Playing the China Blame Game—Covid-19 Edition

Once again, the president is demonstrating his remarkable ability to change the subject and refocus public attention. This time, in order to get people to stop thinking about the administration’s scattershot efforts to deal with Covid-19, he is encouraging them, as usual, to blame somebody else, in this case, China. He has started a debate about how to punish China, to which members of Congress of both parties have been happy to contribute, as they jostle among themselves to see who can take the hardest line.

The key to successful buck-passing, of course, is finding a good victim, someone nobody likes anyway, so even if they are not guilty of what they are being accused of, the public can easily be persuaded they must be guilty of something and therefore deserving of punishment. The Chinese fill that bill nicely. Public sentiment about China has become sharply more negative—see the latest Pew Research poll. This is due to many factors, most of them directly related to policies Xi Jinping has been pursuing that harm our interests, and blame for the virus is one more thing to add to the pile of grievances about China.

At this point, you may think I’m heading in the direction of arguing that they don’t deserve it. Not so. Whether a lab in Wuhan was responsible for the outbreak will probably never be proved conclusively either way, which won't stop people from pointing their fingers. An easier argument to make is that they have not been transparent about what is going on in China, which delayed appropriate responses by other countries. Public information about the outbreak was delayed, and the true extent of it has been suppressed. That should not be a surprise. China is not an open society, media and the internet are strictly controlled, and transparency is not regarded as a virtue in the Chinese Communist Party. None of that stopped medical experts and other astute observers from ringing early warning bells that governments, including ours, ignored. But the Chinese are not blameless, despite their protestations.

Even so, now is not the right time to focus on blame. We are in the midst of a crisis of the global commons (a concept the president probably does not believe in). In the words of too many television commercials, we really are all in this together. We should focus our energy and financial resources on combatting the disease and rebuilding the global economy. Assigning blame is a distraction—an intentional one in the president’s case. We can worry about that later.

If that weren’t enough, the debate about what to do to China is even more depressing. A number of astoundingly bad ideas are flopping around on the table—canceling our debt to them, taking away their sovereign immunity so they can be sued for virus damage, more tariffs, and more ideas to be named later. There are specific problems with each. Canceling our debts would make us officially a deadbeat nation and call into question all our debts to other countries, which would lead to a massive unloading of treasury notes, causing interest rates to rise and sending the economy further down the drain. Fortunately, the president, who has had a lot of experience with non-payment of debt, seems to think this is a bad idea. Removing sovereign immunity, even if it could be accomplished without legislation, would lead to foreign investors pulling assets out of the country to make sure they could not be attached, and it would pose a major obstacle to new foreign investment. More tariffs at a time when demands for removing the ones we already have are growing, make no economic sense.

Beyond the specific arguments, there is the inevitability of Chinese retaliation. They are long-time believers in the Newtonian principle of every action having an equal and opposite reaction, and you can be sure they will react sharply against U.S. interests in China and elsewhere. That would further disrupt an already chaotic economic situation, not to mention torpedoing the China phase one agreement he has claimed as a great victory. 

This may all, hopefully, come to nothing. Sanity could prevail, and proposed actions that are tantamount to economic suicide will be left to die a quiet death. What is profoundly sad about this episode, however, is that rather than the better angels of our nature shining through, it seems to be bringing out the worst in us. Instead of binding up the nation’s wounds, as Lincoln sought to do, we are embarking on witch hunts to find new people to blame for our plight. That will not solve our problems, but worse, it will not distinguish us as people.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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