A War of Words: Making Sense of Political Claims in China and the United States During the Coronavirus 2019 Pandemic

Gareth Davey

As the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, news reports are publicising political claims about accountability for the crisis, conspiracy theories, cover-ups, misinformation, public health responses, and vulnerabilities in societies. President Donald Trump and senior officials in the Chinese Government have become widely acknowledged as the principal advocates of the finger-pointing, as they craft their own narratives and ideological persuasion which revile and blame each other’s countries. The potential consequences of the escalating China–US conflict are too great to ignore, and are shaping the trajectory of the pandemic, public reaction, and global security and peace. There are also challenges for the UK’s bilateral relations with both countries, as it risks being pulled into taking sides in this war of words (e.g. Proctor, 2020).

The broader picture is much more complex than is implied in the media coverage and by official state sources, which typically simplify and dramatize the claims with disregard for evidence or comparison of competing perspectives. In this position paper, it is argued that Chinese studies can assist the public, journalists, policy-makers, business leaders, and others to critically examine the nature of the claims and their interpretive complexities, as well as the social and historical processes through which they have been conceptualised and have come to public attention. This alternative path will encourage more balanced media reporting and public understanding, and could serve as a foundation for the UK to locate itself between both sides, thereby maintaining close links with the US while also developing stronger ties with China. Increased public awareness could incentivise public officials to discontinue the “blame-gaming” and take responsibility for the current situation. It should also help to reduce to the racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes being reported in the UK and other countries as a result of the pandemic (e.g. Campbell, 2020).

As a primary arena for communicating information during the pandemic, the media’s complex and multifaceted connection with political claims is an obvious starting point for analysis. There is an urgent need for specialists in “Chinese media studies” to scrutinise the news coverage of the claims, for example: their content, discourse, presentation, and rhetoric; different types of assertions, causal interpretations, and solutions being put forward; the people making the claims, and their supporters and opponents; the unfolding of claims and counter-claims and their revision or expansion as the pandemic continues; and the role of the media in presenting and gatekeeping the information for their audiences (Best, 2013). Chinese media studies scholars are well versed to situate such analyses in the country’s complex and changing media landscape (e.g. the global media market, government control and interests, cultural and structural changes) using innovative research methodologies among diversified audiences. There is a particular need for ethnographic research on how people are interpreting, engaging with, and contributing to claims-making, especially on the internet and social media while they are socially distancing, and its intertwinement with their lived experiences and popular culture. Since the issues are being framed differently in the Chinese and Western presses, a comparative assessment of their communications, and any tensions between official narratives and public discussions (e.g. supporting or refuting the assertions), alongside studies of other modes of communication such as new technologies, are also warranted.

While the novelty of the pandemic might imply that the current grievances have emerged recently and independently, China specialists are well placed to examine how they draw upon existing fault lines in the China–US relationship, the cultures and worldviews of the claims-makers and their audiences (e.g. ideologies, values, and beliefs), and other reasons. For instance, the claims on the American side can be situated in established narratives of China as a competitor and threat to US interests in economics, security, technology, global governance, and maritime territorial disputes (Medeiros, 2019), uncertainty over its intentions, and previous moves to contain its growing prominence – such as the US’s security presence in the Asia-Pacific, and pursuit of free trade agreements with other countries in the region. Also important is the intensifying trade war and anti-China rhetoric during the presidency of Donald Trump, especially his desire to reconfigure their close economic ties. Other motivations that require further scrutiny include putting pressure on China for economic and political reforms, scapegoating for the pandemic and the US’s own public health response, and concerns about challenges to the existing international order in which the US’s regional and global hegemony and primacy could weaken at the expense of China’s economic and political ascendance (Mearsheimer, 2006). The situation can be approached from the perspective of international relations theory, by interrogating the predicating assumptions about the determinants of state behaviour and the positions and actions of public figures. For example, whether they really are conspiracy theorising about Covid-19 (and, in that case, disregarding the responsibilities that come with their office) or actually engaging in geostrategic thinking, content analysis of their public comments will no doubt reveal the influence of neorealism, as its basic ontology implies that the pandemic could be a pretext for an inevitable conflict yet to come, although a thorough analysis with theoretical alternatives and in the wider global context is needed.

China’s position, in turn, can also be situated in its own pursuit of national interests, growing geopolitical appetite for power, increasing confidence in its economic and military capabilities, and concerns about US interference in areas that constrain its economic and security interests. China’s claims could also be symptomatic of criticism about its Covid-19-related reporting and actions (which some commentators have referred to as its “Chernobyl moment,” a reference to the fall of the Soviet Union following the nuclear accident in 1986; Topaloff, 2020). Research can also consider state legitimation through fostering national sentiment among its population, as some of the reports (e.g. an American origin of the Covid-19 virus; Zhao, 2020) seem to draw upon increasingly assertive nationalism and anti-Americanism in China, and are likely bolstering state support and legitimacy. However, China also realises it has much at stake in engaging in conflict or rethinking its integrationist foreign policy, as disruptions to economic growth could affect many people with implications for the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power. Since state leaders plan their actions against a backdrop of popular support, research is needed on preferences domestically for China’s foreign policy and international involvement, and also national satisfaction with the status quo (Legro, 2007).

The above outline stakes out a potential contribution from Chinese studies for making sense of the political claims currently being broadcast in the media at a time when people are experiencing significant disruption in their lives and contemplating a global economic collapse and an uncertain future. It is imperative to draw on the discipline’s strengths in analysing contemporary China and its internal and external dynamics as well as international relations theory, to delve beneath the surface of the arguments to scrutinise how and why they have been constructed, and to deliver an explanatory model with considerable leverage. As the confrontation remains at an early stage and is focused on raising awareness and calling for action, there is still time before it develops into proposed conclusions such as policies and reforms that could transform future relations between China, the US, and the rest of the world. Looking ahead, while we might be in for a rough ride in the coming months, there is still scope for engaging in a more meaningful dialogue in the interests of global peace and containing Covid-19.


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