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The US and China have much to sort out — but not during this pandemic

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Ambassador Christopher Hill

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This op-ed was originally published on The Hill

China’s foreign ministry — not unlike the U.S. State Department’s own checkered reputation in the United States — has a reputation among some in China for too often apologizing to foreign government positions and, in these fraught times, for committing the crime of excessive reasonableness. The foreign ministry’s strategy for mitigating such accusations, not surprisingly, is to employ a spokesperson who can protect the ministry from such critics, and demonstrate that the foreign ministry is not full of apologists as it is often accused, but rather is one that can fight back, and fight back hard. Enter foreign ministry spokesperson Zhou Lijian.

On March 11, a lightyear ago in coronavirus time, Zhou Lijian tweeted that “it might be the US army” that brought the disease to China, an accusation that had been making its way across China’s very active blogosphere where just about anything goes, provided it doesn’t include criticism of the Beijing government. 

What could Zhou have been talking about? Back in October 2019, Wuhan played host to the 7th World Military Games, which did not earn much publicity in the U.S. or on ESPN’s SportsCenter, but which were well known in China. The Military Games, opened by Chinese President Xi Jinping, attracted 10,000 soldier-athletes from 109 countries. With 300 members, the U.S. had one of the largest contingents, behind China’s team of 553 and Brazil’s 329. A total of 230,000 volunteers were mobilized locally from Wuhan to assist in the games. In terms of medals won, the U.S. team finished in 35th place, between Finland and Austria. 

What Zhou Lijian was spreading, without evidence of course, was that the U.S. team members had somehow and for some reason brought the disease with them to Wuhan.

The U.S. response was swift to condemn Zhou and his outrageous claim, while, in typical form, the Chinese government was slow to muzzle one of their own, especially one who had delighted Chinese audiences in the past with his gritty defense of all things Chinese. Instead, the Chinese government doubled down and pushed out some of the most knowledgeable U.S. journalists in China.  

Indeed, it took 10 days before a Chinese official spoke out clearly and forcefully against Zhou’s obnoxious tweet. China’s ambassador to Washington, Cui Tianki, could see from his front row seat the damage Zhou had caused in the U.S.-China relationship. Cui is an impressive career diplomat who, over the course of his career, has held such key positions as ambassador to Japan and key drafter of the agreement in the Six Party Talks that clearly called on North Korea to abandon all its nuclear programs. Cui said in an U.S. television interview it would be “crazy to spread such theories” (of a U.S. Army role in bringing the disease to China), and that such “speculation helps nobody.” He said the job of finding the source of the virus is one for scientists, “not diplomats.” Cui’s air-clearing comments later were posted on the foreign ministry’s website, a sign that they have an official imprimatur.   

Ambassador Cui’s adult-like statement, however, may have come too late. President Trump has a reputation for planning little in life, except for whom to blame when things go wrong. And with pressure building, he went to work to blame China in a familiar way: He tried to rename, or rebrand, the coronavirus as the “China virus,” or — precision with words not being one of his hallmarks — the “Chinese virus.” President Trump faces considerable criticism for being late to respond to the virus’s spread in the U.S. For that he blames China for being slow to report the virus to international health authorities after discovering it in late 2019.

Zhou’s outrageous comments further emboldened the American president, who quickly turned the issue into a matter of U.S. pride, saying of the virus and its origin, “That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen, as long as I am president. It comes from China.” 

For his part, America’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also has been busy and quick to denounce China. Pompeo has engaged in his own efforts to brand a “made-in-China” moniker for the coronavirus. Pompeo’s news appearances took on a much sharper tone that has  reduced the scope for the use of traditional diplomatic channels with his Chinese interlocutors. While Pompeo has made telephone calls and met with counterparts in third countries, he has not visited China in over 18 months, an eternity in terms of modern U.S.-China relations.

Last week, at a G-7 virtual meeting that was to have taken place in Pittsburgh, Pompeo refused to support an otherwise unanimous statement on the coronavirus because the other participants, including such U.S. allies as France, Britain, Germany and Italy, refused to acquiesce in renaming the coronavirus to the “Wuhan virus.”    

American football has a penalty for players who relentlessly continue after the play is over. There is, however, no such penalty in diplomacy for piling on. The U.S. media now are full of supposedly thoughtful analyses to the effect that the Chinese are pivoting from being the first victims of the virus to trying to dominate the world by spreading medical assistance to other countries. In fact, as some articles have argued, it is the U.S. retrenchment that has given scope for the Chinese advancement of medical diplomacy in the world.

In any crisis, even in the midst of a pandemic, there is a moment where everybody might benefit from taking a deep breath and thinking clearly about the way forward. The U.S. and China have much to sort out, but a pandemic whose grip seems to be tightening is no time for such rivalries.  Instead, China and the U.S. should get on the same page, help each other, work with international organizations and help the rest of the world. Coronavirus may be the challenge of our lifetime, and blame games are not going to help us get to the other side.