April 2, 2020 1:37PM

The U.S.-China Propaganda War Over the Coronavirus

Fierce competing rhetorical barrages from Washington and Beijing about the coronavirus outbreak threaten to turn an already tense bilateral relationship utterly toxic. In a new Aspenia Online article, I discuss how both sides have acted in an irresponsible, inflammatory fashion.

An increasingly prominent narrative in the United States is that not only did the pandemic originate in China, but that Chinese officials withheld key information for weeks that could have enabled other countries to adopt measures impeding the spread of the deadly virus. Key conservative opinion leaders, such as Fox News host Sean Hannity and Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, made that allegation early on. It even gained some traction with media outlets that spurn more extreme accusations about China’s behavior. Indeed, the assertion has acquired enhanced credibility now that the U.S. intelligence community apparently reached the same conclusion. In late March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo charged that China’s government was still withholding important information.

Beijing’s American critics also routinely refer to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” or even the “Chinese virus,” in an effort to whip‐​up greater public resentment against Beijing. President Trump himself used the latter label, which enraged Chinese leaders. Beijing demanded that Trump apologize. He declined to apologize, but he has now agreed to refrain from using that term.

The bilateral war of words has been escalating on multiple fronts. In an attempt to shift the blame for the global pandemic onto the United States, the Chinese government and state media began to promote the ugly assertion that Washington may have initiated the pandemic as part of a bioweapons program. Stories appeared in China’s media emphasizing the attendance of U.S. Army personnel at athletic games in Wuhan in October 2019, just before the first signs of the coronavirus began to appear. A furious Secretary of State Pompeo denounced the Chinese government for making such allegations.

The propaganda war is just one layer of the mounting animosity between Washington and Beijing about coronavirus issues. In a mid‐​March article published in Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, one PRC official both alarmed and infuriated Americans when he seemed to threaten that his country might impose export controls to withhold antibiotics and other life‐​saving drugs from American consumers. Those controls, he stated, would plunge America “into the mighty sea of coronavirus.” His threat focused public attention in the United States about how the country is heavily dependent (in excess of 80 percent) on pharmaceutical ingredients from China. The heightened realization is driving a concerted media and congressional campaign to reduce that dependence on a less‐​than‐​friendly foreign power—and to reduce America’s dependence on foreign suppliers generally.

If there is a bright spot in the war of words between Washington and Beijing, it is that substantive bilateral cooperation on the coronavirus problem has continued despite the rhetorical fireworks. Still, it is likely that the highly public acrimony has done additional damage to an already fragile bilateral relationship that was deteriorating because of growing quarrels over such issues as Taiwan, the South China Sea, and trade policy. Both sides deserve blame for cynically seeking to score cheap propaganda points regarding a global public health crisis. The coronavirus pandemic should have underscored the need for and advantage of greater cooperation. Unfortunately, it appears to have done the opposite.