Politicizing COVID-19

An analysis of the emerging China bashing for political purposes and why it is so misplaced. A Chinese-American, who grew up in Hong Kong and lived many years in Texas, gives us his perspective.

An analysis of the emerging China bashing for political purposes and why it is so misplaced. A Chinese-American, who grew up in Hong Kong and lived many years in Texas, gives us his perspective.

• Topics: USA / Global,

COVID-19 time is a time of contradictions. It’s a time of isolation, but also one of togetherness: we are isolated in necessary lockdowns, yet we are all being locked down at the same time. It’s a time of separation, but also cooperation: countries close borders to protect their citizens, yet we are all in dire need of cooperation with one another to solve this worldwide problem. There are disturbing displays of refusing to cooperate: like China’s lack of transparency concerning the outbreak’s initial development; and America’s withdrawal of support for the World Health Organization, at a time when developing countries are in desperate need of health-care support.

But scientists – Americans, Chinese, and many others – are sharing information in their collective quest for treatments and vaccines, while competing and trying to beat each other to the finish line.

This time of COVID-19 is one of shared suffering, but also self-serving politization.

“Attack China,” instructs a memo distributed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to party candidates. According to Politico, the 57-page document tells Republicans running for office to “address the coronavirus crisis by aggressively attacking China.”

More specifically, the instruction is, “Don’t defend Trump… attack China.” It makes perfect strategic sense. The Trump administration has failed miserably in handling the pandemic, responding to the outbreak with confusing and sluggish responses and, worse, possible cronyism, like promoting hydroxychloroquine as a cure. This happening in an election year could prove devastating to the Republicans, but nothing is more effective to salvage political losses than playing the blame game.

And nothing is more effective than blaming China in this current geopolitical climate. “It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian,” said Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning at the State Department, in the conference Future Security Forum 2019. She made the comment while discussing Trump’s China policy, explaining how it differs from the American approach to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Skinner, who is black, was criticized for being racist. The criticism was unfair, because she went on to explain that, “the foreign policy establishment is so narrowly defined, it’s more homogenous than probably it should be, given our own demographics.” Which is to say, American foreign policy is dominated by Caucasian sensibilities, and the rise of a non-Caucasian power inevitably prompts racist reactions.

China made serious mistakes with COVID-19 early on. But, as far as I can determine, they were not as bad as mainstream Western media described, and nothing like the depravation the right-wing press and Trump administration portrayed.

I know that as a Chinese-American my opinions will be dismissed by some as a “China apologist.” So, allow me to direct your attention to the watchdog group FAIR.org, which as early as March 6 sounded the alarm on the racist tone of media coverage. By mid-March, it had reported further on the media bias and, on March 24, ran the storyIn Pursuit of Chinese Scapegoats, Media Reject Life-Saving Lessons”. Again, I know there are those who believe FAIR.org is itself biased, but I have always regarded its dedication to exposing media prejudice as a gift to journalism.

Truth has been another major victim of this pandemic. With all the disinformation about the origin, perilousness, and treatments of COVID-19, it may be a very long time before the truth about this virus is finally revealed. The outbreak has been devastating, exposing critical problems in our social, economic, and government systems. Yet, in the current climate of political weaponization, America’s political establishment, along with mainstream media, continues to turn a blind eye to the urgent need for fundamental reforms, relishing blame games instead.

There have been occasional exceptions, like the San Antonio City Council, that recently passed a resolution to address the issue of rising hate crimes and discrimination against Asians and Jews, who were blamed for the spread of COVID-19. On cue, Texas Senator Ted Cruz lambasted the city for doing something about racism. “This is NUTS,” he Tweeted, noting that The New York Times and CNN had “repeatedly (and rightly) referred to it as ‘the Chinese coronavirus.’”

Cruz’s comments are consistent with the Republican Party memo mentioned above. According to Politico, “Advisers to the president say polling shows China-focused attacks would be effective, and the re-election campaign has weighed a major television ad campaign focused on the topic.” The strategy will also be deployed in down-ballot races, which means China-bashing will be systematically executed on many levels.

