At a time when public health experts say the world needs clear communication and cooperation to contain the pandemic, two of the globe’s leading powers are butting heads as part of a nationalistic tit-for-tat over the coronavirus — accusing each other of mishandling the outbreak and misrepresenting one another’s roles in its rise.
“It seems to be we’re still in a free fall, looking for the bottom,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s really amazing that in the face of a global pandemic, the United States and China are playing the blame game, pointing fingers at one another rather than looking for some ways to cooperate.”
China has accused the United States, and Trump in particular, of racism for trying to label the virus Chinese or Wuhan, the city where it first appeared. The Trump administration has accused China of disinformation and slander.
Trump and political allies in and out of the administration frequently describe the crisis as Chinese-made, something public health professionals say is meaningless outside the lessons that can be learned from China’s experience in responding to the outbreak.
It is part of an effort to shift blame and characterize the outbreak as a foreign invader that has persisted even as Trump has shifted from dismissing the virus as a passing inconvenience to treating it as a threat to the nation.
“The world is at war with a hidden enemy,” he tweeted Tuesday. “WE WILL WIN!”
Trump and his allies have said that using the term “Chinese virus” is not aimed at exploiting xenophobic fears among some Americans. They say it counteracts self-serving propaganda from Beijing.
“China was putting out information which was false that our military gave this to them. That was false. And rather than having an argument, I said I had to call it where it came from. It did come from China,” Trump said Tuesday during a news conference at the White House. “So I think it’s a very accurate term.”
A Chinese state television outlet had admonished Trump in English on Monday night.
“Shall we call H1N1 ‘American flu’? No, we’d rather focus on saving lives,” @CGTNOfficial tweeted, adding the hashtags “#ChineseVirus? and #FightTheCOVID19.”
The Trump administration accuses China of covering up the extent of the initial outbreak in Wuhan and making it worse for the rest of the world. The administration has angrily denounced official statements in China suggesting that the virus originated in the United States or was spread to China by the U.S. military.
A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, in a series of tweets last week, amplified a conspiracy theory that the virus did not originate in a Wuhan market, as experts believe, but rather was weaponized deliberately by U.S. troops taking part in an athletic competition in that city last year.
A separate conspiracy theory circulating in the United States holds that the virus is a Chinese plot against the United States, and some Trump supporters have accused Democrats and the news media of engineering a fake crisis to make Trump look bad.
The State Department summoned China’s ambassador in Washington on Friday for a heated confrontation, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complained again Monday in a phone call with his Chinese counterpart.
Asked whether there is a “stigma” attached to labeling a global pandemic after a country or ethnicity, as Trump had done twice in a span of several hours Monday night and Tuesday morning, the president doubled down.
“No, I don’t think so. No, I think saying that our military gave it to them creates a stigma,” he told reporters.
He spoke before news of the journalists’ expulsion in China, but Pompeo addressed the development a short while later.
“They suggested somehow that the actions that we had taken here in America prompted this. This isn’t apples to apples,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “I regret China’s decision today to further foreclose the world’s ability to conduct free press operations, which frankly would be really good for the Chinese people.”
Pompeo also used his variant of “Chinese virus” as he accused the Chinese government of attempting to “shift responsibility.”
“There will come a day when we will evaluate how the entire world responded. We know this much. We know that the first government to be aware of the Wuhan virus was the Chinese government,” Pompeo said.
White House national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said last week that China cost the world time to deal with the virus, setting back the global response time by weeks or months.
“Not right,” he said.
China’s foreign ministry said the three U.S. outlets, as well as Voice of America and Time magazine, will be designated as “foreign missions” and must report information about their staff, finances, operations and real estate in China.
The statement did not mention pulling credentials for Time and VOA, but it was unclear whether China would take further action.
The escalating blame game comes as Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have faced widespread criticism for their handling of the pandemic. China’s Communist Party failed to disclose early reports about the virus, intimidating local doctors who tried to sound alarms, and party leaders have blamed the Trump administration for spreading unnecessary panic in its decision to shut down flights from China in January.
Trump played down the scale of the virus in the United States for weeks and offered contradictory and at times inaccurate information to the public, before only recently shifting to a more robust government effort to scale up testing.
The finger-pointing occurs as China and the United States are supposed to be moving toward an omnibus trade deal that tests Trump’s strategy of applying tariffs and then negotiating to remove them.
Trump insisted Tuesday that an initial U.S.-China trade agreement is intact and China will buy U.S. farm products as promised.
“We have a good relationship with China. I have not received anything to that. No, we have a signed agreement. They’re going to be buying, and they have been buying a lot of product,” Trump said.
As Trump and Xi play to their domestic audiences, analysts see competing incentives that are likely to exacerbate bilateral tensions, which have been on the rise for years, despite the announcement of a “phase one” trade deal in early January.
Glaser said Beijing is not only attempting to shift the blame for a domestic audience, but also eager to exploit the global uncertainty and bolster its argument that “China is a model for developing countries to copy and China should be a leader of global governance reform and portraying the United States as having failed in its governance model.”
Trump had touted the trade deal as a sign that his personal relationship with Xi was paying off in tangible economic wins for the United States, an argument that was shaping up as a core of his 2020 reelection message. Before the coronavirus began to make headlines in late January, the president had touted a possible upcoming summit with Xi to begin talks on a “phase two” deal.
On Jan. 15, Trump played host to a handful of senior Chinese officials in the East Room at the White House to announce the trade breakthrough in celebratory remarks with U.S. business officials. Yet Gordon Chang, a China hawk who appears frequently on Fox Business Network, pointed out that by then, Xi already knew about the spread of the coronavirus in Wuhan.
“These guys send their delegation into the East Room interacting with a good portion of the American leadership, and they were not even telling us they were potential disease carriers,” said Chang, who also questioned whether Beijing is prepared to abide by the terms of the trade package that was announced that day.
In the news conference Tuesday, Trump said he expects Beijing to follow through on its to pledge to purchases $250 billion in U.S.-made goods despite the negative impact that the coronavirus has had on China’s economy. He added that Beijing has “every incentive” to ensure that supply chains on pharmaceuticals to the United States remain intact.
Hudson Institute analyst Michael Pillsbury, who informally advises Trump on China and trade, said he does not view Trump’s stepped up rhetoric about the “Chinese virus” as signaling that the president is ready to dramatically escalate tensions with Beijing.
“I think it all depends on the implementation of the phase one agreement,” Pillsbury said. “It has a lot of deadlines in it.”
Others are advising Trump to dial down.
“The #ChineseVirus? Resist the temptation to demonize or scapegoat people or groups, especially in times of stress or shortage,” Jesuit priest and author James Martin tweeted. “The #COVID virus is no one’s ‘fault.’ And as Jesus reminds us with his life, there is no one who is ‘other.’ There is no us and them. There is only us.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization kept it short.
“Kind quick reminder: viruses have no nationality.”
Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.