Ever since the novel Coronavirus burst onto the international stage in late January, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has sought to suppress information and spread falsehoods via propaganda in a cynical attempt to control its image around the world. One central focus of such efforts has been blame-shifting. The first question when anything goes wrong in the world is often, “who did it? Who is to blame?” China would like the answer to that question to be, “Not China.” Thus, when people around the world began calling the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus,” China immediately stepped up its efforts to suppress the truth of its origin by casting the label as racist. And it did so by using a different type of virality: digital virality.
For the most part, China’s attempts have included the media manipulation tactics characteristic of authoritarian regimes: large displays of public works, images of patients dancing in hospitals, endless praise for the Party leadership. These are the sorts of grand gestures one would expect from authoritarian regimes. They inspire awe and demonstrate the power of the state in times of crisis. The footage of thousands of workers building hospitals in a matter of days, the vast sanitation crews spraying every square inch of Wuhan with disinfectant, the empty streets of Hubei where 60 million people have been forced to stay inside - these are feats of social engineering that Western Democracies can only marvel at. But China’s overt displays of state power are not the only way in which the state controls perceptions. What is harder to recognize is China’s digital propaganda efforts.
Lurking beneath the surface level displays of national solidarity, China’s infamous internet manipulation industry has also been hard at work spreading pro-China propaganda across the web. These subterranean efforts are more insidious than the usual cliches of autocratic information management because they are less obvious to the untrained eye. Propaganda in the form of “fake news” and twitter bots is hard to spot by design, and, insofar as China’s surveillance state has perfected the art of shaping public opinion via these tactics, it amounts to a form of mass mind control. And if the CPC can control what people believe is true, it can rewrite history.
History is what is at stake in the battle over the “Wuhan virus” label. The 1918 flu pandemic has become known to history as the Spanish flu even though it probably came from somewhere in Kansas or Oklahoma. The fact that the virus became known as the “Spanish flu” is a result of effective suppression of the news: with World War I in full swing, the virus spread rapidly through militaries, but nations did not want to scare their populations away from participating in the war effort by reporting on the pandemic. By historical coincidence, Spain was not involved in the Great War, and therefore it’s press was relatively free to report the truth. As a result, Spanish news media was the only new media that reported the outbreak in its country, leading to the widespread misperception that the virus had originated in Spain. With the moniker firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness, Spain has borne the brunt of negative cultural references to the 1918 pandemic. China wants to avoid such a fate.
The main difference between the label “Wuhan virus” and the label “Spanish flu” is that the latter is inaccurate while the former is completely accurate. The Spanish flu did not originate in Spain, but the coronavirus did come from Wuhan. China cannot change that fact.
It should be noted that the term “Chinese virus” is far more problematic because it is unclear from the term itself whether it refers to the country or the people. If it refers to the people, then it is still unclear whether it refers to the national identity or the Chinese race. If it refers to the race, then yes, it’s racist.
Such nuances have not stopped lawmakers from weighing in, though.
“This labeling of the illness is embarrassing, disrespectful, offensive and downright disgusting,” Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., vice-chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, wrote in a statement. “Wrongly inserting ‘Chinese’ into the name of this disease only reinforces the disparaging and negative stereotypes of Asian Americans.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, backed her up in a tweet: "Calling it the 'Chinese coronavirus' isn't just racist, it's dangerous and incites discrimination against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants.”
The term “Chinese virus” can certainly be used as a racial dog whistle. But, like the Spanish flu, it could also be used in a completely innocuous way to refer to the location where the virus originated. This is even more clear in the case of the term “Wuhan virus.”
The question about whether the use of the term “Wuhan virus” is racist or not, then, demands a careful analysis of each specific use case. If the unspoken intentions of the user can be inferred as racist from the context of use, then and only then can the term be said to be racist. After all, the term “Wuhan virus” cannot be treated as a racist epithet for Chinese people in every case necessarily due to the accuracy and truth of the meaning of the term. It is not racist to call a virus from Wuhan the “Wuhan virus.” But it could be racist to use the term in a racist way.
Consider for a moment how common it is to use geographic names for diseases. Here are a few:
Zika virus (a forest)
Guinea worm (a country)
Japanese encephalitis (a country)
West Nile virus (a river)
German measles (a country)
Spanish flu (a country)
Ebola (a river)
Marburg virus (a German city)
Lassa fever (a Nigerian town)
It would be absurd to claim that such geographic terms cannot be used in the case of the coronavirus due to racism when such labeling is common practice.
Make no mistake: Racism surrounding the coronavirus is a real and dangerous issue. In India, viral videos of Chinese people eating various animals from Chinese food markets incited violence against Chinese people living in India. In America, Asians are buying guns at higher rates than usual, presumably for self-protection, after several incidents of racial violence. In Europe, Asian people have faced street harassment. Chinese restaurants around the globe are seeing sharp declines in consumer demand. Tensions in Australia and New Zealand are at a high point. There is no question that Asian people in general and Chinese people specifically have faced racism and will continue to face racism.
But the answer to such racism cannot be the rewriting of history or the cynical manipulation of civil rights values and social justice principles for the purposes of authoritarian control. If the virus came from Wuhan, then calling it the “Wuhan virus” is not racist, necessarily. Context is everything. If someone uses the term “Wuhan virus” in a racist way, as determined by the context of the utterance and the intention of the speaker, then that instance should be handled accordingly. But let’s not let China rewrite history by controlling the terminology by which we designate the coronavirus. The virus came from Wuhan. Nothing China does can change that fact.