2020 Time Capsule #5: The ‘Chinese Virus’

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In a tweet last night, Donald Trump resurrected the term “Chinese Virus,” for the pathogen otherwise known (including by Trump in many earlier tweets) as the coronavirus.

This afternoon, at the now-daily press presentation about the virus and disease, Trump was asked why he used this term—given the bitter public and governmental response it has evoked in China, and recent reports of racist anti-Chinese reactions inside the United States. (For instance, the starting entry of a widely shared Twitter thread yesterday from Jiayang Fan, a writer for the New Yorker, is below.)

At today’s conference, Cecilia Vega, of ABC, mentioned the possibility of racist backlash to “Chinese Virus.” She directly asked Trump, “Why do you keep using this?” (You can see the exchange starting at time 1:44 of this video.)

Trump snapped back with what amounted to two points: First, that he was just calling things by their real name, and second, that he was getting back at China for suggestions that the U.S. was really to blame.

Why keep using the term?

Because it comes from China. That’s why. It’s not racist at all. I want to be accurate.

I have great love for all of the people from our country. [sic] But as you know, China tried to say, that it was caused by American soldiers.

That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen. As long as I’m president.

My purpose for the moment is not to review the full history of pejorative names for diseases—for instance, why syphilis was called “the French disease” by 16th-century Italians, to which the French responded by calling it “the Neapolitan disease.” Nor about the acute sensitivity in China to being seen as a source of filth and disease—something that would be an insult anywhere, but which in China comes with a distinct historical background that makes it particularly inflammatory. (Rough parallel: Think of any familiar defamatory stereotype used against Africans, or Latin Americans, or Jews, or any other group. Then think of a U.S. president using that in tweets and statements.) Nor about the point my colleague Graeme Wood astutely makes: that the real scandal is what the administration does (and fails to do), more than what it says. Nor the likelihood that the animal-human transfer that gave rise to this pandemic probably occurred in wild-animal markets in China. (Evidence suggests that the transfer that gave rise to the H1N1 “Swine Flu” epidemic a dozen years ago took place somewhere in North America, but the disease was not generally known as “the American Flu” or “the Mexican disease.”)

Rather it is to note this moment in the United States’s relationship with its most consequential foreign partner-and-competitor. While the combined public-health and economic catastrophes of the moment are commanding attention, the China-U.S. interaction may have moved in a distinctly darker direction.

Neither the United States nor China is big and dominant enough to force the other country—also big, also dominant—to do something its leadership or public genuinely does not want to do.

But both the United States and China play a large enough role in the other’s economic, strategic, environmental, cultural, and overall situation that each can make life significantly better, or worse for the other—not to mention effects on the rest of the world.

The story of the past nearly five decades, starting in the Nixon-Mao era, is of U.S. and Chinese public and private leaders generally looking for ways to work together as wary partners, more frequently than they looked for ways to confront each other as outright foes. (I described this dynamic in an Atlantic article, “China’s Great Leap Backward,” four years ago.) And the story of the past five years, as I described in that same article, is of sharper and sharper differences between the countries. That was even before the trade-war confrontations of the past three years.

Now the leadership of each country is acting, in public, as if it has nothing to lose by insulting and provoking the other. Witness the accusations from Chinese officials that the U.S. may have intentionally engineered the virus and unleashed it on an unsuspecting Chinese public, or the public use of “Chinese Virus” by a president, in full awareness that it is a flash point on the other side, and the reported private use of “Kung-Flu” by a White House staffer.

Yesterday the Chinese government took a step that even the most grizzled China hands found shocking: It revoked the press credentials for U.S.-citizen reporters from the three leading U.S. newspapers—the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal—and began the process of expelling them from the country.

During the long ups and downs of U.S.-China relations—with the lows of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the U.S. bombing of a Chinese embassy in 1999, the Chinese military jet that ran into a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in 2001, the recurring trade disputes, plus the assorted highs—Chinese officials had never taken this step before.

As with most things in China, the logic of this move is probably mostly internal, as part of the ongoing years-long domestic crackdown underway in the time of Xi Jinping. (Alex Dukalskis of The Wilson Center and University College Dublin laid out internal-Chinese dynamics in a tweet thread today.) But it is a very significant escalation of the U.S.-Chinese showdown — and one that, as best I can tell, went unmentioned by the U.S. president yesterday, and today until the press-questioning part of his presentation today.

Late in the press conference, a reporter asked Trump what he thought of the Chinese move, and “what is your message to the Chinese about transparency.” (You can see it starting at time 2:08 here.)

“I’m not happy to see it,” Trump said, as if he were talking about the latest fall in the stock market, or problems for the cruise industry. Then:

I have my disputes with all three of those media groups. I think you know that very well.

But I don’t like seeing that at all. I’m not happy about it at all.

And then he moved on. Just looking at the words, you might imagine it was a Voltaire-like “disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” But if you watch you’ll see that it came across as a minor issue—an occasion for registering his unhappiness with these same three papers, and to shift to something more interesting.

I hope that this most consequential relationship for the U.S. will not be another casualty of the pestilence. But as I write, on March 18, it appears to have taken an under-publicized turn for the worse.