At a televised news conference on March 18, US President Donald Trump called the COVID19 virus the “Chinese virus” and, when questioned, defended his choice of words.
This was not a slip of the tongue but a deliberate choice presumably guided by security specialists and his China team.
Is it racist?
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Trump’s comments are only the latest volley in a war of words that began with Beijing labelling a February 3 Wall Street Journal headline “racist” for referring to China as the “sick man of Asia”. China revoked credentials for three WSJ journalists to work in China.
Whatever we make of the headline, Beijing’s response was an overreaction, and arguably trivialised racism. The US and other inclusive immigrant societies, including Australia, deal openly with racism every day of the week. In my judgement, the headline did not quite make the racist grade.
On March 2, Washington responded to the expulsion of the journalists by placing a cap on the number of personnel that five Chinese state-owned media organisations could station in the US, effectively telling 50 to 60 Chinese media officers to leave the country.
In this case, the rationale was reciprocity, not content. State-owned media operatives were free to publish what they pleased but they were to reduce their numbers to within reach of those of American journalists permitted to work in China, although still exceeding them by a wide margin.
A fortnight later, Beijing retaliated by expelling almost all journalists in China working for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and placing additional restrictions on Voice of America and Time.
In the meantime, on March 12, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted to his hundreds of thousands of followers that US military personnel may have been responsible for bringing the virus to Wuhan. The US State Department sought a formal retraction without success.
In referring to the virus as the “Chinese virus” , Trump was hitting back in kind.
As Professor Ho-fung Hung of the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University points out this week in the Journal of Political Risk, “blaming the Chinese for the coronavirus is racism, blaming the Chinese government for it is not. We should not let Beijing exonerate itself from the responsibility of causing this global crisis by hiding behind the noble banner of anti-racism.”
Anti-racism has a history in geopolitics. As Moscow showed in the cold war, authoritarian states like to pick at open wounds in other societies to hide festering sores in their own. Race is one of them.
As recently as the 2016 election, Russian trolls played the racist card on American social media to dampen African-American participation in the hope of keeping Hillary Clinton out of office.
China has been consistently playing the anti-racism card in Australia. In December 2017 China’s embassy in Canberra criticised Australian media for “unscrupulously vilifying Chinese students as well as the Chinese community in Australia with racial prejudice”.
In June 2018, China’s Ambassador Cheng Jingye, referring to the passage of Commonwealth legislation to limit foreign government interference in Australian public life, urged the government of Australia to put an end to “bigotry” in bilateral relations.
As a rule, liberal democracies play to their strengths in countering misinformation campaigns waged by authoritarian states by being honest, fair and transparent.
The temptation is to trade like for like and hit back at outrageous lies with untruths of our own. This only plays to the strengths of one-party states that exercise monopoly control over national news and information and turn our reactions into mass media vendettas that silence alternative or mediating voices within their own communities.
Best stick to honesty, transparency, and fairness. Trump’s remarks do not pass that test.
John Fitzgerald is a China specialist and an emeritus professor at Swinburne University of Technology.