Entering the Lair of the Dragon: US and China Playing With Fire

By David Marshall Published on March 28, 2020

America faces four crises today. If they are not yet four horses, they’re at least four prancing ponies of the Apocalypse. First, we all know there’s danger from a virus. Along with that is the new yet well-known double risk of economic collapse and our soaring national debt.  We also stand in some danger of lapsing into a new Cold War with China.

Many misinterpreted President Trump’s insistence on speaking of the “China virus” or “Chinese virus” as “racist rhetoric,” as Hillary Clinton put it. (Evincing a loud “amen” from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.) As the father of two Asian-American children, of course I would find “racist rhetoric” aimed at them troubling.

But Trump’s jibe wasn’t racist. Neither was it simply a matter of calling a disease by its place of origin, as others supposed. His wording was deliberate, intended for other reasons. He was responding to attempts by some in the Chinese government to blame America for China’s own errors in allowing COVID-19 to gain a foothold in Wuhan, then to be released to the world.

Such comments are not racist, yet may not further America’s interests, either. But I must share some background, in order to explain why I think some on both sides may be playing with fire.  

Spatting Through the Media

China and America have been spatting for a while over trade, China’s saber-rattling in the Himalayas, Straits of Taiwan, and the South China Sea, and the mass imprisonment of Muslim Uyghur men in the Northwest of China. So “China virus” was just one shot in a cross-Pacific flame war between some Americans and at least some elements within the Chinese regime.

One article in particular drew China’s attention. In early February, when COVID-19 seemed to be raging out of control in China, the Wall Street Journal published what sounded to some ears like a “gloating” anti-China article. Walter Mead, the author, warned that China’s future as a superpower had fallen into question. He forecast a return to a “uni-polar” world with America back by itself at center. China did not like it. They reacted by expelling three Wall Street Journal reporters. 

The title of that piece, “The Sick Man of Asia,” seemed even more provocative than its contents. Those unfamiliar with Chinese history should understand how that phrase sounds to the man on the street in Shanghai or Tianjin.

The Original “Sick Man of Asia”

I know China well. I speak Mandarin. I’ve studied China for almost four decades, spending a significant portion of that time traveling throughout the country. I have MA and PhD degrees in China studies, and wrote my first, and perhaps most original, book on Christianity and Chinese culture. I’ve been a critic of communism all my life, but to be effective, criticism must be well-informed and wise.

And it should be culturally-aware. (It makes me wonder whether Mead wrote the title to his essay.) China has been tagged “sick man of Asia” before. It was during the late Qing Dynasty, when its streets were full of opium addicts (a drug forced on China at gunpoint by Great Britain). Its brothels then were full of girls sold for a dollar or two during famines. Big chunks of the nation were being lopped off, like limbs from Monty Python’s Black Knight, by Japan and European powers.

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This period of humiliation was captured by a legendary sign in Huangpu park in Shanghai that was said to have read, “Dogs and Chinese not allowed.” (There was indeed such a policy, if no actual sign.)

Almost all Chinese, even those who despise Xi Jinping’s control-freakish ways, look with shame on that period. Both the tone and title of Mead’s piece seemed calculated to offend both ordinary Chinese as well as the government.

Angry Response from Chinese Media

A month later, an article in the official Chinese news agency Xinhua (“New China,” itself a pointed distancing from those shameful years) referred to Mead’s piece with particular anger. The article escalated the quarrel and sparked a counter-reaction in America. Some commentators have taken portions of it out of context. For that reason I have translated the article in full to let Americans know what some in the Chinese communist leadership are saying about us during the present crisis.

That article was published early in March. (On March 24, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang brought up the title of that Wall Street Journal article again. It shows how seriously China took it.)