Why are “China-focused attacks” so effective? Because they appeal to latent racism.

The memo also directs candidates to say, “No one is blaming Chinese-Americans. This is the fault of the Chinese Communist Party for covering up the virus and lying about its danger.”

This is exactly what I meant in my last post, when I said, “sadly, America has become skillful in exercising racism.” President Ronald Reagan mastered it with his “welfare queen” tactic, demonizing black Americans without any mention of race. Two years ago, here in Whatcom County, Northwest Citizen remonstrated that a local article on Timothy Ballew II, a Lummi Nation leader running for County Council, was racist but, “carefully worded so as to deflect any such criticism of racism.” It doesn’t take a genius to know that blaming China with every breath will result in racism against Asian Americans. It is readily confirmed by the continuing rise in anti-Asian aggression, both verbal and physical, blatant and subtle. Sadly, hypocritic lip service works in America.

Bill Maher even ...

Sadder still, for me, is that this strategy was used by one of my favorite comedians, in one of my favorite shows. In a recent episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the titled host argues that diseases had been named after places for years, like Zika and West Nile virus. “So why should China get a pass?” This is vintage Maher, who has ridden to fame on being “politically incorrect.” I often disagree with his “incorrect” musings, but find him always funny, frequently provocative, sometimes insightful, and by turns courageous and opportunistic. He is a comedian after all. And, yes, illnesses have been named after places for a long time. But his remark ignores WHO’s recommendation from 2015, that new diseases not be named after people, places, and animals, because such naming inflicts insult and stigma on those people and places.

Naming diseases after places had proven to cause people in other regions to have a false sense of security, America and Europe’s cavalier attitude in COVID-19’s early stages a painful illustration. And a ready example of stigma inflicting is the Ebola virus. After its 2014 outbreak, Africans ran into all kinds of racist troubles in the West, some of those no doubt the result of latent racism finding an excuse to raise its ugly head, not unlike how Africans were treated in China during the COVID-19 outbreak. That was one of the reasons WHO decided to change its guideline the following year. Change is the only constant in life. Just because we had been doing something for years doesn’t mean it’s right.

Equally disturbing, Maher made it a point that his comments were not directed at Chinese Americans. Looks like he ripped a page out of the Republican playbook! For someone as attuned to politics as he is, not recognizing this Republican election tactic and, worse, the ploy to turn the pandemic into geopolitics is astounding, if not dumbfounding. Even more disturbing is his lip service to Chinese-Americans. For someone who had been doing political humor for decades to make such a comment is hypocritical.

I predicted over four years ago that China bashing would result in heightened racism against Asian Americans. Sadly, America proved me right, the advent of COVID-19 an accelerator.

Racism against Asians will likely increase in coming months, largely a consequence of China-blaming on the campaign trails. Asian Americans are bracing themselves for a whole new round of the “new normal.”

I would love to be wrong about this. America, please, prove me wrong!

About Ho See-wing

Citizen Journalist • Member since Oct 30, 2017

Ho See-wing is a film historian who divides his time between Bellingham and Hong Kong. He curates screening programs, teaches film classes and writes about the art of cinema. Devoted [...]

Comments by Readers

Dianne Foster

May 14, 2020

Ho See-wing,

Thank-you for this piece!    I stopped watching Bill Maher a few years ago when he said we couldn’t talk about the “real cause” of our problems with war in the Middle East  -   the “I” word,  (wink, wink)  “Islam”.  (He apparently thought he was cleaver at discovering root causes,  rather than insulting most of the world’s religious citizens).

This especially ironic given the real root cause for ISIS was neoliberal American foreign policy that armed various jihadi groups to stir up civil war and overthrow Assad.   Not to mention the chaos in Libya following Hillary’s covert operation to skewer Khadafi after he had signed an agreement giving the U.S. everything they wanted.

