The China Derangement Syndrome

By Robert Wright, Mar 22 2020

Did you know that “America is under attack—not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese”? Did you know that, even amid this attack, “Joe Biden defends China and parrots Communist party propaganda”? If not, maybe you should get on the mailing list for news updates from the Trump-Pence campaign. 

Team Trump has shifted into full-on blame-China-first mode. In a span of two weeks, we’ve gone from Trump using the term “coronavirus” to Mike Pompeo test-marketing the term “Wuhan virus” to Trump abandoning all pretenses of subtlety and going with “Chinese virus.” 

There’s no denying that China deserves lots of blame. Its failure to adequately regulate Wuhan’s “wet markets”—where wild animals are sold for consumption—seems to be what inflicted this epic problem on the world.

Then again, in 2008 America’s failure to adequately regulate its financial markets inflicted an epic problem on the world. That’s life amid globalization: screwups in one nation can rapidly infect other nations. Sometimes you’re the screwer, and sometimes you’re the screwee.

To put this in more formal language: in a globalized world, nations are locked into a non-zero-sum relationship; there can be lose-lose outcomes or win-win outcomes, depending on how they play their games. This pandemic has been lose-lose, but in the fight against it there will be win-win moments—not just in the sense that victories over the virus in any nation make other nations safer, but in the sense that successful tactics and treatments discovered by one nation will spread to other nations. For better and for worse, we’re all in this together. 

One of the main things this newsletter is about (hence the name!) is how the world’s various non-zero-sum games can be played more wisely. Sometimes that mission means championing the kind of global governance that facilitates cooperation among nations. So, for example, I’d be against cutting US funding to the World Health Organization. And I’d certainly be against trotting out the idea of a 50 percent cut in that funding at exactly the time that a pandemic is enveloping the world—which, remarkably, the Trump administration actually did

But cheering for good global governance isn’t enough. If you’re serious about fostering it, you have to foster a political climate conducive to it, which means fighting the xenophobia and crude nationalism that so often poison that climate. 

You may think my next sentence is going to be: “And that means fighting Trump and Trumpism.” Wrong!


I mean, it goes without saying that you have to fight Trump and Trumpism. But Trump and his supporters aren’t the only problem. If they’re going to sustain enough xenophobia and crude nationalism to keep global governance in the primordial ooze phase of its evolution—where it’s been mired for some time now—they need some help from mainstream voices. 

And they get it! The US foreign policy establishment—aka the Blob—in various ways helps sustain the tensions with other nations that make advances in institutionalized cooperation hard. 

Consider a piece published this week in the Atlantic (a pillar of the liberal-hawk part of the foreign policy establishment) by Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution (another pillar of the liberal-hawk part of the foreign policy establishment). Hamid—whom I know a bit and respect a lot—is a good example of the problem because he’s not himself a xenophobe or a crude nationalist. But by advancing the Blob’s moralistic framing of foreign policy questions, and by sharing the Blob’s tendency to exempt America from the degree of moral scrutiny it brings to other nations, he winds up unwittingly abetting xenophobia and crude nationalism.   

Hamid’s Atlantic piece defends Trump’s blame-China framing of the pandemic and concludes that, after the crisis subsides, “the relationship with China cannot and should not go back to normal.” Because “this pandemic should, finally, disabuse us of any remaining hope that the Chinese regime could be a responsible global actor. It is not, and it will not become one.” 

My problem with this piece isn’t that it makes no valid criticisms of China. It’s true, for example, that after Wuhan officials were notified of a cluster of strange illnesses in late December, they spent days trying to keep this information from the public, even going so far as to detain doctors who talked about it. 

And after Chinese officials did go public about the outbreak, they tried to downplay the peril it posed, even concealing information about it—so, all in all, it took nearly four weeks for Wuhan City to be shut down. (Hamid says the shutdown came “seven weeks after the virus first appeared.” Technically true, but misleading: when the virus appeared, doctors didn’t grasp its significance; they didn’t report it to local officials until three weeks later.) 

