One remarkable aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely its long-term impact on American public opinion regarding China. The Pew Research Center reports that a survey conducted in March reveals that 66 percent of the American people view China in unfavorable terms, up six points from 2019 and up 20 percentage points since 2017.
Pew reports that the poll, conducted as the COVID-19 crisis was unfolding in the United States, did not detect any increases in hostility during the month during which it was conducted. But given that news of the crisis in China had begun to hit America in January and February, it’s reasonable to conclude China’s efforts to cover up the extent of the novel coronavirus epidemic and its role in exporting the COVID-19 disease to the rest of the world had an effect. Quite possibly, they prompted many Americans to think about China’s indifference to human rights and the rule of law as well as its use of disinformation.
“We are at an inflection point,” Daniel Blumenthal, Asian studies director at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said recently in an interview. It’s one thing for government officials to issue reports declaring that China “is a strategic rival seeking to revise the international order to its own liking,” he said. “It’s another thing altogether when Americans feel that something is wrong, that this virus, this pandemic, that one of its main causes is the Chinese model.”
It has been a long time coming.
American consumers might suspect that the goods bought from China were quite possibly produced with slave labor and based on technology stolen from American companies and their investors. Stories circulated about the Chinese government harvesting organs from people in its prisons. News media reported that Beijing committed wholesale acts of cultural genocide against the Uighurs, a largely Muslim people of Turkish ethnicity in Xinjiang province. Occasional reports also said the Chinese Communist Party ordered the government to raze churches and throw Christians and adherents of Falun Gong into prisons and torturing them.
That the Chinese government violently put down peaceful protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of demonstrators, running some down with armored vehicles, and meant to destroy democracy on Taiwan and annex the island and its 22 million people one way or another were no secrets. Neither was the fact that China helped North Korea’s brutal regime stay in power, even as it starved its people and intimidated U.S. allies in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim by its nuclear tests and missile launches.
American officials also knew that the fentanyl causing lethal overdoses of thousands of people in rural and urban America came into the U.S. via shipments from unregulated chemical factories in places like Wuhan, capital of Hubei province. Some Americans discovered that pharmaceuticals imported from China, like some of the Zantac taken to stop ulcers, were contaminated with carcinogens.
At one time or another it was fashionable to speak about what China had done to Tibet, but once entertainment companies realized how big a market for their movies China represented, the Free Tibet movement fell off the radar. Hollywood removed a positive reference to Taiwan from the sequel to the 1980s movie Top Gun.
Americans could read about all of the above on their assembled-in-China iPhones and decide to do business with Beijing anyway.
American indifference to China’s human rights abuses was so obvious it served as a cynical, almost nihilistic punch line in the popular HBO television series Veep in which President Selina Meyer sells the newly freed Tibet down the river for illicit Chinese help in the 2020 election. Moments after she makes the deal with the Chinese premier, she finds herself struggling with a bad conscience as she accepts a human rights award with a bunch of Tibetan monks in the audience. In the series, if not reality, hilarity ensues.
What a difference a pandemic makes. Now that the COVID-19 has killed tens of thousands of Americans, put tens of millions out of work, and turned U.S. public spaces into places under surveillance, people are starting to recognize something useful: China is what too many journalists and self-described peace activists have pretended Israel was all along—a pariah nation with which it was dangerous, immoral even, to do business with.
For the past few decades, an obsessive concern for Palestinian Arabs and a monomaniacal belief that Israel is singularly responsible for their (often self-imposed) suffering has been one of the identifying hallmarks of the so-called progressive movement in the United States. So has the notion that the Israeli-Arab conflict (and not the Muslim Sunni-Shia divide) is the primary conflict that defines the Middle East.
While Christians were murdered by jihadists in the Middle East and millions of people were being brutally oppressed in China, journalists and their co-dependent sources in the human rights industry fed an unwholesome obsession with the conflict in the Holy Land. Collectively they published thousands of articles, issued thousands of statements, and held thousands of campus protests all promoting two messages:
One, that there is something particularly loathsome about how Israel is behaving toward Palestinian Arabs. And two, that the latter are the world’s quintessential victims of injustice and oppression. To question the underlying reasons behind their plight and suggest that maybe Palestinian intolerance and rejectionism created the mess this people finds itself in is to risk banishment from right-thinking society.
This messaging had a real impact. Meeting the needs of the Palestinian Arabs, whose leaders have refused to negotiate in good faith and incited against Jews for decades, has become the primary moral — and strategic — imperative embraced by a large swath of American elites. Other more important and pressing strategic concerns, such as the destruction of Christianity in the Middle East at the hands of jihadists and China’s abuse of its own citizens and aggression against its neighbors, disappeared in the smog of moral preening.
