It is by now irrefutable that the novel coronavirus, which is responsible for over 200,000 deaths to date and has wrought economic havoc on almost every country in the world, originated in Wuhan, China. The virus’s place of origin would perhaps be irrelevant were it not for two key factors: firstly, the virus is theorized to have resulted from pangolins coming in contact with bats in an exotic meat market called a wet market and then spread to humans through consumption of these animals. Secondly, earlier this year as COVID-19 spread rapidly through Wuhan with deadly results, Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime in China abdicated its responsibility to warn the rest of the world about the danger posed by the virus. As doctors in China became increasingly concerned about COVID-19, Chinese officials implemented strict criteria for reporting confirmed cases, requiring that patients not only test positive for the virus, but that samples be sent to labs for sequencing, in order for their case to be confirmed. As a result, the official narrative aired on Chinese state-run media was that human-to-human transmission of the virus was low, and few cases were reported. However, in February and March, as mass lockdowns in Wuhan startled the rest of the world, and footage purporting to show suspected carriers of the virus being dragged from their homes by force, it became increasingly clear that the situation in China was much more dire than the Chinese Communist Party had initially let on. By the time the virus had spread to the rest of the world, it was too late. China’s failure to act ensured that none of us were prepared.
Acknowledging China’s role in the crisis does not necessitate downplaying other countries’ flawed approaches to handling the virus. In particular, President Trump’s response has drawn widespread criticism and condemnation. In early February, following the death of Chinese whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang by COVID-19, Trump was asked at a press conference if he thought Xi Jinping was responding appropriately to the threat posed by the contagion. Trump responded that Chinese officials were “doing a very professional job” and that he has spoken to Xi Jinping about it only hours prior. Once it became clear that this was not the case, however, the president quickly changed his tune. Trump soon began referring to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” to emphasize China’s responsibility in the pandemic.
As is the case with so many of Trump’s public statements, this label immediately incited controversy in the Twittersphere. With anti-Asian hate crimes on the rise, many critics argued, the phrase “Chinese virus” would lead to unfair associations between Asian-Americans and COVID-19, potentially causing bigots to falsely assume them to be carriers and harm them. These critics also noted that anti-Chinese racism in the United States has long had a food-related element, with the notion that Chinese cuisine was gross and smelly being used to justify the racist belief that Chinese people were too. Many Asian-Americans expressed legitimate concerns that the “bat soup” understanding of the virus’s origin may lead Westerners to believe that the consumption of bats is a commonly accepted Chinese tradition, rather than a result of immense poverty and necessity. Several prominent left-wing activists and politicians like Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour and congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were among those to condemn the label and the spike in hate crimes.
Trump’s supporters disagreed and defended the president’s words. They considered the phrase “Chinese virus” to be a legitimate case of telling it like it is. Besides, they argued, viruses are often named after their countries of origin. They claim that the Chinese government must be held accountable for its failings, and if some ignorant people use the truth to justify bad or racist behavior, they felt this was simply not Trump’s fault.
Surely both arguments have merit. It isn’t inherently racist to highlight the Chinese government’s failure to properly contain and inform the world of the virus; racism is a strong accusation after all, and valid criticism of a foreign government for a particular shortcoming does not meet the definition. However, it is also the responsibility of a leader to be diplomatic and delicate when discussing such a sensitive issue, and if there is one thing both Trump supporters and Trump critics can agree on, it is that Trump is anything but delicate and diplomatic. Chinese-Americans are Americans, and if the words of an elected official have the capacity to harm any citizens of their nation, they must take responsibility for that and find a better way to communicate what they’re trying to say.
What is fascinating about this debate, and especially the claim that excessive right-wing focus on the Chinese government’s actions endanger Chinese-Americans, is that the same people making the argument then defend left-wing politicians accused of doing the same with anti-Israel rhetoric. The way the anti-Israel left discusses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its impact on the Jewish-American diaspora, is noticeably different from the way they discuss China. Public figures like Sarsour, Ocasio Cortez, and Omar, all of whom regularly decry what they consider racially insensitive language from Trump, have come under fire for excessively focusing on Israel at the exclusion of other nations. They and other proponents of an anti-Israel perspective argue that no amount of anti-Israel activism will ever be harmful to Jews, even when Jewish activists argue the contrary. These same people then argue that anti-China rhetoric can and will harm Chinese-Americans.
To left-wing activists, Israeli Jews are powerful, white Europeans, while Arabs are powerless, brown-skinned “people of color”. They see Israel’s social system as an extension of their understanding of American racial power dynamics, with whites being the dominant group and members of other ethnicities being denied access to structural power. They therefore don’t think of themselves as criticizing Jewish people, but white supremacist power structures, making their rhetoric acceptable. To these leftists, colonial or white supremacist power dynamics are almost the ultimate evil, so any rage directed at such structures is justified, whether they exist in the Americas, Europe, or Israel.
Right-wingers often feel similarly about communist systems. They argue that communist leaders, be they European or Latino or Chinese, are tyrants, and should be condemned at every turn. They see themselves as criticizing the oppressive system of communism, not Chinese people themselves. However, Chinese communism deserves as much scrutiny as European communism, and they feel they should not be barred from criticizing any oppressive, Marxist government.
