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Age of Coronavirus: The Politics of the Pandemic Xenophobia and the Fate of Globalization

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Above image credit: As anti-Asian sentiment increases, a local expert explains how politics come into play during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adobe Image)
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8 minute read

Several key themes have emerged since the outbreak of COVID-19 across the globe.

One was the health care system’s lack of preparedness for such a crisis. The second was a surge in racially tinged political rhetoric, propelled by public figures’ use of terms such as “foreign virus” or “Chinese virus,” and a well-documented rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Finally, there is the economic wreckage caused when global business comes to a sudden stop.

A headshot of Jack Zhang, professor at the University of Kansas
Jack Zhang is a professor at the University of Kansas. He studies U.S.-China relations and teaches East Asian studies. (Contributed)

For Jack Zhang, a recent guest on Flatland’s new podcast The Filter, these topics are at the heart of his research. Zhang is a political science professor at the University of Kansas and studies U.S.-China relations. On a personal level, he is a Chinese American and his parents are doctors, so he’s heard first-hand accounts of race-based harassment and the concerns that the medical field is facing.

Since he’s been following the pandemic since January, Zhang has noticed a recurring theme in governmental response, one he calls the “politics of blame.”   

Editor’s note: The following comments are outtakes from Zhang’s recent interview with The Filter podcast. They have been edited for clarity.

How Coronavirus Affects the U.S.-China Trade War

JZ: As a bilingual Chinese American, I can travel effortlessly between the two countries and have the best of both worlds when U.S.-China relations are good. When U.S.-China relations are bad, that becomes a liability and I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I worry that I’ll be forced to “pick a side,” to choose between my friends and immediate family in the U.S. and my friends and extended family in China. I think many Chinese Americans felt this anxiety grow since (President Donald) Trump was elected and my colleagues at colleges and universities have been especially targeted by ethnic profiling.

When the trade war initially broke out, it caused this big rupture in U.S.-China relations and how globalization worked for the past few decades. When the outbreak of the coronavirus happened – just shortly after the phase one trade deal between the U.S. and China was signed – I was initially, actually, very optimistic, not because viruses are a good thing, but because it’s a global threat. The threat of a global pandemic I thought was something that could bring the governments and the two countries together, after they were engaged in conflict for the better part of the last two years.

I’ve been pretty disappointed by how that’s played out. A big reason for that is (I am) … dismayed at the fact that the Trump administration downplayed the seriousness of the risk even after China publicly declared the virus outbreak after the initial period of trying to keep that secret. The U.S. is repeating many of the mistakes that the Chinese government made in the early days of handling the outbreak, even as other countries in Asia and in Europe started responding and highlighting the seriousness of this.

President Donald Trump in a newspaper under the headline, "coronavirus"
President Donald Trump has repeatedly used the phrase “Chinese virus” to refer to COVID-19. Famously, during one press conference in March, Trump crossed out the word “coronavirus” in Sharpie and wrote in the oft-used phrase. (Adobe Image)

Another reason I mention the trade war is because medical supplies were on the list of things that were put under tariffs. If you make it more expensive by 25%, American hospitals are going to buy less of it and (it increases) the amount of time to search for the replacement of those products elsewhere. So, as a result, we saw a 16% decrease in the volume of imports in medical devices from China, which is the largest supplier in medical devices for the United States – things like disposable eyewear, things like that that would be useful to contain the pandemic.

There was a marked decline in imports of those goods from China, and I think that certainly contributes to the lack of availability of supplies right now. So, the immediate decisions that this administration has taken in response to COVID-19 and downplaying the threat as well as the consequence of earlier decisions to wage this trade war I think both had something to do with why the U.S. is less prepared than it could have been.

Xenophobia and the Trade War

JZ: It’s sort of unprecedented, so I can only speculate. Let me start from the U.S.-China relations level. This is the largest bilateral, economic and political relationship in the world. I’m biased on what I study, but I think it’s the most consequential one because of the size and the power of the two countries that are involved.

I was initially optimistic that facing a common global threat would be something that would bring leaders of both countries together. I worry now that the opposite might happen as a result of the pandemic. There are already rumblings in D.C. I mean, look, with the trade war starting, there were already people who were calling for what’s called decoupling of the relationship, so reducing U.S. dependence on China. That sounds attractive for a lot of political reasons. I think what is missed in that conversation, though, is just the degree to which the two economies are already linked together.

The idea (with tariffs) was that it protects the American industry. It brings jobs back. But the consequence of that is it also makes things more expensive, and some of those things might be good if they were cheaper, like medical supplies.

It looks like that’s going to be the new normal moving forward, and that the coronavirus pandemic is going to maybe exacerbate that even more. I fear that then the calls for decoupling will accelerate, and I think that’s precisely the wrong lesson to take away from this because viruses don’t respect borders. Borders are constructions made by people over time. Viruses don’t respect that, and so we’re seeing the limits I think of nationalistic responses to global challenges.

My colleagues who work in political science and international relations have highlighted that it’s difficult to do alone. I fear that at the country-to-country level, just the experience of fear, and vulnerability, and powerlessness as a result of the pandemic is going to add fuel to the fire of “let’s just raise our drawbridges, and huddle around people we know, and keep all the foreigners out.”

All kinds of countries are closing borders. Canada just closed the border to the U.S. recently. What are the long-range consequences of that? I worry about that. At the domestic political level, what is this going to do? 

