Trump’s Wuhan—Boo Hoo, Hoo, Hoo! Double Talk on China and the Dangers of “American Exceptionalism”

            Trump’s double talk on the Covid-19/China connection is so transparent it literally takes the breath away. Transparency is not what one has come to expect from this administration. I guess I don’t mean real transparency, but the sheer obvious clumsiness of Trump’s lies and blaming.

            Consider the Trump argument: China knew about the outbreak but lied about the scope of it. Also, that they did this intentionally with malicious motives. Also, that if they had told us the truth we could have reacted more quickly.

            To anyone who understands the real world, the intelligence business, and politics, this is pure nonsense. The truth is, China was only lying to its own people. Think back to America’s “secret bombing” of Cambodia under Nixon; Cambodia knew, Vietnam knew, the Chinese and Russians and Europeans all knew. It was only really a “secret” to the American people! Lots of governments lie to their own people. There is nothing laudable about it, but nothing exceptional either.

            It is pretty clear US intelligence knew about the outbreak in Wuhan as early as November. They probably knew local officials were down-playing it. They knew it was serious and they briefed Trump (who just didn’t listen). At that point US intel probably knew that WHO had been notified—but WHO can only rely on member nations like China to give them data. They can’t coerce anyone. So, they just had to accept China’s data at face value (though they probably were probably skeptical.) In any case, US intel knew all that, and if they felt WHO hadn’t been warned, they had a duty to report better data to China themselves. They probably did.  

            By our own standards, China probably had some plausible reasons to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus until they understood it better themselves. It portended a major crisis. Any country would want to know as much about it as they could—especially when they know their response will be exploited by foreign propaganda services. From the timeline it is clear that they took time to a genetic sequencing of the virus. They reported this to the world and to The World Health Organization very early in January. It seems like pretty fast work. 

So, what is Trump accusing China of exactly?

  1. Under reporting cases and not reporting quickly enough
  2. Giving bad data to WHO
  3. Locking down its population and other unpopular measures
  4. Silencing a whistleblowing doctor
  5. Lack of transparency
  6. Under-reporting fatalities
  7. Keeping vital medical supplies for itself by increasing imports and decreasing exports
  8. Burying people in mass graves

I pretty much addressed the first two points already, but let’s start with the under reporting. The Chinese equivalent of Dr. Fauci (I think his name is Dr. Zhong Nanshan) recently gave an interview to the US press. He was sent to Wuhan early on. He reported that local officials there were trying to under-report the numbers—and he gave them hell and reported them to the national government. He recommended the lockdown that began promptly. So, it wasn’t the Chinese national government that was under-reporting, it was local officials lying to their superiors. And the lockdown wasn’t the result of an “authoritarian” government run amok. It was the result of sound medical advice. Under reporting has happened in the US as well—down to the level of local funeral and nursing homes. It is predictable bureaucratic behavior in almost any country. The Chinese national government moved to correct these reporting problems pretty quickly.

The lockdowns attracted US criticism of “authoritarianism.” But we have done the same thing since. So did New Zealand and many other allies of the US. They were never accused of “draconian” political malpractice the way China was.  If China tried to control its “whistleblower,” Trump has likewise attacked whistleblowers on a wide range of issues. We have seen Trump on live TV preventing Dr. Fauci from answering questions. By contradicting and attacking his own CDC, his own HHS, his own IGs and so on, Trump has caused a level of confusion that makes a total mockery of “transparency.”

On May 3, Yahoo reported that US officials were claiming that China underreported the outbreak so it could ‘hoard needed equipment’ by minimizing exports and maximizing imports of vital medical equipment.  The Trump administration, through Mike Pompeo, put this out as a strong criticism of China. It really beggar’s belief that Trump would criticize China for having a “China First” policy? Who could have ever imagined! If they let their people die, they are nasty. If they act to save them, they are nasty too! Since it got its own outbreak under control, China has sent a lot of vital medical gear to other countries.

