The Trump administration has done a remarkable about face in its attitude towards China during the current pandemic. After initially praising that nation and its president fulsomely for the way they handled the crisis, it is now harshly criticizing them, starting with insisting on calling covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’ and accusing them of covering up the emergence of the virus. The motivation for this shift is quite transparent. As it became increasingly clear how badly Trump has bungled this issue, he very likely seeks to distract people from the administration’s woefully incompetent response .
But yesterday, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo ramped up the war of words against China by claiming that there is ‘enormous evidence’ they manufactured the covid-19 virus. The US has long since shredded any credibility about its unsubstantiated claims that it has evidence about anything. The final nail in that coffin was the massive amount of lying about the evidence that they claimed they had to persuade the country and the world that the invasion of Iraq was necessary to combat an existential threat of an immediate attack by that country. This was preposterous on its face and the ‘evidence’ was quickly shown to be made of whole cloth but the damage was done. The war was started and we know the results.
Pompeo did not do himself any favors by his confused and contradictory statements within the same interview.
On Sunday, Pompeo said: “There is enormous evidence that that’s where this began”, later adding: “I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”
At one point, the secretary of state appeared confused over whether he was claiming the Sars-CoV-2 virus (which causes the Covid-19 disease) was deliberately engineered or escaped as the result of a lab accident.
“Look, the best experts so far seem to think it was manmade. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point,” he said.
But when he was reminded that US intelligence had issued a formal statement noting the opposite – that the scientific consensus was that the virus was not manmade or genetically modified – Pompeo replied: “That’s right. I agree with that.”
Donald Trump made a similar unsupported claim on Thursday, saying he was privy to evidence of the pandemic began in a Chinese lab but was not permitted to share it.
On the same day, Pompeo told a radio interviewer: “We don’t know if it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We don’t know if it emanated from the wet market or yet some other place. We don’t know those answers.”
Meanwhile Jesse A. Myerson writes that Joe Biden has also jumped on the anti-Chinese bandwagon and seems to be trying to outdo Trump on this issue. This continues a long-standing Democratic party establishment strategy of trying to look tough on foreign policy by targeting specific enemies, which is why they usually end up supporting wars when they themselves are not starting or escalating them.
Biden’s anti-China framing is not only morally reprehensible, it’s also bad politics and bad public policy. What’s more, it doesn’t need to be this way: Biden could be winning over the voters he’s trying to get by pushing policies that provide actual answers for the problems people face amid the coronavirus crisis.
Let’s start briefly with why it’s morally wrong. Biden’s anti-China message is coming at a time when Fox News is reporting as fact that conspiracy theory that the virus “escaped from a lab in Wuhan”; anti-public health neo-tea partiers are shouting at nurses, “Go to China if you want communism!”; and racist attacks against Asian Americans are surging.
Just as bad, exacerbating tensions with China is folly. Millions of lives around the globe depend on an unprecedented level of international solidarity and specifically robust U.S.-China cooperation to fight the novel coronavirus. Picking a fight with Trump over who can mount the most aggressive opposition to “the Chinese” poses a massive public health risk.
Those dangers might even be understandable, in a callous realpolitik way, except Biden’s strategy doesn’t even have the merit of being politically expedient. In fact, another Democrat tried this tack in a national 2018 race and his efforts fell flat: The Democrat, now-former Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, won only nine of Indiana’s 92 counties — and lost the race to a Republican challenger by 6 percentage points, or 150,000 votes.
Biden has released an ad that would make the Trump campaign proud in its current anti-Chinese stance.
Myerson adds that xenophobia has been shown to be a losing strategy in the past and is not likely to succeed this time either.
Make no mistake, though: The Trump government, guilty in this case of massively lethal criminal negligence, is absolutely capable of successfully deflecting responsibility by leaning on racist scapegoating. Choosing a messaging strategy that reinforces Trump’s dominant frame puts Biden at a massive narrative disadvantage.
Let us not forget that Hillary Clinton was as an aggressive neoliberal war hawk who tried to make Russia an issue in the 2016 campaign, while it was Trump who promised to end US wars.