Americans often make the mistake of reading Chinese propaganda from the perspective of our own domestic political conflicts. But the Xinhua article criticized both the New York Times on the left and the “notorious” Wall Street Journal on the right. The Times was guilty of describing the Hubei quarantine as a “human rights violation. The Wall Street Journal was to be faulted for publishing Mead’s piece anticipating China’s coming implosion. The author of the Xinhua article complained about a perverse American culture that gloats over the suffering of others, like “dropping stones on a man in a well.”

How then did he think America had “dropped stones” on China during its crisis? First came America’s excavation of citizens from Wuhan. This in turn led “other countries to scurry in and follow their example, making China stand by and watch.” Then at the end of January, the U.S. restricted non-citizens who had traveled to China from entering, further isolating China. “The impact on the Chinese economy was enormous.”

Ridiculous Complaints

These complaints are, of course, ridiculous. The first duty of every nation’s leader is to protect his people. The pity is not that the U.S. did not shut flights down three weeks earlier. (Even if it had left me stranded — I arrived in Seattle on the same day as COVID-19.) China recognized that duty clearly enough: It cordoned off an entire province, whose population was equal to the whole American Midwest!  And new restrictions on foreigners entering China are extremely tight.  Of course such emergency measures are neither “human rights violations” nor a sadistic attempt to pile on the victim.

Far from “throwing rocks on a man in a well,” in fact, the U.S. offered aid to China. We asked to send scientists to research the epidemic, which China rejected. Of course America took measures to protect its citizens. If Chinese officials had been more honest about the disease initially, we might have done so more effectively. (Though willful self-delusion has hardly been a Chinese monopoly during this crisis.)

Saber-Rattling in China

The Xinhua author then noted that America was short of masks and other medical supplies:

If now China were to take revenge, aside from announcing a ban on American travel, China could also announce that it was carrying out a battle strategy of controlling medical products, forbidding export to America. In which case the U.S. would plunge into great seas and oceans (汪洋大海) of coronavirus . . . if China were to announce that medicines (for fighting the virus would only be used) to satisfy domestic needs, America would descend into a COVID-19 hell.

Fortunately, “there is humanity” left on Earth. Not in the United States, obviously (per this article). But the Chinese leadership wouldn’t stoop to such measures.  (No, I wouldn’t put it past them, either, though exports seem now to have resumed. An American friend in China who wishes to send masks to the United States tells me the bigger problem is American bureaucracy, now.)

The author then cited Mead’s “odious essay” (literally, “which will reek for ten thousand years”). Now the Fengshui had shifted, yet China has not vengefully followed suit.

Who Owes Whom an Apology?

So China does not owe the world an apology. Rather, the world owes China thanks for buying it time through its painful sacrifice (even if that time was wasted, thanks to American bureaucracy and Donald Trump). And America owes China an apology. Thus says the Xinhua article.

Obviously this is tendentious in the extreme. Not China, but the Chinese government does owe the world two big apologies. First for permitting wild animals to be sold in its streets. It has long been known in general, that many of our worst plagues have come from the domestication of animals. In particular, the 2002-3 SARS outbreak that began in China and killed almost 800 people, also came to humans from bats. China started to crack down on exotic meat markets, then stepped back and allow some to remain open. We all now suffer the consequences of that error.

The Chinese Communist Party’s second mistake is even graver, and harder to fix.

From the Garden of Eden on, it has been human nature to cover our crimes and blame others. In a pluralistic society, mutual competition renders inevitable “cover-ups” less likely to succeed.  

We should not be surprised that Dr. Li Wenliang and others were told to shut up when they tried to warn the world about the outbreak. Lots of people deluded themselves about the nature of COVID-19. One Italian mayor even started a “hug a Chinese” campaign in northern Italy even as the dark clouds gathered. No politician wants to spoil a good party with bad news.

Too Much Power in the Party’s Hands

The deeper sickness of the Leninist system is that the government had the power to shut Dr. Li and his fellows up. Xi Jinping did not need to issue a special edict to do so. Provincial authorities have been well-trained in censoring unwelcome news. They had practice recently, lying about the imprisonment of Uyghurs in the northwest of China and about demonstrations in Hong Kong, among other things.

