This is the first installment in our Policy from the People series, in partnership with Win Without War. Each month, Policy from the People will feature thoughts on foreign policy challenges from activists at the leading edge of the progressive movement.
By Tobita Chow
Last week, Trump started using the term “Chinese virus” to describe the novel coronavirus. By identifying the pandemic with China and with Chinese people, he hopes to redirect the mounting anger around the impact of the crisis – away from his tremendous failure to prepare the country for the COVID-19 crisis. The White House is now “launching a communications plan across multiple federal agencies” to deflect all criticism of the Trump administration and scapegoat China even as Trump fails to recognize the virus as a critical threat to all of US society. Even here, though, the Trump White House is a latecomer, as right-wing media have been using this tactic to shield the President from blame for weeks.
Most criticism of Trump has centered on the individual racism he encourages: that Trump is racist, that he is happy to label COVID-19 the “China virus,” and that he is stoking racism against Chinese people and other Asians. As the COVID-19 crisis worsens, Trump will no doubt go to greater and greater extremes to shift the blame away from himself and onto China and Chinese people. We should be ready for the possibility of a severe re-escalation of the US-China trade war and a dangerous increase in US-China military tensions. Anti-Asian racism will continue to rise. This certainly matters to me as a person of Chinese descent, having witnessed and experienced incidents of harassment and assault against Asians.
But this is not just about individual racism. This is a moment of crisis in the political and social order stands to be remade. Two main forces contend to determine the course of the radical changes that follow: the right wing nationalist movement behind Trump, and the rising progressive movement. The contest between these two sides will be determined by which side can frame the crisis – and necessary solutions – in terms the public can best understand. And the most crucial question in framing the mounting impact of the crisis is: who is to blame?
According to March 17-20 polling by Morning Consult, more registered voters blame the Chinese government (33%) than Trump (19%) “for the spread of the coronavirus into the United States.” This suggests that there is real potential for Trump and his right-wing nationalist movement to scapegoat China in order to protect the administration from accountability. That same poll also found that approval of Trump’s handling of the crisis is on the rise.
Trump’s efforts to turn the threat of the virus into the threat of China build on years of work from US elites from across the political spectrum who began promoting “China threat” narratives long before the arrival of COVID-19. Since the beginning of the US-China trade war in 2018, they promoted narratives that portray China as a paramount threat to US national security, raising fears about not only the Chinese military, but also Chinese tech companies, Chinese researchers in the US, Chinese international students at US institutions and even the Chinese economy as a whole. This is driven less by any evidence that the Chinese government intends to do Americans harm, and more by intense anxiety, facilitated by racism, over the status of China as a rising power with the potential to challenge US supremacy in the world – in all, recalling the Japanophobia of the 1980s.
Trump’s anti-China nationalism in the face of the COVID-19 crisis reflects a refusal to understand and embrace the fact of the interrelatedness of all human life. The COVID-19 crisis is a problem shared by people around the world, and we will be able to beat it only by coming together around shared solutions. The great problems of global inequality and climate change will continue to face us long after COVID-19 fades from view. Belligerent nationalism only serves to undermine the possibility of international cooperation and any real solution to the problems we face.
We can use this moment to build a politics of international cooperation, in part by making the argument that mutual support is in our self-interest as Americans. Greater international cooperation, especially between the US and China, would enhance our ability to confront COVID-19 in the US, through the provision of medical supplies to the US from China, sharing of experiences between medical professionals, and shared research into treatment and a vaccine. Even if the US federal government is unwilling to reach out, local and state-level governments and civil society could lead the way in building international cooperation: an article in the Global Times, run by the Chinese Communist Party, indicated an openness to such “subnational” requests for aid.
US-China cooperation is even more necessary in order to overcome the COVID-19 crisis worldwide. Many of the countries of the Global South have no chance of dealing with COVID-19 on their own. There are over 800 million people living in slums, where prescribed practices such as frequent handwashing and “social distancing” can be physically impossible. Addressing public health needs in these parts of the world will require a colossal effort, and it is urgent that the world’s top two economies overcome their tensions and begin to work together. Again, progressive internationalists can argue that this is in the US self-interest. As a recent article in Foreign Affairs argues, the United States risks losing standing in the world relative to China, as China is already beginning to provide medical supplies to many other countries, including to every country in Africa (via the Jack Ma Foundation). For leaders trying to preserve the perception of American leadership, an effective partnership with existing Chinese efforts to fight the virus around the world is the best way forward.
Cooperation is not just in the national interest — it’s also in people’s interests. COVID-19 is the most pressing crisis requiring US-China collaboration, but it is hardly the only one. Climate change, which disproportionately harms disadvantaged people, cannot be confronted without joint US-Chinese action. International wealth inequality falls into the same category. Competition, conversely, privileges military build ups and trade wars that advantage elites at the expense of the working class. It is important to set a precedent for cooperation at this pivotal moment, before competition because the only framework available for understanding US-Chinese relations.
As Win Without War articulates in their demands for the US government’s COVID-19 response, “This crisis reveals that human security demands unprecedented levels of equitable global cooperation. To achieve this, we must end our competitive mindset and strengthen our tools of diplomacy, multilateralism, and cooperation.” Never has the need for global cooperation been clearer or more urgent. In the weeks and months to come, it could save many lives in the US, and many more in the Global South. If we can establish this now, it would be excellent practice for the cooperation needed to meet the other greatest challenges of the 21st century, such as overcoming the climate crisis and ending global poverty and inequality. That is the long-term goal of the project I direct, Justice Is Global. Together with Win Without War and other internationalist organizations in the progressive movement, we are building a platform, narrative, and political education that puts international cooperation at the center of our politics around the COVID19 crisis. And this in turn will be a stepping stone towards building the internationalist movement we need to win a just and sustainable global economy that will secure long-term health and well-being for all.
Tobita Chow is the director of Justice Is Global, a special project of People’s Action to create a more just and sustainable global economy and defeat right-wing nationalism. He is organizing a progressive internationalist alternative to the growing tensions between the US and China.