Again, it is not inherently bad or racist to adhere to either of these worldviews, but these principles must be applied equally and fairly. It is not wrong to criticize the Netanyahu administration’s demolition of Palestinian homes and the continued expansion of Israel beyond the agreed-upon borders. Similarly, it is not wrong to criticize the Chinese Communist Party’s concentration camps for Uyghur Muslims and their failure to properly warn the world of the coronavirus emergency. However, to do so does not require holding China nor Israel to an unfair standard. Anti-Israel activists make no mention of Palestinian president Mahmood Abbas’s frequent propagation of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, nor Hamas’s use of human shields and child soldiers. Trump supporters condoning Trump’s criticism of Xi Jinping make no mention of the fact that he had once praised China’s response to the crisis, and even attempt to justify his claims that injecting human beings full of disinfectant was being explored as a cure for COVID-19. Criticizing particular policies is fine, but framing a particular country as uniquely oppressive and evil can create a stigma around that nation that may implicate innocent members of its diaspora.
Many of the leftist figures now denouncing any association between China and the virus themselves have a history of rhetoric that crossed the line into anti-Semitism. For example, Linda Sarsour said of Israelis, “If you’re…actually trying to humanize the oppressor, then that’s a problem, sisters and brothers” at the Islamic Society of North America convention. These comments were widely criticized and interpreted as dehumanizing Israeli Jews. Zahra Billoo, activist and attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, regularly tweets in reference to “apartheid Israel,” a favorite phrase of anti-Israel activists; it is condemned by Zionists because it falsely conflates Jews in Israel with white, European invaders in South Africa and therefore denies Jews’ legitimate ethnic ties to the Middle East. She has also stated that a Holocaust museum was unnecessary because Israel recreates the Holocaust all the time. And Ilhan Omar famously tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” in regards to AIPAC, and condemned “allegiance to a foreign country,” both of which were interpreted as old anti-Semitic tropes in which Jews are accused of being disloyal to their homelands and of using their wealth to purchase political influence.
Every one of these comments were condemned as anti-Semitic or at least unfairly anti-Israel without proper acknowledgement of why Israel’s security measures are so strict. However, these activists have not backed down from their anti-Israel stance, and any anti-Semitism they may have engaged in did not elicit much concern from their core supporter base, suggesting that, short of blatant racial slurs, no amount of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories will deter the anti-Israel left.
This is the same left, of course, that then derided a factually true pro-Biden ad as “devastatingly racist.” The ad emphasized Trump’s capitulation to the Chinese government following their dishonest propaganda about their COVID-19 response. It said nothing about Chinese-Americans and never once blamed China’s citizens for the virus. However, progressives called it racist, because some ignorant people might misinterpret it. Therein lies the problem with this understanding of what racism is. If “racism” refers to anything that someone who’s already bigoted might misinterpret, then anti-Israel activism almost certainly fits the bill. White supremacists like David Duke and Richard Spencer, for example, are anti-Israel. Radical Islamists like Ayatollah Khomeini and Muammar Gaddafi are (or were) anti-Israel as well. Objectively, many people on the anti-Israel side of the argument are bad actors, and many anti-Israel arguments have the capacity to influence those who already hold anti-Semitic beliefs to act on them. If calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus” is racist because it unjustly links Chinese people to the actions of the Chinese government, warning people not to “humanize the oppressor” certainly is, because it unjustly links Israeli, Jewish civilians to the actions of a political party. If the phrase is racist because bigots might use it to justify their pre-existing hate, so too is “apartheid Israel” or claiming that Jews buy political influence.
Or perhaps, neither one of these is “racist” per se. Rather, perhaps both “apartheid Israel” and “Chinese virus” are examples of the deeply divisive and regressive political rhetoric that have become the norm on both the left and the right. Perhaps a reckless and irresponsible president attempting to cover his own mishandling of the crisis by labeling it “the Chinese virus” is unhelpful and adds nothing productive to our discourse. Perhaps supporting the BDS movement, which states that it will not be satisfied until all Palestinian Arabs who vacated Israel in 1948 are permitted to return, thereby costing Israel its Jewish-centric character and potentially endangering many of its civilians — a vision shared by terrorist group Hamas — is not a helpful way of advocating for Palestinian human rights. Maybe, when it comes to discussing topics that might implicate members of vulnerable minority groups, we should tread more carefully and delicately than to minimize the significance and horror of the Holocaust or use an ethnic demonym to describe a virus that is currently wreaking havoc on our society.
Our system works best when we engage in rhetoric that is helpful and constructive. Comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa isn’t helpful and neither is racializing a pandemic. In order to work towards a less divisive discourse, we can’t start by pointing fingers at the other side and accusing them of hateful rhetoric without examining our own tribe’s role in polarization; we must begin by working on ourselves. If you want civility in politics, you extend to the other side the same respect and dignity you want them to extend to you. If you don’t care for civility and demand for your political tribe to be allowed to engage in fiery and furious rhetoric about your opponents, you can’t complain when they return the favor. By all means, criticize communism. Criticize the Netanyahu administration. Criticize the concentration camps full of Muslims and the demolition of Arab homes. Speak out against particular policy failures or human rights violations. But calling for the destruction of a tiny nation or falsely conflating Chinese ethnic identity with an authoritarian government is not only unhelpful, but potentially dangerous to innocent civilians. And furthermore, condoning one while railing against the other, frankly, is just hypocritical.