A week ago I published an article on this site suggesting that Americans can learn something from China. During the lag between the writing of the article and its publication, the sins of the Chinese government had been much discussed in the press. My piece, which suggested America might learn from China’s eventual counter-measures, understandably irritated some readers.

So let me be clear. Yes, we can learn from later actions by Chinese and other governments. Some countries at least temporarily shut down the spread of this disease, saving innumerable lives. But the Chinese government is responsible, either passively or actively, that we have to deal with this mess at all. China should have shut those exotic meat markets down long ago. More deeply, the cult of personality Xi Jinping has created charged the atmosphere in which Hubei Province, then the national government, was able to suppress vital information. The media and education systems in China are, to far too large a degree, instruments of official dissimulation.

“The world should thank China”? (Meaning the Communist Party.)

What, for worldwide pestilence? For the crash of the markets? For millions losing their jobs? Vice Premier Sun Chunlan trekked to Wuhan to ask for thanks, and was hooted at derisively.

Or for a new Cold War, if some in the Chinese foreign ministry and American media have their way?

Another Cold War? What Kind of Cold War?

I am a life-long opponent of communism. At age 15, I wrote a letter that was published by our local newspaper in Alaska. In it I complained that the press was “singing the praises” of the recently deceased “mass-murderer,” Mao Zedong. Graduate degrees in China Studies haven’t made me feel any warmer or cuddlier about Marxist rule.

But no, we do not need another Cold War.

China is no longer the “sick man of Asia,” nor as vulnerable as was the USSR. By some measures China’s GDP already challenges our own. Expensive cars jam its streets. Millions take domestic or foreign vacations in Thailand, Italy, or the Maldives, traveling through gleaming new airports or on the world’s most extensive bullet train system.

China has five times the population of the old Soviet Union. It is not deeply divided, as the USSR was, by culture and language. (Reagan was right: the Warsaw Pact was an empire, run by a minority of Russians. China is 90% Han Chinese, and most of the remaining 10% have assimilated.) China’s thriving market economy has raised a billion people out of poverty. The country is unlikely to experience another revolution.

America, deep in debt, does not need a second Cold War against a far larger, more unified, and flourishing opponent. If you think the threat of contagious pneumonia is awful, perhaps you don’t remember what the threat of nuclear holocaust was like.

Chinese rulers would be fools to force such a conflict, too. China has made enough enemies already this year. Even before this pandemic, its saber-rattling in the Himalayas, South China Sea, and Taiwan Straits, had begun inducing a natural alliance against it. The disaster in Wuhan should teach Xi Jinping the danger of listening to his own propaganda too closely.

America’s Challenge Today

Yes, China — the government, not the people, many of whom behaved heroically — is largely to blame for this virus. That must be said. But it must be said with an honest eye on our own failures, “taking heed, lest we fall.” For we have also stumbled, and we face serious challenges.

The danger of calling this the “China virus” (and Trump himself has returned that card to its pack for now, while Xi promised on Thursday night to cooperate) is not that it is “racist.” The danger is that it is provocative in ways most Americans do not understand. It could prove counter-productive, forcing Chinese to line up behind the Communist party.

America will be tested in the coming years. We cannot rest on past laurels. Our generation must find the courage and wisdom to defeat this epidemic, recover the economy, and begin to pay down our ruinous debt. We must find the strength to deal with China in a firm, courageous, but hopeful way. The greatest of our challenges may not be a scaled or winged critter in an exotic market in Wuhan. It could be a dragon on the loose, a powerful but sometimes touchy China, testing its wings and newly acquired fires.


Dr. David Marshall holds a B.A. in “the Russian and Chinese Languages and Marxism,” an M.A. in Chinese Religions, and a Ph.D. in Christian Thought and Chinese Tradition. His most recent book is Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.

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