President Donald Trump has spent much of this year blaming China for the coronavirus, while Beijing mocked him for not taking the pandemic seriously enough.
Now Trump’s own diagnosis has turned the battle acutely personal while deepening the uncertainty in U.S.-China relations. Trump was taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment on Friday, as several prominent aides and supporters, including adviser Kellyanne Conway, also tested positive.
Beijing’s leadership has been reticent in its response to Trump’s infection. State-run news agency Xinhua published two lines Saturday saying China’s leader, Xi Jinping, wished the U.S. president and first lady a speedy recovery – a day behind many other heads of state including North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen.
Foreign relations experts say China and other U.S. rivals are likely weighing their options for geopolitical action while Washington is preoccupied by the West Wing outbreak.
Many in Taiwan were nervous Saturday that they could become a target. But spontaneous policy action is out of character for Xi, and scholars say he would be loathe to provoke Washington into an even harsher confrontation.
“Maybe this is an opportunistic moment and just because Trump is at Walter Reed they are going to bust a move,” said Shelley Rigger, an East Asia politics expert at Davidson College, speaking about Beijing. “But they also may be thinking this is a really dangerous and sensitive time.
“My expectation is they will look at the situation with a very cold calculus, and not get all excited that Donald Trump has covid,” Rigger added.
Within China, state social media-minders allowed an outpouring of mockery of Trump’s diagnosis – a rare level of vitriol against a world leader for Chinese authorities to condone. China’s censors are usually wary of the domestic parallels of allowing its nationals to publicly wish for a world leader’s downfall, even if on the surface it’s a leader of a hostile nation.
But many of the old rules no longer apply. Trump has launched an unprecedented multi-front attack on China since taking office in 2017. He’s repeatedly called covid-19 the “China plague” and “kung flu,” terms seen by many Americans and others to carry racist undertones.
In the face of these attacks, China’s government has sought to portray the country as part of the solution to the pandemic, not just the virus’s origin. Beijing pledged $30 million in funding for the World Health Organization in April after Trump halted U.S. funding to the U.N. agency. China also declared it will share its vaccine with the developing world.
Beijing has also found news of U.S. disorder a convenient distraction from its own domestic problems. State media has heavily covered news of the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as American covid-19 response setbacks and political warring between Trump and Democrats.
The reports of Trump contracting coronavirus riveted the Chinese public during one of the country’s main holiday periods, racking up hundreds of thousands of comments on social media platforms and ranking in the most-searched news.
Many Chinese social media users called Trump’s infection a “National Day gift,” coming amid celebrations of the anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s 1949 ascent to power. Some posted, darkly: “I hope something happens to him.”
One popular post spoofed a recently released Chinese film called “Seizing the Crown” (English title: “Leap”) about China’s national female volleyball team – “crown” and “corona” being the same word in Chinese. Many people congratulated Trump on “seizing the crown,” reposting a version of the film poster with Trump’s face pasted in
Content for international consumption appeared to be more conservative, with hardly any English-language commentary by Chinese officials and pundits.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of state-run tabloid Global Times and a hawkish backer of the Beijing line, posted in English on Twitter that Trump and his wife Melania had “paid the price for his gamble to play down the COVID-19,” before deleting it and replacing it with the foreign ministry spokeswoman’s official statement.
“Saddened to learn #President and the #FirstLady of the #US tested positive. Hope they both have a speedy recovery and will be fine,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote on Twitter on Friday.