This delay is reprehensible and turned out to be massively consequential, and we should complain about it. But it’s not shocking, given the tendency of institutions to try to conceal unflattering news. For example: The Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland, Washington had by February 10 started discouraging visits because patients there were suffering from a strange flu-like illness that turned out to be COVID-19. But, as the Washington Post reported, the nursing home didn’t notify local officials of the problem until 17 days later—even though it was required by law to notify them of flu cases within 24 hours. 

And as for the fact that some Chinese officials soft-pedaled the threat of the disease even after disclosing it: Again, worth complaining about. But if you’re an American who is using this as a key plank in your argument that the Chinese regime can never, ever be “a responsible global actor,” maybe you should at least acknowledge that your own president famously and catastrophically soft-pedaled the threat posed by COVID-19 long after Chinese officials deemed it a grave peril and the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency.

Hamid, though, doesn’t even mention this. Instead he chastises those who “seem comfortable drawing moral equivalencies between the Chinese regime and Donald Trump” and then declares, “I, for one, am glad to live in a democracy, however flawed, in this time of unprecedented crisis.”

I, for one, am too. And I’m not saying Donald Trump is morally equivalent to Xi Jinping (though, God knows, he’d be closer to that if he thought he could get away with it). 

Nor do I approve of, for example, a Chinese official suggesting that hundreds of US military personnel who visited Wuhan last fall may have brought the virus to China. (Though, to be fair, that seems to have been retaliation for semi-deranged Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a frequent Trump ally, having suggested that the virus emerged from a Chinese bioweapons lab.) 

In fact, there are tons of things I don’t like about the Chinese government’s behavior—first and foremost that it has forced God-knows-how-many Muslims into “education” camps, where “teachers” try to expunge their cultural heritage from their brains. 

And if I thought that ostracizing China—or doing whatever Hamid has in mind when he says relations with China should never “go back to normal”—would bring relief to its Muslims or to Chinese in general, I’d seriously consider the idea. But decades of experience tell us that when we go beyond denouncing human rights violations and try more forceful measures, we often make things worse, not better. There are good moral arguments against the current governments in Iran and Venezuela, but those arguments have been deployed to inflict huge suffering on the people in those countries via crippling economic sanctions—and the governments, in response, have grown only more repressive. 

Meanwhile, common sense tells us that pragmatic engagement with all the world’s countries is essential given the number of non-zero-sum games we’re playing with them—in the realm of health, for sure, but also in realms like environmental policy and arms control. (Tom Cotton is right to worry about bioweapons labs abroad, though he’d never sign onto the kind of intrusive global governance required to handle the threat.) Common sense also tells us that to weather the current crisis we may need to play any number of ad hoc non-zero-sum games with China—like, say, the multinational coordination of monetary policy to stave off economic collapse. So maybe vilifying China right now is kind of stupid. 

Hamid correctly writes that “China has a history of mishandling outbreaks, including SARS in 2002 and 2003.” But his claim that China’s “negligence…after the first outbreak” of  COVID-19 “far surpasses those bungled responses” is strange. SARS had been circulating in China for more than two months before it was reported to the World Health Organization. COVID-19 was reported to the WHO four days after a doctor brought it to the attention of Wuhan health officials—as soon as China’s national government learned of it. 

In other words, the coronavirus episode suggests that China has, in at least some important ways, become a more responsible global actor—demonstrating exactly the kind of improvement that, according to Hamid, the coronavirus episode proves China is incapable of demonstrating.

When this pandemic finally passes, the world’s nations should have a candid conversation about what allowed it to happen, and decide how to strengthen national and international institutions in ways that could prevent a repeat. If people like Trump and Tom Cotton—with the assistance of influential Blobsters who seem incapable of escaping the perceptual and cognitive distortions that accompany American exceptionalism—continue to gratuitously deepen tensions with China, that will be a lot harder than it needs to be.


Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

Most of the content on this site is published as a (free!) newsletter first.

Please, consider subscribing: