Don’t waste time debating whether Trump’s ‘Chinese Virus’ tweets are racist

Updated: Mar 25

Mexicans are "rapists". Muslims should be "banned" from entering America. Black and Hispanic members of Congress should "go back" to where they came from. Immigrants hail from "shithole countries". White supremacist groups contain some "very fine people".


The debate about whether Donald Trump repeatedly calling the coronavirus outbreak a "Chinese virus" represents an act of racism or not must surely be one of the most pointless debates since mediaeval scholastics squabbled about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.


Simply look at the man's long and consistent record of xenophobia and then judge whether he's using the label "Chinese virus" in a factual and entirely innocent way, as he insists. It's really not worth wasting any intellectual bandwidth on this question.


That's not, of course, to deny the seriousness of the nominal leader of the free world intentionally stirring the cauldron of bigotry in this way at a time of mass anxiety, economic stress and spiking incidents of racist abuse - and even assaults - directed towards ethnically Chinese people in western countries.


Nor should we be sanguine about Trump's tweedy epigone, Nigel Farage, ranting on Twitter: "It really is about time we all said it. China caused this nightmare. Period."


Before we dismiss him as an irrelevance, bear in mind that some 30 per cent of the electorate voted for Nigel Farage's Brexit Party only last year and he has appeared on BBC Question Time 33 times. He tweets to 1.5 million followers. Farage may not have a parliamentary constituency, but be in no doubt: he has an audience.


The words of political leaders can have real-world consequences, particularly at a time when people are angry and scared. But, of course, in this age of populism, that's precisely the point.

In the case of Trump, it's important to recognise that the president consistently uses racism as a way of distracting attention from other unhelpful subjects.


In this instance that would be his administration's slow response to the unfolding health crisis, influenced by his initial personal denial of the problem. Another embarrassment is the US stock market, which Trump once presented as a metric of national economic virility, but which is now falling faster than during the Wall Street Crash.


A media frenzy over anti-Chinese racism is no doubt precisely what the White House wants at this time when Trump faces an existential threat to his hold on power in the autumn presidential election. And as autocrats down the ages have understood, an external scapegoat is useful at a time of domestic pressure.


My worry is over whether the desperate president is pushing on an open door. I chronicled in my 2013 book Chinese Whispers how longstanding and powerful anti-Chinese sentiment has been in America.


During the California gold rush of the 1840s a song called "John Chinaman" started doing the rounds among miners, resentful at the competition of Chinese immigrants labourers:


Oh, John, I've been deceived in you,

And all your thieving clan,

For our gold is all you're after, John,

To get it as you can.


Trump's economic Sinophobia has deep roots.


Another verse demonstrated a disgust over Chinese eating habits.


I thought of rats and puppies, John,

You'd eaten your last fill;

But on such slimy pot-pies, John,

I'm told you dinner still.


That's an uncomfortable echo from history at a time when amateur internet virologists are confidently sourcing Covid-19 to the fact that a (tiny minority) of Chinese people sometimes eat bat.


Writing a book about western myths and misrepresentations about China has also attuned me to another unfortunate pattern: the strange cycle of hyperbolic condemnation and hyperbolic praise.


First, China was castigated by pundits for attempting to suppress news of this novel virus. The autocrats of Beijing, we were told, had effectively unleashed this new plague on the world through their reflexive secrecy. Now, more often, Beijing is lauded by pundits for its success in curtailing the Covid-19 menace through mass population lockdowns, showing the rest of the world how to do it.


There's no moderation in these takes. While the local authorities in Wuhan did initially try to cover up the outbreak, Beijing rapidly shared vital information with foreign governments, learning the lessons of the 2003 Sars episode. The messy reality is that even unpleasant autocracies can sometimes behave responsibly.


The praise is overdone now. It's entirely possible that the draconian Wuhan lockdown has only temporarily controlled the outbreak and that it will later re-emerge in a perhaps more destructive fashion. It remains to be seen whether authoritarian regimes really are superior at coping with public health emergencies than liberal democracies.


Yet in western eyes China seems to be either Mordor or a shining city on the hill.

It's not only the rank demagogues whose words on China we need to be wary of.

  • LinkedIn
  • Tumblr
  • YouTube

© 2020 by Ben Chu. Made with love by STORM Design