Race-based Political Messaging

JZ: Certainly, messaging from the highest levels of the government of nationalism and maybe xenophobia is not productive, and it’s going to have a consequence later on. Since the trade war started and the messaging around China is cheating on commerce and so forth, public opinion of the American public towards China has decreased, decreased markedly in opinion surveys. 

I would bet you that those numbers are going to show an even steeper decrease now in the aftermath of the coronavirus and the aftermath of the president blaming essentially China and Chinese people for the fact that U.S. businesses are doing badly. That’s an easy connection to make in folks’ minds. But, again, I think it is not a productive sort of response given the nature of the challenge. I think globalization brings about a lot of the really good things that folks take for granted, and we’re probably not going to miss those benefits of it until they’re gone.

I fear the response that people will take is to say, “Okay. Well, let’s stop doing any of that. We don’t need to accept foreigners into our country. We don’t need to import goods from other countries. Let’s just do it all here.” Again, it’s a simplistic response because it seems like it makes sense, but it doesn’t, and it’s going to lead to higher prices. It’s going to lead to less innovation. But I’m afraid that we’ll start going down this road because the racist messaging out there has real consequences in terms of what other politicians later on are able to do. 

Let’s imagine we have another president or other politicians come into place that says, “Okay, we need to work with China on pandemic preparedness. We need to work with China on global climate change.” Well, if a lot of people are like, “No. China’s the enemy,” then it would be really difficult, and that leader wouldn’t make that decision, even if they felt at their heart it might be the right thing to do.

The Pandemic’s Impact on Globalization

JZ: With globalization, we have increased flows of everything – goods, people, money – across national boundaries. That’s essential. That’s the best definition of globalization that we have. With increased flows, that’s going to mean that that’s going to create some winners and losers. Those who are in a good position to benefit from the new opportunities that creates do well and some folks are going to be faced with greater competition as a result of that. I think that’s the basics of the politics of globalization.

To make that a concrete example, if you are a major corporation and you can reduce your labor costs, you have the incentive to relocate production to where labor is cheap and you can produce products that are cheaper. And so, as a result, we have things like the computer and the iPhone that we’re using to record this conversation produced at a ridiculously cheap price. It’s the result of these global supply chains that have formed. It’s the result of global talent that flows to places like Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world. So, there’s definitely an upside to all of this. 

Now, the downside, beyond the politics that I talked about earlier, if you were Blackberry, you probably didn’t want iPhones to be around, and if you were a worker in the U.S. manufacturing something, understandably, you don’t want your job to go overseas. And so, there’s that consequence.

There’s another consequence in that greater amount of globalization and interdependencies, we call it, create some vulnerabilities. It’s creating a lot of this upside. It’s making society more productive and more innovative as a whole, but it may leave some people behind, and it may create some vulnerabilities because of those dependencies.

And the trade war was at the heart of this. The two sides, in how to divide these gains that are made by globalization, there are some nasty politics that can happen there. There were accusations that, “OK. Well, was China cheating? OK. Is the U.S. unfairly targeting Chinese companies, telecom companies like Huawei?” I see that as a way to try to divide up the gains from globalization. 

The vulnerabilities piece is highlighted by the pandemic that we have because you have increased flows of everything. The increased flows of people mean that there are more foreigners here and there’s actually, more important to highlight, Americans who are going overseas for travel or for business, who could potentially bring back a virus. 

The fact is we have supply chains that depend on inputs from China for things ranging from everything from pharmaceuticals, for drugs that you need to combat this, to medical equipment like masks and like surgical gowns, to the high-end sort of equipment that you need in hospitals. If more and more pieces of this have foreign inputs, that means a disruption overseas impacts us here. And so, it makes threats that used to be local into national kinds of threats. We’ve had globalization since the Silk Roads, since the Columbian Exchange, but it’s never occurred on a scale and density that we have today, and technology helps that.

Government’s Role in Managing Trade

JZ: There are risks and vulnerabilities that come with that at every single stage. There’s tremendous wealth to be gained. There are also losses to be had. I think the role of government in some ways is to manage that process and make sure that the winners contribute something to compensate the losers of this process. And so, everybody, everyone gains more. That’s the bottom line that all of our research, and economics, and political economy tells us, that there is no question that the world as a whole, that societies and countries are better off when we engage in trade, when we allow for immigration. But we should not ignore the fact that some people might be disadvantaged by that and that we should compensate those folks.

I think the sad reality is that, over the last two decades, the politics of globalization hasn’t really worked out that way, so that the people who have a lot continue to gain and the people who don’t have a lot are vulnerable, including in this pandemic. People who are working in vulnerable, service industry jobs are losing those jobs. People who have a lot of holding in stocks and equities are selling those and then buying in again when the market is low. And so, they’re going to get richer for doing no work, by the time that the stock market recovers.

That’s a problem, but it’s not a problem that we’re unfamiliar with how to solve. Now, the role of government is to coordinate that, to make sure that people are incentivized to act for their collective interests so that everybody could benefit. That’s the role of government from the beginning. Society is meant to solve these cooperation problems. Globalization just exacerbates and it magnifies these problems massively. It makes them more complex. But the solution is, in my opinion, still cooperation. We just need governments to be able to work together and tackle these common challenges. But, unfortunately, we’re not seeing that everywhere, at least these days. 


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