It is difficult to discuss and write about the current crisis without simply reflecting on the human tragedy. Thousands of people are losing their lives, and families across the world are fearing for their elderly loved ones as this virus ravages villages, towns, and cities. Millions will lose their jobs and the world faces economic disaster and the prospect of a long and gloomy depression – another lost generation due to the total shutdown of normal economic life.
As we get used to this new reality, however, and as the disturbing statistics charting the fatal curve of the virus become normal to us – yet more inevitable bad news – people will begin to ask questions. “Who is to blame for this”, people will wonder. Many of the families of those who have – and will – die, once they have mourned, will call for justice. The economic victims of this world-disaster will look for people and institutions to blame. “Why was more not done and sooner?” “Why was travel not restricted, why was scientific advice ignored, was the economy prioritised over lives?” The chorus of anger and loathing will get louder as the passage of time reveals the scale of the tragedy we are currently living through.
We are still rapidly descending into a totally unprecedented scenario and our whole way of life is changing. The state is gathering powers over the individual never before dreamed of outside dystopian fantasies. Perhaps it is far too early for me to be writing about blame and narratives when the story is only just beginning.
Yet as an historian I cannot help but notice that narratives are forming as those who could fall into the cross hairs of blame begin to shape the story to meet their own ends. No other regime is more guilty of this than the Chinese Communist Party. Next year the Party will celebrate its centenary and plans have been on hand in China for years to mark this major occasion. The Chinese State wants to demonstrate its global dominance and present itself as a great world superpower, eclipsing the USA as American hegemony declines. The deadly virus that began in a Wuhan wet market initially seemed to scupper these designs, however. China no longer seemed to be the modern, powerful, economic colossus that had risen onto the world stage in the first two decades of the twenty first century. Instead it looked like a backward nation, unable to develop proper health and safety standards. It was a corrupt regime which allowed the disease to spread unchecked for weeks in Wuhan and arrested the brave doctors who tried to warn the world of what was coming.
There is no doubt that the Chinese State was acutely aware of the terrible reputation that it was gathering as cases of the virus appeared in other countries. Nothing shows this more clearly than the huge pressure China placed on the WHO to stop describing the virus as the Chinese or Wuhan virus. It is also evidenced by China’s insistence that all new cases in the country have come from new arrivals to the state and that the State has largely defeated Covid-19 while the west struggles on.
The propaganda machine has been incredibly successful, and the virus is now universally called Covid-19. Donald Trump has come under great criticism for labelling the virus as “Chinese”. Journalists have labelled the US president racist for committing such an error of language. Yet there is nothing racist in this description. The virus began in China. Diseases in the past, from the Zika virus to Ebola virus disease, have had their names designated to a relevant geographic location: Ebola originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a village near the Ebola River. This is not a question of race, therefore, but of power. The Chinese State understands the power of media and has therefore taken control of the language and history of this pandemic.
This must be resisted. The Chinese report that few new cases are emerging in China and that they all have emerged from recent arrivals to the country. The Communist regime wants the world to forget where this disaster began. They want to paint a picture of a strong and powerful regime that has successfully beaten the virus while decadent and inefficient western democracies flail and drown in a wave of disease that they have neither the resources nor strength to combat. The Chinese Communist Party will therefore justify its authoritarian grip on the Chinese people and its nation’s inevitable rise to superpower status. The corruption of the Chinese State will then be forgotten. Dr. Li Wenliang who was arrested for warning the world about the virus when it could still have been stopped, will be forgotten. This is the way that history is manipulated.
The idea that China has successfully dealt with the pandemic and that the west should be blamed for its inaction is a perverse inversion of the facts and cannot be allowed to enter conventional wisdom. In the coming months international pressure should be mounting and demands made for China to pay reparations. The Chinese State allowed the horrific conditions to remain in place in which it was possible for this deadly virus to mutate into the strain that entered humans. When will these markets of death and disease, not to mention animal cruelty, close? The Chinese State restricted reporting on the disease and wasted valuable time that could have saved uncountable lives. When will the Chinese State apologise for these failings and provide economic support to compensate for the misery and economic havoc for which they are partly to blame?
I do not wish to denigrate the incredible work that Chinese scientists and health workers have done to combat the disease. Nor do I wish to suggest that there were not things western nations could have done earlier to prepare for this pandemic. I am, however, warning against the manipulation of history and the propaganda war which the Chinese State has begun in order to construe events to fit their ideological view of China and its trajectory in history. We should not accept this without criticism.