The Group of Seven countries, that is, the United States and several of its closest friends, reportedly could not agree on a customary joint statement at their last meeting, held via video conference, because of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s insistence that COVID-19 be referred to as the “Wuhan virus.”
What’s wrong with that? the President smugly deadpans, that’s where it comes from! But even aside from the whiff of xenophobia and its consequences for Americans of Chinese descent, the move was a stumble. Secretary Pompeo may have been trying to focus attention on the mistakes and lies of the Chinese Communist Party. But the term “Wuhan virus” is at odds with Pompeo’s own plan to overhaul America’s China policy which depends, as he himself has said, on recognizing that “the Party and the Chinese people are not the same thing.”
The Communist Party has been remarkably successful at conflating the two. As Party leaders saw their legitimacy decline after the catastrophes of Maoist rule and the use of the military on the people in 1989, they turned to nationalism, relentlessly pushing the message through education and the media that the Party and China were essentially the same thing. As Perry Link and Xiao Xiang write, “people are still trained to believe, for example, that dang (党, Party) and guo (国 nation) are inseparable or at least close enough that aiguo (爱国, patriotism) and ai dang (爱党, “love of the Party”) need not be distinguished.”
If the Party = China, then critics of the Party must be “anti-China.” Inside China, this has meant imprisonment, torture, and misery for Chinese lawyers, activists, labor organizers, and intellectuals accused of subversion for seeking freedoms of association, press, and speech under a democratic China. In response to the virus, the Party detained journalists, upbraided a doctor who sounded an early warning, and is investigating a property tycoon who criticized Xi Jinping directly, asking, “Since when did the people’s government become the party’s government?”
The “anti-China” label serves the Party’s interests abroad as well. For decades, the Party’s conflation of itself with China was extraordinarily effective in the United States. China policy discussions were conducted using terms and arguments that stigmatized those who did not conform to an establishment view of U.S.-China relations. As James Mann wrote in his book The China Fantasy, “anyone who believes strongly in a democratic China, anyone who bluntly criticizes the PRC for its repression of dissent, anyone who suggests that the political situation in China is not destined to change or that trade with China will not lead to democracy—any of these critics is likely to confront a barrage of epithets, catchwords, phrases, and concepts that attempt to isolate the speaker before his or her ideas can be examined.” When Mann published the book in 2007, he was attacked by experts many of whom have made an about face.
Undoubtedly, there has been a sea change in perceptions of the PRC and its communist leadership. Whereas it was once considered gauche in certain circles to mention the Marxist-Leninist character of the regime, now one can discuss it without being accused of seeking a new Cold War. Last year, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission announced that it would no longer refer to Xi Jinping as President but as General Secretary of the Communist Party. “China is not a democracy, and its citizens have no right to vote, assemble, or speak freely. Giving General Secretary Xi the unearned title of ‘President’ lends a veneer of democratic legitimacy to the CCP and Xi’s authoritarian rule.”
Since the G-7 stumble, Administration officials are using “Wuhan virus” less—possibly because Chinese leaders are dispatching materiel to American communities that need it. In any case, the term is a kind of sly bigotry that no American official should be associated with. Just as important, it plays into the Party’s long-term objective of portraying the West as hostile to Chinese people rather than the communist system that represses them.
Eric Sayers, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security, rejects the use of “Wuhan virus” as “bad policy.” He suggests instead that America’s friends and allies use the scientific name for the disease while collaborating to investigate its origins. Washington should go further. Beijing’s botched response provides the strongest reason ever to break Taiwan out of its isolation and admit it immediately to the World Health Organization. At the same time, in light of the WHO’s penetration by Beijing, the Administration’s should redouble efforts to reduce the PRC’s outsized influence at the UN. That is a worthy effort which Secretary Pompeo can bring up to his counterparts at the G-7.