade and investment, academic, and cultural relations and understanding between the peoples of the U.S. and China.
This year, it’s hard to separate the periodic election bluster from the steady drumbeat of China bashing in which the U.S. government has indulged since 2016. During this time the current administration has barely missed an opportunity to damage relations between the governments of the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China, and to sow and cultivate an insidious anti-Chinese sentiment in the process. This has ranged from the “Trade War” to the exaggerated assertions of Chinese “intellectual property theft” (which currently ranks sixth in the American business community’s concerns about doing business with China), to unsubstantiated assertions that the Chinese company Huawei (a leader in 5G technologies) is planting espionage hardware into every mobile and infrastructure device it sells anywhere in the world, to the fear that the Chinese economy’s maturation and growth itself (pulling over 700 million people out of poverty in the past two generations) somehow constitutes an existential threat to the U. S. compelling us to view “China” as The Enemy.
The emergence of the current coronavirus pandemic has provided fertile ground for the expansion of this odious trend. From the panoply of conspiracy theories ranging from the silly to the truly paranoid, there is now a chorus of blame being focused on Chinese people, the Chinese central government, the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese participants in intergovernmental organizations, and Chinese scholars, students and expatriates. The administration has gone from persistent denial that the epidemic was a problem at all to assertions of a “cover-up” by the Chinese government that allegedly set back or delayed the U.S. response. We have gone, as David Frum of The Atlantic (and former George W. Bush speech writer) noted recently, from lauding the Chinese government’s response to shifting all “blame” for the U.S. government’s slow response, and for the very virus itself, to China.
While the science of how pandemics emerge suggests that, this time, the pathogens originated in Hubei province, there is no rational support for the assertions that these are intentionally created or spread (to great personal loss and suffering) by anything uniquely “Chinese.” Previous epidemics in recent human history (SARS, MERS, Ebola, AIDS, polio, the “Spanish Flu” of 1918, or others) showed no respect for the national boundaries, or ethnic or racial backgrounds, of their sites of origin. The misbranded “Spanish Flu” of 1918 appears to have its origins in swine operations in Kansas near the end of WWI; we don’t feel compelled to re-brand Kansans (looking at you, Mike Pompeo) with that virulent and deadly pandemic. The AIDS epidemic that took root in the U.S. in early 1980s, initially thought to be linked to gay men with Haitian partners, has not been re-branded the Deadly Gay Virus. There is only one reason to relabel the current novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” and this is to inflame sentiment against “China” and, by extension, to people and all things Chinese.
Most disturbingly, the continued attempts to associate the current pandemic with “the Chinese” (including a House resolution calling for the Chinese government to “publicly declare” that the epidemic started there) have led to an atmosphere where Chinese American citizens, and other individuals of Chinese and Asian heritage, are subjected to disgusting and dangerous personal attacks, and not only in this country. This demonization of our fellow humans of Chinese background, that they somehow don’t have families, parents, kids, or jobs, or participate in our congregations, sports leagues, cultural events and the other aspects of our modern life (however that emerges from this crisis), enables them to be blamed for the pandemic. Shifting the blame for the current pandemic onto the blameless, simply because they are easily identified and demonized, is cruel and unconscionable. It has to stop.
For me personally, this cuts close to home. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1950; I was born that same year. In this country where my parents landed, less than five years after a cataclysmic war, Midwesterners of good heart and soul (some with their own lingering war injuries) were able to differentiate between a former wartime enemy and the simple family who fled to the U.S. in its aftermath. They welcomed our family as neighbors into their workplaces, schools, homes, bowling leagues, and social and cultural lives. (This is not to compare the Third Reich with China today in any way, only to compliment my adopted community’s ability to treat people, even former enemies of war, with dignity, respect, and character.)
Of course we need not be naively uncritical of the Chinese government; there are many policies of the current Chinese regime with which reasonable persons are entitled to take issue, from treatment of minorities in the west of China or an emerging, intrusive social ranking system to economic and trade policies that sometimes distort aspects of the international economic order. These critiques, however reasonable, do not justify the demonization of persons of Chinese heritage or background, especially in these days of a global pandemic, whether among us here or in China. Scientists and scholars in China have already decoded and shared the coronavirus genome with the world; Chinese-American scientists like Dr. David Ho (TIME’s Man of the Year in 1996) have helped us find relief from the ravages of AIDS and are now working on a COVID-19 cure.
It’s time to reject the blame game, and let the better angels of our nature guide our decisions and actions.
Ralph W. Beha is an attorney in Minneapolis, and president of the Minnesota Chapter of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent any organization.