"China Unquarantined" recently released in the National Review, has unleashed the specter of China as a seething monster needing containment.
Authors Dan Blumenthal and Nicholas Eberstadt have taken the approach of throw-everything-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks to sully China in service of a reactionary current in US politics. The authors summon up well in excess of ten thousand words to say that the US is good and China is bad.
It’s a hit job, part and parcel of a campaign to reorient the US away from China in just about every aspect of life. It is deeply reactionary in that it seeks not just to upend, but to undo and destroy efforts to build the US-China relationship in the last forty years.
In tone and content, the piece corresponds well with the PR output of the Pompeo faction in US politics – China can do no right, the US can do no wrong.
What little it does have to say in an original way is either spurious or not well-supported. It’s long enough, and there is a long litany of complaints cited, but there is not much new here to anyone who reads the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, except perhaps that the authors have the gall to use Covid-19 as an all-encompassing narrative theme.
To put it plainly, they create a straw-horse, thinking China might be bad, and then light it on fire, and it burns, so China must be bad.
There's implicit racism underlying the whole piece, starting with the title.
It has the dynamics of self-fulfilling prophecy, painting the other guy as the enemy and then setting out to denigrate the designated enemy in every way.
It does not consider what valid fears and concerns China might rightly have about current, disruptive economic and political shifts. China is still struggling with the Covid-19 epidemic. It has come of age in the world where the US dominates the high seas and maintains military bases encircling China in all directions.
Ironically, the National Review case against China flouts the term “unquarantined” but does not address China’s reasonable sovereign desire to be “uncontained”, or at least less tightly “constrained”, by the military might of US and its ability to impose trade tariffs and punitive sanctions. The US can look to Australia, Japan, and South Korea for support, buttressed by an archipelago of military bases around the world. The US’s military might has no equal.
The authors take to China-bashing, impugning Chinese students as spies and stressing the need to limit visas, and then pause to wonder why this tremendous talent pool is starting to race back to China in droves.
If the authors succeed in their quixotic quest to drive Chinese students away, they will have unwittingly given new life to the story of US-trained physicist Qian Xuesen writ large. The Chinese-born MIT genius was ruthlessly bullied by FBI under McCarthyism; bending to pressure, he returned China and helped work on their bomb.
On some of the more particular points, the authors make a reasonable case, such as lack of reciprocity in particular industries, and the film business in particular. They accuse Hollywood of kowtowing not just to China’s tastes, but also to China’s censors.
While these restrictions hurt China’s domestic industry as much as, if not more than, the US market, it’s uncertain if America’s movie industry bending to China is really China’s fault. Hollywood has always played to the prejudices of its audience and always bent to the censor board. Whitewashing is at least as old as DW Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and for years Jews and gays and Asians and African-Americans had to wait in line to get a starring role.
More generally, the article is unified by a totally opportunistic and illogical deployment of COVID-19 as a theme. The writers stoop to deploying the already-tiresome trope of the pandemic as a way of invoking a political fear of contagion.
“Letting the CCP loose in our house is part and parcel of America’s grand strategy and has been for decades.” They draw on old quotes from Nixon that buttress their disease model of China invoking “containment without isolation” and “dynamic detoxification.” And after a whopping 10,000 words in service of portraying China as a political peril, they conclude:
“And so today we must begin the task of quarantining ourselves from the CCP.”
The tacit conflation of China and Covid-19 serves as a kind of narrative glue to hold the rest of their loosely-assembled hodge-podge of ideas together. Chinese influence is portrayed as a kind of contagion. The authors say in effect that the CCP is the virus we really have to watch out for, wink-wink.
This is nothing more than abhorrent propagandizing.
Plenty of mistakes have been made every place where the virus reared its ugly head. China's early response reeked of bureaucratic squirming and the desire to deflect or ignore bad news, but its subsequent response was concerted and effective.
But to imply, as Eberstadt and Blumenthal do, that it could have been contained in Wuhan (when it was still poorly understood) begs the question: Why wasn't it contained in Seattle, or in New York? Why was it allowed to spread, even with adequate time to prepare?
One of the article’s more powerful claims is that China hoarded masks and protective gear, and then resold the same at a profit. This and other details are, in places, damning, but it still doesn’t add up to a call to arms to ditch the hard-won accomplishments that have been won in US-China relations, especially when so much of each country’s affluence and well-being is dependent on the other.
In politics, cooperation is an urgent necessity under pandemic conditions. And as for science, Covid-19 is a free agent under no one's control. The virus doesn’t take marching orders from anyone but merely follows a ruthless, unrelenting Darwinian march of its own.
In "China Unquarantined", Covid-19 is weaponized in a weird and retrospective way. The authors make spurious calculations about how much the virus has cost the US in treasure and blood, citing numbers certain to anger and enrage readers.
Trump has resisted the calls of the anti-China line longer than might be expected given the way he surrounded himself from the start with China-bashing advisors such as Steven Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Michael Pillsbury and Peter Navarro. But his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner both have business interests in China, as does one of his biggest benefactors, casino-magnate Sheldon Adelson.
From title to the last line, “China Unquarantined” is a call to arms to remind the Trump camp to keep up the fight with China, if only for domestic reasons. Pivoting against China is seen as a necessary tactic in the battle against the "radical left" Democrats (that is, Joe Biden or anyone who doesn't agree with them). This work of rhetoric, sponsored by the National Review, is a kind of cheat sheet to remind Republicans to stay on message and speak in unison.
The message? China is to be categorically demonized. It might not be true, in any case the pro-US tale they have to tell is only half the story, but laying blame on a rival is a useful foil in times of political crisis. Fear of the “other” is being used to rally economic nationalists and inflame public opinion at a time when President Trump is desperately trying to shirk responsibility for America’s home-grown problems.