Wednesday, February 26, 2020


With tens of thousands sick and more than two thousand lives lost, among them a growing number of nurses and doctors, medical, the struggle to contain the coronavirus has put China on edge. A recent letter to the Lancet medical journal paints a heart-breaking picture of life inside the containment zone.

It’s understandable that people’s nerves are on edge at a time like this. That’s why the Wall Street Journal’s  “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” provoked a strong reaction among ordinary citizens and officials alike. Many members of the WSJ reporting staff were also unhappy with this unfriendly and infelicitous “sick man” word choice, and said so, but the editors did not budge.

Chinese officials asked for an apology which was not forthcoming. Unfortunately, officialdom's reaction was to kick out three decent rank-and-file WSJ reporters when the hand responsible for the offending headline was sitting pretty in the home office in New York.

Americans take press freedom, including the freedom to insult, quite seriously and most of the time it’s a value worth defending. However, gratuitous insult designed to kick someone when they are down is not easy to defend or forget.

It’s instructional to look at New York Times headlines about China in the past two months, bearing in mind that the home office, not the reporters in the field, pen the headlines in question which includes several op-ed pieces as well.

The headlines are generally much less offensive than the WSJ “sick man” zinger that rattled media relations, but the New York-based editorial touches are distant, insensitive and sometimes arrogant.

While the consistent use of the neutral term “coronavirus” is an editorial improvement over “China flu” and “Wuhan virus” which can be seen elsewhere, the epidemic was cast by the NYT as an essentially Chinese thing from the start.

To Understand the Wuhan Coronavirus, Look to the Epidemic Triangle

Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China? 
Let’s talk about the cultural causes of this epidemic.

A Wuhan wet market where wildlife was on sale was initially, and apparently incorrectly, blamed as the outbreak ground zero, but the facts didn’t stop the persistence of the “Chinese eat weird things” trope which exploded on social networks and managed to find its way into mainstream press reports.
In Coronavirus, China Weighs Benefits of Buffalo Horn and Other Remedies

As New Coronavirus Spread, China’s Old Habits Delayed Fight

For newspaper hacks back in New York, you can’t go too long without bringing up the iconic Chairman Mao, even though he died nearly half a century ago:

Chairman Mao and Coronavirus: China turns away from seeking truth from facts.

To Tame Coronavirus, Mao-Style Social Control Blankets China

Scientists and serious journalists have long since debunked the “it’s a bio-weapon from the labs in Wuhan” meme, but that doesn’t stop the malicious insinuation from getting repeated.

What’s the Greek rhetorical term for indirectly mocking someone by bringing attention to someone else’s “fringe” theory?

Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins

As Coronavirus Spreads, So Does Anti-Chinese Sentiment

But wait, there’s more. China’s singular misfortune is to be the nation hardest hit by a virus that knows no nationality, yet it was the nation state that provided a field day for headlines mocking China:

Coronavirus Crisis Exposes Cracks in China’s Facade of Unity

Coronavirus Exposes Core Flaws, and Few Strengths, in China’s Governance

Coronavirus Crisis Shows China’s Governance Failure

In Coronavirus Fight, China Sidelines an Ally: Its Own People

In Coronavirus, a ‘Battle’ That Could Humble China’s Strongman

Coronavirus Spreads, and the World Pays for China’s Dictatorship

The last one was from veteran China-basher, and unabashed self-publicist, Nick Kristoff.

Naturally the NYT headline writers are not exactly adept at seeing through their own smug prejudices. They are quite confident, however, in poking big holes in China’s media.

Coronavirus Weakens China’s Powerful Propaganda Machine

The Coronavirus Story Is Too Big for China to Spin

It’s interesting to note that the pattern of China-bashing themes implicit in the New York Times headlines began to soften when the disease jumped borders to spread to Japan, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. It was no longer a uniquely Chinese problem, and there was more blame to go around. 

Tokyo’s feet of clay were exposed during the debacle of the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantine. The clumsy attempts to minimize Japan-based cases by refusing to administer tests shows that statistical manipulation is not unknown in democratic nations. Ditto the US, where few test kits are available.

When face to face with an epidemic, human frailty, irrational fear and bureaucratic bungling are universal qualities, as Camus memorialized in his powerful novel, “The Plague.”

Fear has hit the stock market and the world economy is starting to look wobbly. The US Center for Disease Control’s recent clarion call to ready the nation for the epidemic spread of the virus has found the US woefully underfunded and unprepared to deal with a crisis even the fraction of intensity of Wuhan. There are not enough facemasks or testing kits, let alone beds and special equipment.

The bad news was almost immediately counteracted by a tweet from US President Donald Trump who retorted:

Clearly, there's ample work to be done in America, and not just in addressing mental illness in high places. The system isn't working very well.

Let’s hope the New York Times does a more compassionate job of covering the US chapter of the coronavirus tragedy than it’s done so far in China.