President Trump and other Republicans were quick to label the pandemic the world is currently experiencing the, “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” — based off of the coronavirus’ point of origin. They were chastised by swathes of the media, despite it being a relatively common convention, like “Spanish flu.”
My friend (always there when I’ve needed him!), Senator @RandPaul, was just tested “positive” from the Chinese Virus. That is not good! He is strong and will get better. Just spoke to him and he was in good spirits.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020
The Chinese Communist Party kept a lid on the doctors who first noticed the Wuhan Virus.
The disease has killed over 15,000 people because of their cover-up.https://t.co/MVUSfpUU9o
— Lance Gooden (@Lancegooden) March 23, 2020
“President Trump has promised to unite the full force of the federal government with the full power of American enterprise to respond to the China Wuhan virus—and the response from the private sector has been overwhelming.” https://t.co/KIMmcdvpN8
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) March 23, 2020
The debate raged on the nation’s websites, cable news channels, and editorial pages, but it also hit Wikipedia, where editors deliberated over whether to change the name from “Spanish flu” to a label that doesn’t include a nationality. Those who support the name change note that major health organizations don’t use the term “Spanish flu,” according to LaCorte News, and that referring to our current pandemic as “Chinese” is influenced by racism rather than a precedent set by the names of past outbreaks.
Chinese news outlets like Xinhua News Agency — which was designated a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China by the State Department — prefer American politicians don’t refer to the coronavirus as a “Chinese” virus. “The virus does not have a nationality. Using racist and xenophobic names to cast blame for the outbreak on other countries can only reveal politicians’ irresponsibility and incompetence,” the news outlet tweeted.
Opinion: The virus does not have a nationality. Using racist and xenophobic names to cast blame for the outbreak on other countries can only reveal politicians’ irresponsibility and incompetence https://t.co/KTCvkuGGnh pic.twitter.com/Ivcj51i2QP
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) March 17, 2020
Democratic politicians and media commentators especially acted indignant toward those referring to the virus as a “Chinese virus,” insisting that no one refers to the “Spanish flu” as such. David Frum, for instance:
The President of the United States is up past midnight, not doing any useful work for the nation, but retweeting third-hard accusations that the author of the classic histories of the Soviet Gulag and the Ukrainian famine is soft on communism. pic.twitter.com/io8PKvpUzv
— David Frum (@davidfrum) March 17, 2020
A great artist. War-debilitated, he fell victim to Spanish flu not yet 30. https://t.co/ow7S3BkgRq
— David Frum (@davidfrum) October 31, 2016
Wikipedia editors began mulling over whether to rename the site’s Spanish flu information page to the “1918 influenza pandemic,” and last week, a title request notice was appearing on the page, reading: “It has been requested that the title of this article be changed to 1918 influenza pandemic … The page should not be moved unless the discussion is closed with a summary describing the consensus achieved in support of the move.”
As of Monday, the notice no longer appears, and the title of the page remains “Spanish flu.”
Despite the immediate dangers of the virus — which include thousands of sick people, an overwhelmed medical system, and economic collapse — the fixation on rhetoric and propaganda by Republicans, Democrats, commentators, and China itself has become an issue of international prominence. China has expelled all U.S. journalists and in February, the U.S. State Department designated five Chinese media outlets as agents of the Chinese Communist Party.
James Poulos, the executive editor at the American Mind, told the Daily Caller that China has an acute interest in winning the war on rhetoric and in blaming the virus on America, something Chinese officials have already done.
“Who knows who’s making the request,” Poulous says, in reference to the Wikipedia name change request. “[It] would make sense if the request was coming from Chinese leadership or supported organs, or from well-meaning woke Americans who genuinely, though of course wrongly, believe that identifying COVID-19 with China is racist.”
China began pushing a new theory about the origins of the virus, placing blame on United States Army servicemen who visited Wuhan in October, the New York Times reported March 13.
“The woke American elite has a similarly sharp interest in protecting and hardening their position as the ethical arbiters of public language,” Poulos said. “What the elite can’t bear to face, however, is the reality that language-masters have face planted as leaders amid this crisis. Their essential hollowness as people who think imagining and saying is more important than doing has been exposed. Logically, for them, they ought to persist in their efforts even if China has propaganda aims that don’t fundamentally align with their ethical standards.”
While it may not be the intention of otherwise well-meaning Americans to play into the talking points of the Chinese regime, China appears to have piggybacked off of discontent toward President Trump and China skeptics, accusing U.S. leadership of incompetence and racism towards the Chinese, largely through its state news agencies:
It’s a distraction tactic. It’s racist… pic.twitter.com/2R1nBMbfps
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) March 20, 2020
The preoccupation with language during the coronavirus pandemic has also revealed an asymmetry between the values of those waging war against the use of “Wuhan virus” and the values of the Chinese Communist Party, which has extrajudicially detained at least a million Uighur Muslims in its indoctrination camps, leaked documents revealed in 2019. (RELATED: Labor Rights Group Alleges Uyghur Muslims Made Lacoste Gloves In Internment Camps)
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, pointed this out in a March 19 article he wrote in the Atlantic. “To hear Chinese spokespeople use the language of racism and prejudice is somewhat surreal, considering this is a regime that has put more than 1 million Muslims and ethnic minorities in ‘reeducation’ camps,” he wrote.
Although the people decrying the use of the terms “Chinese” and “Wuhan” virus may be doing so in defense of Chinese people rather than the Chinese regime, the Chinese regime has co-opted this messaging to use for their own interests. “Of course, Americans will have to be vigilant against scapegoating Asians in general or the Chinese people in particular,” Hamid writes. “With one of the highest infection rates and death tolls, Chinese citizens have suffered enough. The Chinese leadership, however, is another matter.”
Wikipedia may have settled the matter on the “Spanish flu” vs. the “1918 flu pandemic” duel, but rhetoric will likely remain a salient feature in the tension between the U.S. and China.