People who follow the news closely likely are aware of how mainstream outlets lambasted President Trump’s use of terms like the “China virus” or the “Chinese virus” to refer to the novel coronavirus. His detractors argue the term is racist, xenophobic rhetoric validating all their criticisms of his personality. As others have demonstrated, critics seem to be pretending that they are unaware that the CDC and World Health Organization routinely refer to viruses and illnesses using terms that designate their apparent place of origin.
As a rhetorician, I examine the stakes and effects of particular examples of public discourse. Using the term “China virus” or the “Chinese virus” is not a racist or xenophobic use of rhetoric. Neither term makes use of denigrating cultural stereotypes in that way that a term like the “Kung Flu” (allegedly used by one White House official) does. In fact, the Left’s reflexive charges of racism and xenophobia for the mere mention of “China” showcases their perpetual conflation of race, ethnicity, and nationality.
The designation of “Chinese” doesn’t disparage Asians at large. And of course, “Chinese” doesn’t even name an ethnicity, as there are a number of ethnic groups living in modern China, some of whom are brutally repressed by the Han ethnic-majority in their government.
Further, various mainstream journalists assert that the real problem with phrases like the “Chinese virus” is that it stigmatizes Asian-Americans. But Asian-Americans aren’t Chinese—they’re Americans. The fact that voices on the Left insist on viewing them as “Chinese” underscores the Left’s unending devotion to a globalist identity politics: citizenship is irrelevant. If your family originally came from China, you are Chinese—now and forever.
Of course, a little more stigma might have slowed the now-catastrophic spread in places like New York City—one of the Left’s urban centers most strongly embracing the cosmopolitan rhetoric of identity. As late as February 18, the New York Times was still publishing articles with claims such as, “The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other.”
The potential damage of that kind of obfuscation can’t be quantified. Who knows how many New Yorkers invited Asian friends (perhaps freshly back from celebrating the Lunar New Year in China) to dinner in an effort to fight “stigma” and signal virtue.
That’s not to say Asians and Asian-Americans with connections in Asia should be held in “suspicion” or disdain. Obviously, they should not be. It’s merely to say that with any new and relatively unknown public health hazard, it should be common sense (but, sadly, is not) to temporarily limit one’s contact with people who are most likely to have been exposed to the disease.
A New Cold War with China
Nevertheless, focusing on whether or not Trump’s use of the term “China virus” was impolite distracts us from much more important geopolitical concerns. Unquestionably, this pandemic will further strain the already testy relationship between Washington and Beijing. China has now threatened to enact trade policies with the stated goal of ensuring a greater spread of the disease in the United States. And they are likely aware of the fact that after the virus is tamed, a number of Western economies will begin reducing their dependence on Chinese manufacturing.
Depending on the scope of that decoupling, it could have disastrous effects on the Chinese economy. These geopolitical anxieties will exacerbate the confrontation between our nations. Given that both sides would seek to avoid military engagement at all costs, the confrontation—first and foremost—will be rhetorical in nature. Essentially, we may be entering what could be called a cold war with China.
George Gallup—the father of modern opinion polling—deeply understood the role of public opinion in winning a cold war. In a speech titled “Why We Are Doing So Badly in the Ideological War,” Gallup noted that Americans shouldn’t assume that “only the gullible could be fooled” by Soviet propaganda. He asserted that the only way to win the Cold War would be for America to wage an even more cunning propaganda effort. And we did: Reagan’s rhetoric, in particular, contained a forceful—and occasionally impolite—condemnation of Soviet Communism.
But it wasn’t only presidential rhetoric that advanced this propaganda effort. It was “Rocky.” It was Bruce Springsteen. It was MTV. It was “Red Dawn.” It was the 1980 Winter Olympics and the “Miracle on Ice.” It was Nike. It was Hulk Hogan.
Put differently, the society at large—the mass media, the sporting world, the popular culture—understood that everyone had a role in Cold War messaging against the Soviet Union if the confrontation would be settled in our favor. And it was.
If we are entering a new rhetorical cold war with China, our culture will again need to be unified in our messaging. China’s propaganda efforts against the United States will be brutal. They have already shown this by asserting that the United States exposed the Chinese people to the virus and threatening to “plunge us into the sea of the coronavirus.” And the uniformity of their official messaging is guaranteed: the Chinese media and culture industry are tightly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
A Bad Time to be Disunited
Of course, if we were in healthier political times, there would seem to be some opportunity for understanding among the average citizens of China and those in the United States—in the wake of their government’s authoritarian handling of the outbreak, many Chinese took to social media to condemn the CCP and endorse Hong Kong’s call for American-style democratic reforms.
But in America, our media elites are signaling that they will not allow America to take part in any rhetorical effort to undermine the Chinese government’s economic and geopolitical aggression towards the United States. The United States, in other words, is not united.
By chiding the president for using the relatively banal term “Chinese virus,” they are weakening America’s position in this new ideological battle before it even begins. Given that the culture at large needs a unified message, if we are to win the coming battle, explicitly condemning the official government position on matters related to the Chinese culpability for the pandemic is tantamount to advancing the Chinese propaganda effort.
Clearly, China has noticed, and they appreciate the assistance: as if on cue, they have begun imitating the rhetoric of the American progressive Left.
A moment will come—perhaps sooner than later—that the American Left will need to make a choice. Obviously, many of them think that America is a blight on history. But we are left to ask: faced with the choice of advertising the virtues of the American government and way of life or enabling China in their design to take a position as the preeminent global economic power, would they choose the latter?
Is their self-disdain so severe that they would sabotage American messaging as it relates to China? Day by day, they are answering these questions.