As the coronavirus pandemic deepens, the governments of two countries that have emerged as epicenters — the People’s Republic of China and the United States — have turned to a time-honored performance: blaming each other. On March 12, PRC diplomat Zhao Lijian pushed a conspiracy theory that the US Army could have brought the virus to China. In a press briefing days later, US President Donald Trump nicknamed COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” in apparent retaliation.
In reality, both governments deserve heavy criticism for their botched response to the virus. Beijing’s early attempt to cover up the outbreak may have cost untold thousands of lives (its present eagerness to reopen Hubei province for business, possibly based on misleading data, could be just as dangerous). Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s dithering — combined with its gutting of public health infrastructure, including eliminating the CDC’s liaison to China last July — has only made the disaster in America far more serious.
This week, both sides orchestrated a pullback. On Monday, the PRC’s US ambassador Cui Tiankai disavowed the conspiracy theory promoted by Zhao, adding on Twitter that the United States and China “have to work together as partners to combat the virus.” On cue, Trump told Fox News just hours later he would stop using the term “Chinese virus,” praising his friendship with Chinese president Xi Jinping and adding that China has “been through hell.”
Of course, the damage had already been done. Republicans downstream of Washington have eagerly pushed the racist attack forward. Democrats were encouraged to join the bandwagon: at the most recent presidential debate, moderator Dana Bash simply asked the candidates, “What consequences should China face for its role in this global crisis?” Meanwhile, hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked, stories which in turn, have become fodder for PRC propaganda. In China, one restaurant even flew a banner cheering the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival in the United States.
In this New Cold War dynamic, it is the people who ultimately lose. Framing US-China relations as a zero-sum contest for power allows authorities to derail people’s efforts to hold them accountable for their failures. It neglects the countless people facing serious threats that require transnational collective action — pandemics, climate change, environmental destruction, global economic precarity — which cannot be solved by nationalist bluster.
Great power competition obscures the truth: that the well-being of working people everywhere is powerfully interlinked. Ruling elites don’t want to talk about how global capitalism means factory cities like Wuhan have been shaped by the demands of American capitalists, whose profit margins depend on the labor of the exploited Chinese migrant workers who were among the coronavirus’ first confirmed carriers. They don’t want to talk about how the means used to suppress labor movements and slash social services in China mirror tendencies in the United States. Doing so would reveal the powerful linkages and common struggles between the working classes in both countries. It would clarify why the coronavirus is impacting poor people in awfully similar ways, on both sides of the ocean—and that it is people, not states, who are making the greatest sacrifices to try and keep each other safe.
It is easy to feel disoriented when the leaders in Washington and Beijing amp up Cold War-style rhetoric, then suddenly give lip service to cooperation. But what they will never do is come clean and admit that they have pitted Americans and Chinese people against each other in an artificial opposition, fueling an economic race to the bottom that only reinforces the power of those at the top. Far from protecting us, fantasies about national supremacy have only distracted us and made us more vulnerable; the coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating this in blood.
This should be a moment for us to shift the discussion. Let us stop thinking of each other from the perspective of the states we live under, but develop a critical understanding of how their contrived rivalries impoverish us of the solidarity we should’ve had with each other all along.