We have a remarkable ability to elevate the petty over the substantive. President Trump has been thoroughly scolded for calling the virus from China the “Chinese virus” — don’t let’s be beastly to the ChiComs — but the culpability of the Chinese government in the disaster that is playing out around the world is discussed, if it is discussed at all, in the most muffled way. There is a long history of attaching geographic names to diseases. If the present instances are unfair to the Chinese people, who have suffered massively from the outbreak, a better name would be “Xi’s disease.”
Indeed, we do not blame the Chinese people for the fact that a novel coronavirus cropped up in Wuhan. We blame the government in Beijing for making the problem dramatically worse by trying to cover it up, for its ridiculous efforts to try to shift blame for the epidemic onto the United States and others, and for its ongoing attempts to veil its own shameful incompetence by expelling journalists from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
Beijing’s vanity — and its insecurity — gave the coronavirus “a critical monthlong head start,” as James Palmer put it in Foreign Policy. The Communist Party machine that rules 1.4 billion people in China may look like an immovable monolith, but it has weaknesses and fissures. The Chinese people at large may not feel much sympathy for the despised Uighur minority, but they know that if the Uighurs can be rounded up and put in concentration camps, then so can they. They have watched as the government of Xi Jinping has violated the terms of the settlement under which, in theory, Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and self-rule. They have seen the brutal suppression of dissidents at home and Beijing’s attempts, too often successful, to bully its neighbors and trading partners. They know firsthand the bottomless corruption of the Chinese ruling elite. And they have, for a generation, accepted that corruption and repression in exchange for security and a rising standard of material life. The rulers in Beijing know that they are always one serious recession away from being turned out — and worse — and they so feared economic disruption and damage to their own institutional prestige that they placed a losing bet that the heavy hand of their police state would be heavy enough to quash the coronavirus outbreak.
We are all now paying a price for that corruption and stupidity.
A new disease can crop up anywhere. We do not blame Beijing for that. We blame Beijing for the other Chinese virus: the repression it practices at home and seeks to export, and its criminal negligence in this epidemic.
We blame them for Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn his fellow medical practitioners about the situation in Wuhan only to be silenced by Chinese gestapo and forced to sign a statement that his warnings were criminal misbehavior. He was soon dead of the very plague he tried to warn of. A half-dozen other doctors were silenced in the same way.
We blame them for Xu Zhiyong and Li Qiaochu, anti-corruption activists who criticized Xi Jinping’s coronavirus cover-up. They have been disappeared. So have many others. Their likely fates are torture and death.
We blame them for the lies of Zhao Lijian, the Chinese official who has tried to claim that the coronavirus came from the United States to Wuhan, not the other way around. He has suggested that this was a project of the U.S. military. That is very dangerous talk. Other Chinese diplomats and officials have made similar outrageous claims.
This epidemic will subside. But we will not forget Beijing’s irresponsibility, nor its cowardice and dishonesty in the early days of the outbreak. The Beijing regime has long been a boot on the neck of the Chinese people, but it is now a menace to the world at large. There are many things that we hope will change in the wake of this crisis. The character of the government in Beijing should be one of them.