In his first presidential debate against Joe Biden, Donald Trump made clear who he blames for the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s China’s fault, it should never have happened,” the President said, before referring to the virus as the “China plague.”
For months now, he has consistently played up initial failures by Beijing in controlling the pandemic to blame China for the global repercussions – particularly the catastrophic effects the virus has had in the United States, where it has killed more than 200,000 people and infected upwards of 7.3 million, including the President himself.
Trump’s rhetoric has angered Beijing, which has in turn highlighted Washington’s own mishandling of the virus through state media and in official comments. Many countries closer to China and exposed to the virus earlier have nevertheless handled it far better than the US, and most experts are critical of how Trump has responded to the pandemic.
China is currently celebrating “golden week,” an eight-day holiday to mark both Chinese national day on October 1, and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are expected to travel during this period, evidence of how the country has largely recovered from the virus.
Initially, some Chinese commentators crowed about Trump’s diagnosis, seeing it as karmic after his repeated scapegoating of China – something which has harmed bilateral relations and, at times, put Chinese-Americans at risk. On Weibo, China’s tightly censored, Twitter-like platform, the news initially attracted millions of comments, with some joking it was a “gift for China’s National Day.”
On Twitter, Hu Xijin, editor of the state-backed tabloid Global Times, wrote that the President and first lady Melania Trump, who also tested positive, “have paid the price for his gamble to play down COVID-19.”
Hu, who has close ties to the Chinese leadership, soon deleted that post, though it remains unclear whether that was a personal decision or a directive from above. His comments were reported widely in English-language media before their deletion.
Regardless, there is evidence that Beijing is now controlling the internal narrative around Trump’s diagnosis. The story is not in a prominent position on most state media websites, even as it dominates news around the world. On Weibo, major Chinese publications – including state broadcaster CCTV and newspaper People’s Daily – have now turned off comments on posts about Trump, a sure sign of nervousness among censors.
Though China’s government is largely closed for the holiday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a short statement noting “relevant reports” and wishing “Mr. and Mrs. Trump a speedy recovery.”
Beijing has good reason to be nervous about Trump’s diagnosis. Chinese media and top officials have long complained about the way the country has been, in their words, “scapegoated” for the pandemic’s effects in the US, and Beijing is decidedly unhappy with being a major topic in the US election.
Yet that seems unlikely to change. Trump could now take an even harder line on China, further leaning into the narrative he has already established that Beijing is ultimately to blame.
Some on the US right are already using Trump’s diagnosis to do just that. Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler tweeted Friday that “China gave this virus to our President,” adding “WE MUST HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE.” Blair Brandt, a Trump campaign fundraiser, claimed the “Chinese Communist Party has biologically attacked our President,” while US Rep. Mark Walker, ranking Republican member on the House Subcommittee for Intelligence and Counterterrorism, asked “is it fair to make the assessment that China has now officially interfered with our election?”
Prior to Trump’s diagnosis, China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, tweeted that a sound and stable relationship “is in the interests of both countries, and it is needed for achieving the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Beijing has always valued stability above all else. However, Trump’s diagnosis – whatever the outcome – threatens that stability, setting the stage for an uneasy golden week for China’s top leaders.