Trump drops racist virus term after backlash

By Chen Qingqing, Li Aixin and Zhao Yusha Source:Global Times Published: 2020/3/26 0:28:40

Abrupt shift on China-related rhetoric reflects Washington’s quandary

US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at the White House, on Monday, in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

 By stopping calling the novel coronavirus "Chinese virus," US President Donald Trump has again exposed his weakness of being extremely inconsistent on China-related rhetoric particularly when he has been under tremendous pressure following an incompetent response to the outbreak in the US. Such an abrupt shift, however, won't change long-term fundamentals of China-US ties. Especially after a rare spat between diplomats from the two sides, which has intensified the rivalry and ideological antagonism, comprehensive cooperation on combating the pandemic  appear unlikely, analysts said. 

After days of maliciously referring to the novel coronavirus as the "Chinese virus," Trump told Fox News in an interview on Tuesday that "we shouldn't make any more of a big deal out of it," in an apparent attempt to play down such racist claim, which has been criticized by medical experts, officials and people in the US. 

During the past week, Trump has mentioned "Chinese virus" at least eight times in public, either in White House media briefings or in personal tweets. Apart from Trump, other US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, GOP lawmakers Tom Cotton, Paul Gosar and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have been using terms including "Chinese virus" in public, intentionally stigmatizing China.

Beijing has been repeatedly expressing strong opposition to Washington's trick of passing the buck to China in order to cover up its inadequate response to the novel coronavirus pneumonia (COVDI-19), which has caused to date more than 55,000 infection cases in the US, with the World Health Organization warning of the US potentially being the next epicenter of this outbreak. 

In an abrupt shift, Trump stopped using the term "Chinese virus", as he is believed to have understood how much he would lose if the epidemic continues to worse in the US. The change of tone might hint a shift away from confrontation to restoring cooperation given the pandemic's current worsening situation, according to observers. 

Changing rhetoric 

Trump began using "Chinese virus" in his tweets on March 16, ignoring warnings from experts of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and prompting backlash on social media platforms, Democrats and ordinary people who criticized the president for being racist and putting Asian Americans in the country in a dangerous situation. More importantly, shifting the blame to China has not stopped the virus from spreading across the US, while growing numbers of patients are overwhelming its healthcare system, making shortages of medical supplies and personal protective equipment in fighting COVID-19 much more urgent. 

"Moving away from 'the Chinese virus' was an important step by President Trump to shift away from a more confrontational stance toward China," William Jones, Washington Bureau Chief of Virginia-based weekly news magazine Executive Intelligence Review, told the Global Times on Wednesday. He noted that this changing rhetoric may have been the result of recent interviews from the Chinese ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, asserting the Chinese position that it does not hold the US military responsible for the virus. 

Or it may have been the pressing need for the US to attain critical supplies unavailable in US industries in the short term to meet the spread of the virus, supplies which could be attained quickly from China, Jones noted. 

US media has recently reported a series of critical shortages of medical supplies such as protective masks, surgical gowns and hand sanitizers across the country and governors have been panicked by trying to find out ways to purchase more equipment such as ventilators and PPEs in preventing a collapse of medical system. Trump also turned to South Korean President Moon Jae-In for supplies such as test kits, which was described as an urgent request, media reported on Tuesday. 

Though some Chinese companies, US-based organizations and individuals have been helping out to tackle medical supply shortages in the US, observers and industry insiders called for cooperation on the national level between the two largest economies in the world not only being more efficient in combating COVID-19 but also being an inspiring signal for the globe in facing this common enemy, on which human kind still has limited understanding. 

"Trump is trying to seek help from other countries in dealing with the shortage of supplies due to his lack of preparation. Actually, he now needs China more than ever from a realistic perspective, as China is also one of the largest manufacturers of medical equipment in the world," said Li Haidong, a professor from the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University.

"Seeking cooperation with China is an urgent and practical task for Trump administration," Li told the Global Times, noting that this has forced him to change his attitude overnight.

Clear bottom-line

Observers warned that the COVID-19 pandemic is dragging the world into an unprecedented crisis, maybe even much more worse than that of World War II, it would be much anticipated to see major countries like China and the US collaborating in fighting this battle, as an escalating war of words is worsening humanity's misery.

Chinese analysts, however, remained cautious on Trump's changing attitude, given his flip-flops on the yearlong trade war with China, the matter of Chinese tech giant Huawei and other issues in the scope of the strategic rivalry between the two nations. 

"Besides the needs for supplies, irritating Asian American communities in the US won't help him to gain more political scores for the upcoming presidential campaign. China-related policies in the Trump administration are driven by strategic and geopolitical competition, the long-term prospects won't change," Li said. 

Though Trump dropped his "Chinese virus" rhetoric, he insisted that the virus did come from China when quizzed by US media, despite the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterating that the origin of the novel coronavirus is a scientific matter that requires professional and scientific assessment.

With Washington constantly waging a smear campaign against China, Beijing has firmly hit back, taking countermeasures against its anti-China conspiracy theories. A series of strong response from Chinese side have exposed weaknesses and loopholes of the US, analysts said. 

Some Chinese diplomats have been more outspoken this time, taking to social media to confront US officials like Pompeo and State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus. They drew a clear bottom-line from the Chinese side. 

"Washington will be more careful next time when playing the blame game against China," said Shen Yi, an associate professor of international politics at Fudan University in Shanghai.

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