There were even accusations that China (and Iran) were burying people in mass graves. It was a pretty clear attempt to make them seem reprehensible—yet we did the same thing in New York when the pandemic hit its peak there– and New York had certainly under-reported its death toll. At one recent point they increased the number of reported fatalities by about 3,500 in one day—a number equal to the national total initially reported by China.

In a truly memorable recent bit of nonsense there were even Trump administration “accusations” that Chinese communist party officials had “met with doctors.” Wow! How reprehensible! It must be a vast conspiracy! Communists are, of course, the governing party in China and almost everyone in the government also belongs to the party. Trump officials (all Republicans) meet with doctors every day (or at least they are supposed too).

And this brings me to my main point. There is a single, consistent thread that explains the behavior of this administration and its bizarre arguments. That thread is a dangerously inflated level of ethnocentricity (i.e. “American Exceptionalism”). A little explanation is probably in order here.

Ethnocentrism can be thought in terms of egocentricity. Egocentricity is an individual phenomenon: ethnocentrism is a group phenomenon. Both are natural and even inevitable to a large extent: it is natural that we view the world though our own individual and then cultural lens. The problem is when either or both phenomena become seriously inflated and exaggerated. Then they block out important data and seriously distort our view of the world and others. At that point we are talking about pathological, or socio-pathological, behavior—like extreme ego-inflation and pathological narcissism.

In terms of the current pandemic crisis, the record shows that we have done everything that China has done, yet we call our behavior exemplary and, when they have behaved in exactly the same way, accused the Chinese of acting in bad faith and from the most hideous and condemnable motives. Since US behavior has been almost exactly the same, this is more than a little bit weird.

This double standard can be explained by a simple model that many anthropologists call “The Basic Attribution Bias.” Attribution theory rest on the fact that certain “acts” have no intrinsic meaning—we attribute meanings to them. For example, a smile is simply a facial expression. To Americans it means amusement or friendliness, to a Japanese person it might mean confusion or embarrassment, to a chimpanzee, the show of teeth in a big smile might simply seem aggressive. The psychology known as Attribution Theory studies the patterns that typify how people attribute meaning to events.

“The Basic Attribution Bias” is a pattern that is easy to understand. It also explains the weird double standard that plagues so much of our discussion of almost any foreign culture. Simply put, we believe people of our own culture are “good” by disposition. We believe that cultural “others” are not as good—and perhaps even downright evil by disposition. We try to maintain this stereotype at all costs. So, when one of “us” does good it seems natural and expected, but when one of “us” does something bad, it is exceptional—a matter of unique circumstances. And when it comes to “others” we simply reverse this reasoning—when they do something bad, it is a matter of their bad disposition, and when they do something good, it is exceptional.

That is how you get the incredible double standard by which we look at every one of China’s actions as despicable and then, when we do exactly the same thing, describe our behavior as exemplary.

Our nation’s last screw-up on this scale was the invasion of Iraq under false premises. That (as I have written elsewhere) was also a matter of extremely exaggerated ethnocentricity. It is a phenomenon that is remarkably dangerous –largely because it blinds us to reality. Both in our justification for invading Iraq, and in the way we handled the post-war chaos, our leaders were uniformly wrong about almost everything. And like this pandemic the Iraq war also ended up in crashing our economy.

In terms of leadership, we are in even worse hands now…That is a profoundly dangerous state to be in at this point in history. As we look back and compare the Chinese vs. American records, three things stand out to me:

  1. The Chinese faced the virus first, with no one else’s previous knowledge or experience to guide them. There were bound to be mistakes.
  2. Their actions were effective, while ours were not. This was because they acted in a focused, strategic way, informed by medical expertise while we acted without any real strategy at all.
  3. As a result of what they learned, China is vastly increasing funding to WHO, while we are threatening to completely cut ours off. We haven’t apparently learned anything.

Aren’t they just awful?  Now Trump is calling the appalling and rapidly growing American death toll “a badge of honor.” I bet President Xi of China is not doing the same.

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