As people in Hong Kong—and everywhere else—have been busy trying to dodge a potentially deadly encounter with Covid-19, a cynical geopolitical game is being played out on the international stage. 

One would think that, if there were anything that could compel competing world powers to come together for the common good, it would be a plague that has gripped the entire planet, killing people regardless of race, religion or political ideology.  

But, no, international comity and cooperation appears to be well beyond reach at present. Instead, the novel coronavirus threatening the health and happiness of all has become just another blunt instrument to be wielded in a new cold war for power and influence. 

In its crudest and most dispiriting moments, this has seen representatives of the United States and China trade virus-themed insults and allegations in a blame game that demeans the leadership claims of both nations while undermining the fight against the disease. 

US President Donald Trump’s insistence on calling the contagion the “Chinese virus” was a needless provocation. It also served as a crass rhetorical bid to shift attention away from the Trump administration’s fumbled response and almost total lack of preparedness for the crisis. 

Donald Trump. Photo: GovUS.

Trump has since stopped using the term, but his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, nevertheless insisted at a recent G-7 tele-summit that Covid-19 be referred to as the “Wuhan virus,” after the central Chinese city where it first wreaked havoc.

The other six members of the group—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom—refused and, due to the disagreement, no G-7 statement was issued on what is being called the biggest calamity the world has faced since World War II.  

At the same time, right-wing Trumpian news outlets in the US, parroted liberally on social media, are peddling the daft conspiracy theory that the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology as—depending on which hair-raising version of the story you prefer— a bioweapon to be unleashed on the world or a lab study that “escaped” or “leaked” due to shoddy safety protocols. 

Of course, there is zero evidence for any of this, but that doesn’t stop these stories from proliferating. 

In another naked example of political manipulation, this past week Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, a Trump acolyte facing tough re-election prospects in November, called for the resignation of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, accusing him of colluding with the Chinese government to cover up the spread of the virus.

McSally also demanded that China cancel all US debts as compensation for having “caused unnecessary deaths around America and around the world.”  

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (centre). Photo: United Nations.

Without opening a debate on the WHO’s admittedly mixed record during the crisis, let’s see McSally’s “I’ve never trusted a communist” rhetoric for what it is: sheer demagoguery in a time of rising coronavirus fear aimed at boosting an ailing campaign to retain her Senate seat. Let’s hope it doesn’t work.

Trump is also now scapegoating the WHO, calling it “China-centric” and threatening to withhold US funding for the organisation.  

At this point, it seems something akin to “BLAME IT ALL ON CHINA” may soon be the most popular bumper sticker in election campaigns across the US. 

The Chinese leadership, of course, has taken none of these provocations lying down, firing back with a wacko conspiracy theory of its own and straining audibly under its massive propaganda campaign to change the virus narrative to one with China as hero rather than villain of the piece. 

In a battle of conspiracy theories, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted that, rather than leaking out of a poorly secured Chinese virology lab, Covid-19 may have arrived in Wuhan via the US Army when its athletes took part last October in the Military World Games hosted by the city.  

Just as the US has accused Chinese authorities of covering up early infections in Wuhan, Zhao urged US officials to reveal patient data that may show they were ones engaged in a coverup well before the Wuhan epidemic. 

“Be transparent!” Zhao tweeted. “Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

Given the present anti-China fervour in the US, I suppose you can’t blame Zhao for trying. But his empty allegations are just as absurd as any of those hatched and nurtured on right-wing American radio talk shows and cable TV channels. No one with a brain is buying them. 

China’s efforts to recast itself as coronavirus saviour through medical diplomacy also hit a significant snag when thousands of the medical masks and testing kits it so munificently offered to virus-stricken European nations were rejected because they were found to be substandard or defective. 

Xi Jinping. File photo: S.Africa Gov’t.

Meanwhile, China’s reporting of Covid-19 infections and fatalities continues to be suspect because, to put it bluntly, President Xi Jinping and the Community Party have repeatedly demonstrated that they are far more interested in bolstering their status at home and seizing strategic advantage abroad than in any commitment to transparency and internationalism. 

With the US, the so-called “leader of the free world,” and the European Union now flattened by Covid-19, Xi and his minions hope to exploit the pandemic to make a dramatic geopolitical shift that sees China catapult to the top of world leadership. 

That hasn’t happened. Rather, the world has been left leaderless. 

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Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.