Cold War Virus: US Plunges Into Information Confrontation With China

Even if the American media, for the sake of racial political correctness, ceases to call the virus “Chinese,” any positive assessment of the Chinese experience in combating the epidemic will remain a powerful information irritant for the United States, writes Valdai Club expert Alexander Lomanov. Unwilling to acknowledge Chinese success amid an increasing number Americans infected, the media will intensely emphasise the “guilt” of China and its system for the outbreak.

Amid the global spread of the novel coronavirus, a tense media confrontation has unfolded between the United States and China. The constant appearance of new insults and accusations testifies to the irreversible transformation of the “trade war”, unleashed by Trump, into an ideological and political conflict between the two countries. There is less and less hope that the world’s two leading economies will be able to join forces to combat the pandemic for the benefit of mankind. The growing confrontation between Washington and Beijing has led to the sad conclusion that the Cold War virus has successfully survived several decades of globalisation.

Washington’s demand, voiced on February 18, that five Chinese mass media outlets register as “foreign agents” couldn’t have arrived at a worse time. The decision affected China Radio, Xinhua News Agency, the English-language newspaper China Daily, CGTN television and the main Communist Party newspaper, The People’s Daily.  From the American point of view, these media outlets constitute  part of the “apparatus of party-state propaganda”, so they are required to obtain permission from the US State Department to purchase or rent real estate, as well as to submit lists of Americans working for them.

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US officials have emphasised that the decision was prepared in advance. Perhaps the United States chose the moment in the hope that Beijing would be so busy fighting the epidemic that it would not respond to this blacklisting. However, it had a painful effect and led to an escalation of mistrust between the two countries.

The next day, on February 19, Chinese authorities revoked the accreditation of three Wall Street Journal journalists. They were responding to the publication on February 3 of an article written by  Walter Russell Mead, a foreign affairs professor who had suggested that the epidemic would force international corporations to actively engage in the relocation of their production chains outside of China. Meanwhile, from a long-term standpoint, he contended, unstable Chinese financial markets could prove to be far more dangerous for the world than the markets for wild animals that had produced the coronavirus.

China was enduring a difficult initial period of isolation affecting Hubei province, and Mead’s predictions of the impending weakening of Chinese power and its financial collapse added injury to the unsympathetic insult expressed in the title of his article, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia”, in a not-very-funny nod to the “Sick Man of Europe” term used in the 19th century to describe the Ottoman Empire, which had invited accusations of racism.

Chinese commentators were quick to remember that foreigners had first called their country the “sick man of Asia” at the end of the 19th century, when China was unable to fend off heavy-handed imperialist powers, and the health of a large number of people was undermined by the smoking of opium imported by the British.

The expulsion of three Wall Street Journal journalists was not a direct response to the State Department’s demarche. This step was addressed to the publisher, which had refused to apologise or to withdraw the publication. The Chinese turned the argument into one of racial discrimination and political correctness – after all, the American newspaper had offended all Chinese, and not just the ruling party or its leadership.

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The State Department responded to this with arguments about the inadmissibility of “restricting freedom of speech” and  decided to reduce the number of Chinese media staff working for the five companies in the US from 160 to 100. After that, Chinese propaganda did not fail to point out the hypocrisy of the American authorities, who had defended the racist attack on the Chinese as an admissible manifestation of “freedom of speech.”

The exchange of blows showed that the trade deal concluded in January 2020 had not stopped the “divorce” process between Washington and Beijing. Regardless of whether China responds with a tit-for-tat expulsion of 60 American journalists, or whether it resorts to other methods of information and political pressure, the degradation of the atmosphere will continue to taint bilateral relations.

And yet it remains unclear why the US needed to impose restrictions on the Chinese media during the epidemic. What kind of “communist propaganda” was it afraid of? Does Washington fear Chinese informational interference in presidential election? Or did the US administration want to prevent an influx of positive reports of China’s successes in the fight against coronavirus that could undermine Trump’s credibility?

At the first stage of the spread of the epidemic, it was easy for the West to use the information about the epidemic to attack the PRC authorities. The media emphasised that Beijing had missed the initial moment of the spread of the infection due to its authoritarian political system, which it contended was aimed at suppressing negative information. Now the Chinese media can no less confidently argue that the US authorities and a number of EU countries were not ready to fight the epidemic due to the insolvency of Western multi-party democracy and that such nations are incapable of consolidating society.

The chances for earnest reconciliation are not yet visible. Even if the American media, for the sake of racial political correctness, ceases to call the virus “Chinese,” any positive assessment of the Chinese experience in combating the epidemic will remain a powerful information irritant for the United States. Unwilling to acknowledge Chinese success amid an increasing number Americans infected, the media will intensely emphasise the “guilt” of China and its system for the outbreak. It’s easy to guess that these attacks will arouse opposition in China and provoke critical counter attacks, including allegations regarding the American origin of the COVID-19 virus. The spiral of controversy is becoming ever tighter.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.