I’ve subscribed to the “FAIR” newsletter for at least a decade,  and find it interesting that they point out contradictions in mainstream media coverage.   I believe they are essential to critical thinking.   What is sad to me is that the next Presidential race promises to be a contest between the lesser of two evils,  both of whom will be daring each other to out-war- hawk the other on China.    See:  “The New Republic”-   “Biden’s Incoherent China-Bashing Attack on Trump”, by Alex Parene 4/21/20.   This virus has given them ammunition for xenophobic foreign policies that could bring us to the brink of nuclear war.   So sad that we have 2 war parties, and no peace party.  Oh well, maybe that will distract from the original Dem plan-  a new Cold War with Russia.  (some choice,  huh?)  I’m still voting for Bernie in the general as a write-in.



Konrad Lau

May 15, 2020

As if I did not get enough exposure to propaganda from CNN!

Allowing this sort of obviously biased drivel using Maher as verification as to the validity of this point of view is ludicrous.

Maher is a Leftist.

Mao was a Leftist that killed 40 million of his own citizens and shrugged it off as a “necessity” to promote his communist agenda. There is nothing to show the current communist regime in China would not use its citizens as biological torpedoes to cripple the world economy regardless of the human cost.

These are Communists folks.

Communists are liars.

 Leftists are liars…period.

How about a juicy article defending the Obama’s administration violating the Constitution?

Good luck with that…


David A. Swanson

May 15, 2020

Hr. Konrad Lau

Maybe Ho See-Wing should have gone right to the “Heart of Darkness” and written about the Fox media empire as the perfect example of Dr. J. Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda: feed the volk  trivial, non-thinking escapist entertainment interrupted only by fascist propaganda being sold as “news” to the mind-numbed audience (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazism_and_cinema). CNN, PBS, NBC, ABC, CBS, etc. are all pikers compared to Fox.

I am waiting breathessly for Fox to come out with Sean Hannity narrating the 2020 election special,  “Triumph of the Will”  with a socio-pathic, adderall-tweaking, functionally illiterate, bone-spurred draft dodger in the starring role.  


Konrad Lau

May 15, 2020

Interesting that you never disputed the facts I posited and went straight to the imagination deficit baseless name-calling.

It speaks volumes that only one news outlet giving contrasting opinion proves to be so threatening to the establishment Leftist media (you may add any alphabet combination you choose in this space).

Is this a lame attempt at equivocation?

I fully admit I’m not a genius and that I am confused by the comments.

Perhaps my confusion will allow me to run for President in 2024?


David A. Swanson

May 15, 2020

Hr. Konrad,

Wenn der schuh passt…..


Ho See-wing

May 15, 2020

Conrad, the “leftist” issue you raised is complicated, but I’ll try to be brief. Yes, Mao’s regime resulted in the deaths of millions and the suffering of many more.  But Mao also stood up to both superpowers dominating the world at the time, first to the U.S. and later the Soviet Union. It took guts.

The horrible things Mao did in the first 30 years of so-called Communist China paved the way for the next 40 years, which saw many positive changes, like the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty, introducing tens of millions to middle-class comfort, drastically improving the country’s infrastructure in physical and social terms… I know you’ll conveniently dismiss these as propaganda, but they can be readily verified.

Mao also started the all-important literacy campaign that almost entirely wiped out illiteracy in a vastly under-educated country. This in turn contributed to the political system becoming what it is today, an authoritarian meritocracy. Authoritarian? Yes! But also meritocratic.

China is not communist anymore. The country’s Communist Party was formed in the 1920s and China had changed a lot since. Its economic system, for example, is now best described as a free-market system with socialist and Chinese characteristics. Capitalism and communism had torn the world apart during the Cold War, causing hundreds if not thousands of millions of lives and the suffering of many more. The Chinese people, after killing each other by the millions in the Civil War arguing which Western system to adopt, finally figured out a way for themselves – an economic model blending capitalism and socialism with Chinese characteristics. The system is far from perfect and serious problems as well as abuses persist. Still, the Chinese people figuring out a way to help themselves, independent of Western dictates, is an important achievement in modern history.

History is extremely complicated; don’t look at it in simplistic terms.

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