U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS were deteriorating before the first case of the new coronavirus appeared in Wuhan late last year, as the two largest economies engaged in an acrimonious trade war, scuffled over human rights, and teased one another militarily in the South China Sea. Yet COVID-19 seems to be a breaking point in the relationship as the United States now has more than 1.5 million cases of infection and more than 90,000 deaths, the most reported in the world.
President Donald Trump has targeted China in public statements, claiming the United States is doing “very serious investigations” about the Chinese government’s initial response to the virus, adding “we are not happy with China.” Chinese officials reprimanded whistleblowers and for about three weeks withheld knowledge that the virus could be transmitted between people.
Trump also blames Chinese influence over the World Health Organization (WHO) and Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for delaying its assessment that the disease could be spread person-to-person and rejecting calls to shut down travel to and from China. Trump announced on May 18 that if the WHO didn’t reform, he would permanently freeze U.S. funding to the WHO and reconsider its membership in the organization.
As the pandemic spread quickly in the United States, the president has gone further to question whether the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-security lab performing research on coronaviruses in bats. The lab is near the seafood market where many scientists think the virus jumped from animals to humans. In April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” that the first human infection came from the lab, although later in the week he backtracked and said the theory could be wrong. The U.S. intelligence community has noted the virus was “not man-made or genetically modified” and no proof yet points to a lab accident.
In response, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV aired a commentary titled “Evil Pompeo is wantonly spewing poison and spreading lies” and repeatedly called Pompeo the “enemy of humanity” guilty of “spreading a political virus.” State media have been careful not to name Trump in their criticism but claim the U.S. government is trying to shift blame to China to deflect from the United States’ own lack of preparation. Government mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency posted an animated video with Lego-like figures mocking the U.S. response, claiming the United States—represented by the Statue of Liberty—didn’t listen to Chinese warnings and instead claimed, “It’s only a flu.”
China has also peddled its own conspiracies about the virus’s origin, stressing that the discovery of the first case in Wuhan doesn’t mean the virus started there. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted in March, “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan … US owe us an explanation!” He also linked to a conspiracy site that said the virus came from the United States.
China has banned citizens from using Twitter and other social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, but about 55 Chinese officials now have Twitter accounts to spread the Chinese narrative overseas. Of these accounts, 32 began in 2019. At the same time, police often visit and arrest regular Chinese citizens who use virtual private networks to access Twitter.
Another U.S.-China tit-for-tat includes deporting each other’s media personnel. The catch, however, is that while Trump is kicking out propagandists for Chinese government-owned media, China is kicking out investigative journalists who are often the only source of information for what is truly happening in China. One, Josh Chin of The Wall Street Journal, tweeted that once while detained by officials in Xinjiang, an official quietly told him: “Actually, I’m glad the foreign media is in China. Otherwise how else would we know what’s going on here?”
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at China’s Renmin University, told CNN the U.S.-China relationship has “reached the lowest point since 1972,” referring to when President Richard Nixon restarted dialogue with China. “Even if after the pandemic has passed, these problems will remain.”