One bellwether of progressive thought in the United States is the resolutions passed at denomination-wide assemblies of liberal Protestant churches in this country. During the past 20 years, virtually every one of these churches has passed multiple resolutions condemning Israel’s actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, warning against moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and generally kvetching over the Palestinians plight without saying a word about the misdeeds of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas (Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) in the Gaza Strip.
Three churches, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA and the Episcopal Church have joined the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement, without having said much of anything about human rights abuses in China. They called for divestment (but didn’t really divest) from companies that do business with Israel, but say nothing about the shares they hold in companies like Apple and Alphabet (which owns Google) who do business with the Chinese communists.
If you plug the world “Palestine” or, better yet, “Gaza” into the search windows for these three denominations, you will find thousands of entries detailing the plight of Palestinian Arabs. But if you plug in the words “Uighur” into the search windows, you’ll find virtually nothing. The United Church of Christ’s website provides nearly 3,600 links to articles about “Palestine” and two links to pages that include the word “Uighur,” and neither one of these pages mentions a word about the suffering they have endured. The Episcopal Church made no reference at all to the plight of the Uighurs, but 45 pages worth of links to pages mentioning “Palestine.” The PCUSA? More than 3,850 links to pages mentioning “Palestine” and two mentioning the Uighurs.
Part of the obsession with “Palestine” can be explained by these churches’ legitimate concern with the Holy Land, but that only goes so far, because mainline churches were supposed to be part of the rational, modernist, and scientific wing of Protestant Christianity in the United States. But here they are promoting an irrational and damaging obsession with a low-intensity conflict in the Holy Land, an obsession that has distracted them from titanic human rights abuses in the most populous country in the world, with real-life consequences far beyond China’s borders.
If peace and justice activists had treated the human rights problems in China with the urgency they deserved, America would have been better prepared when whistleblowing doctors in China started disappearing in late 2019 and when officials from the Chinese Communist Party started welding doors to apartment buildings and abducting people off the streets of Wuhan and throwing them into vans to put them in quarantine.
The human rights activists could have served as an early-warning system about something going seriously wrong in China. But they were too busy pointing an accusing finger at Jews in Israel. Why look at real problems and the culprits behind them when there are Jews to vilify?
Mainstream news media outlets have also been culpable in promoting the Palestine First (and Last) agenda. A recent Nexis search reveals that over the past five years, The Washington Post published a total of 756 articles mentioning the Gaza Strip with only 164 articles about the Uighurs and 161 articles about Tibet. Over the same period, The New York Times published 412 articles mentioning the Uighurs, 491 articles mentioning Tibet, and more than 1,500 referring Gaza. This obsession with the Palestinian narrative and indifference to the real cultural destruction of the Uighurs and Tibetans are both cause and a symptom of media echo chambers that amplify conventional righteousness while evading moral honesty.
The upshot is that a group of people whose leaders have refused to negotiate in good faith with their neighbors and who insist on the right of self-determination they deny to the Jews have sucked up a huge amount of the time, attention, and energy that American elites could have been using to recognize and counter the rise of an anti-democratic, expansionist China. American thought-leaders’ obsession with the “plight-is-right” narrative used to exalt the Palestinian Arabs was one of the reasons why American elites were caught flatfooted when the COVID-19 crisis erupted.
To make matters worse, the World Health Organization, an institution that has regularly singled Israel out for condemnation and falsely accused the Jewish state of denying medical care to Arabs living in Gaza, has helped China divert attention from its role in unleashing the COVID-19 virus onto the world. Not only did the WHO— a United Nations body — praise China for its “transparency,” the organization complimented the country for its efforts to contain the virus, despite China’s failure to halt international flights in and out of the pandemic’s epicenter, Wuhan, even as it isolated the city from the rest of China. In sum, an institution that was hijacked by anti-Israel propagandists in the Middle East has been repurposed to shill for Chinese communists.
In Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (Free Press, 2016), Michael Doran writes about how leaders pursue the interests of the countries they govern using “a mental picture of how the world works,” and that “such pictures rest, ultimately, on ideas.”
For far too many progressive elites in the United States in particular and the West in general, the picture of the world is based on the twin beliefs of Israeli loathsomeness and unwarranted Palestinian suffering. These beliefs, which have been used to frame moral and strategic choices, are not only irrational but also represent a strategic threat to the welfare of the United States. The perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by inverting cause and effect. The obsessive-compulsive tendency with which they are held makes it difficult to confront larger threats like those jihadist violence presents to the West and to religious minorities in the region, and that from Chinese autocrats who have successfully exported their country’s problems to the rest of the world.
Dexter Van Zile is Shillman Research Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.