Look not at what he says, but what his administration does
We’re told that Biden is going to be tough on China because the new President has called Xi a ‘thug’. But look at the realities.
At the virtual Davos, the world heard Xi Jinping assert China’s role as a world leader, confidently setting the terms of how other countries and institutions should engage with it. While Xi didn’t single out the US, his subtext was clear. And if this first week is a sign, the next 100 days of the Biden administration will be a gift to China’s ambitions to reshape the world order.
Xi admonished those who ‘slip into arrogant isolation’ and ‘build small circles or start a new cold war’. It’s amusing to hear the Chinese premier lecture the world on ‘equal rights, equal opportunities and equal rules’ given the Uighur genocide in Xinjiang. To hear him say ‘the strong should not bully the weak’ sounds like a very advanced joke.
A day later, President Biden put out a memorandum combating anti-Asian racism and xenophobia connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. This directive bluntly rebuked the Trump administration for ‘furthering xenophobic sentiments’. That includes naming the COVID-19 virus after ‘the geographic location of its origin’. These statements, Biden reckons, stoke ‘unfounded fears’ and perpetuate ‘stigma about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’, thus increasing rates of bullying and hate crimes.
To paraphrase St Barack Obama: the Spring of 2020 called, Joe; it wants its talking point back. The idea that Trump’s ‘China virus’ rhetoric is xenophobic is puzzling. Naming a virus after the place it was first reported and thought to have originated has been a matter of scientific consensus for over a century. Where was the hand-wringing over the Zika virus or Mers (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome)?
Chinese scientists and journalists have been jailed or disappeared for sharing information about the novel coronavirus, wild conspiracy theories pinning the blame on the CIA or the US Army have been spread by Chinese officials and state media, and full investigations into the origins of COVID-19 are routinely hampered. These actions attest to the CCP’s hankering for control of the global narrative surrounding how and where the virus emerged. Critics of the term ‘China virus’ may point to general suspicions about the messenger, but that hardly makes their case any more coherent. If the term is ‘racist’ or ‘xenophobic,’ surely we must also cease referring to the ‘UK’ or ‘South African’ variant of SARS-CoV-2 as well.
This is unnecessary moral posturing. The supposed increase in anti-Asian hate crimes derives from self-reporting via an online portal. No attempts have been made to isolate causation from correlation. Trump is out of office and the Great Digital Crackdown of 2021 has deprived him of the largest social media platforms.
So what does Biden’s efforts to advance racial equity by memo really accomplish? He can’t magically banish racist incidents against individuals on the streets by signed decree. If racial equity is really his big concern here, where is the memorandum against racial discrimination against Asian American students by tax payer-supported colleges and universities?
There is a lot more for Biden to do than worry about the offensiveness of terms like ‘China virus’ or ‘Kung Flu’, which where relevant maybe 200 news cycles ago. For a start he needs to worry about the virus and China. Since he became President-elect, China has approved a law allowing attacks on foreign vessels in the South China Sea, ramped up arrests of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and, most recently, made incursions into Taiwanese air space with over a dozen fighter jets and bombers.
These escalating tactics are tests. But the Biden administration has yet to draw up any coherent response. What the world needs now from Biden is more leadership and less moral theater — otherwise we have to ask if the Biden administration’s ‘tough on China’ talk is just lip service.