A friend of mine this week shared with me an exchange about the coronavirus on an online bulletin board that serves the suburban New York community where she lives.
It began with a message from a local woman who had been walking along the town’s main drag accompanied by her children. With a “heavy heart,” she said, she wanted to alert her neighbors to the fact that during her walk, she had spotted a group of “Chinese people wearing masks” on the other side of the street. Out of caution, she didn’t approach them, she explained, but she had still felt a powerful urge to go tell them to “go back to where they came from.”
What struck my friend was that not a single one of the many replies to this message called out the crude, bigoted assumption that Asian-Americans in New York are spreading the coronavirus more than anyone else. Instead, questioners wanted to know the details: Where exactly had the Chinese party been seen? How many were there? And had anyone called the police?
That these racially charged notions have a real world impact is painfully clear. A March 27 analysis from the FBI’s office in Houston forecast that “hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease … endangering Asian American communities.”
The same analysis listed several incidents of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans across the country during the last month. In one particularly awful episode, noted the FBI analysis, on March 14 in Midland, Texas, “three Asian American family members, including a 2-year-old and 6-year-old, were stabbed. … The suspect indicated that he stabbed the family because he thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus.”
Now, my purpose here is not to revisit the “Chinese virus” row sparked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s deliberately provocative use of that term to describe the pandemic—other than to state my thorough opposition to his doing so, for all the reasons outlined above. I want instead to focus on another, no less important issue that I fear we are losing sight of because of the widespread media tendency to turn every policy challenge into an argument about Trump’s mindset.
That the ugly racism directed against Asian Americans needs to be aggressively combated with the tools of law enforcement and civic education should be obvious to everyone. What is much less obvious, at least to me, is why this aim should preclude a proper public inquest into the Chinese Communist Party’s part in enabling the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the auxiliary role of international bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) in covering up the Beijing regime’s culpability.
It cannot be stated often enough that governments are one thing, and the nations living under them something else. In China, the Communist Party is the state in its totality—it controls the army, the courts, the police, the media and that enormous economy—while the people are merely the state’s subjects. That millions of Chinese people want to overthrow the party’s yoke can be seen from Hong Kong, where student-led democracy protests unseated the pro-Beijing legislature, to the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where the party where the party operates its own brutal version of Soviet gulags, laogai or “re-education centers,” within which up to 1 million Muslims, mainly members of the Uyghur minority, have been incarcerated. To speak of the party’s responsibility for the coronavirus while shedding light on its broader human-rights outrages isn’t “racism”; if anything, it’s an act of solidarity with the people of China.
Dr. Jianli Yang, a veteran of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square who now heads the U.S.-based NGO, Initiatives for China, put the problem well in a recent op-ed for The Hill. “The Chinese people—who are among the primary victims of this crisis—are subjected to collective guilt because of the malfeasance of their rulers,” he wrote. He observed, too, that China’s “international reputation is plummeting, which lamentably tarnishes citizens and civil society along with the government,” before concluding that “while the leaders and civil society of democratic countries must hold the Chinese state to account for the global pandemic and its economic consequences, we owe the people of China our sympathy and solidarity.”
That political battle has now begun on Capitol Hill. Rep. Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week urging a multilateral investigation by democratic countries into the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up, which, we should recall, began with the arrest of two respected epidemiologists in Wuhan—Ai Fen and Li Wenliang—at the end of December, when they spoke publicly about the virus three weeks after the first case was reported.
“By causing a local outbreak to become a pandemic, their system, which is designed to censor anything that could be a threat to the regime, is putting millions of American lives at risk,” wrote McCaul. Because of the same system, millions of lives elsewhere are at risk too, not least in China.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.