Naming the Coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” is Disinformation

4 mins read

A Kansas City government official boasts that Kansas City doesn’t have a coronavirus problem because few Chinese people live there. President Trump repeatedly calls the virus the “Chinese” virus. Coincidence? No. The name reinforces irrational, erroneous, and racist beliefs about the virus. The name is disinformation. 

Trump and others who use the term, however, contend that it’s legitimate to name viruses according to their geographic origin, and thus the term “Chinese virus” is in no way problematic. Here’s what’s wrong with that argument: The term is ambiguous and subject to multiple meanings. When people hear that name, they hear more than just neutral information about geographic origin.

To understand why, we need to examine the linguistic structure of the term. The word Chinese is used as an adjective to modify the noun virus. By modify, we mean the adjective describes some aspect or trait of the modified noun. So, when we say “brown desk,” we are saying that one of the properties of the desk is it’s brown color. Using an adjective in that way is about describing something about the nature of the desk. We can also say that the desk is a “wooden desk,” or a “big desk,” so on and so forth.

Back  to the term “Chinese virus.” Trump claims that name is based on the virus’ place of origin. But, the term can also be understood to be describing a trait or characteristic of the virus itself. 

In that way, the name reinforces the erroneous belief that there’s something Chinese in nature about the virus. And that helps to explain some of the irrational behavior people have towards Chinese persons and businesses. If the virus is Chinese in nature, then Chinese people must have a unique, close, even intrinsic link to it. So, when the Kansas City official stated that there’s no virus problem because no Chinese people live there, he was irrationally thinking that the “Chinese virus” could only be spread by Chinese people. 

Those who insist on using the term argue that there’s nothing wrong with it, that it’s the same thing as calling “Chinese food” Chinese food. No, it’s not. When we say “Chinese food,” we typically don’t mean just that it’s food that originated in China. Rather, we mean to say that it’s food that carries the qualities we associate with Chinese food. The term Chinese food is describing the nature of the food, not just its origination. 

The virus is not like Chinese food. It possesses no Chinese traits or characteristics. There’s nothing Chinese about any of its properties. It’s a virus, plain and simple, that can be transmitted to anyone regardless of race or ethnicity.The only thing calling it a “Chinese” virus does, then, is to perpetuate the erroneous belief that there is something distinctively Chinese about the virus. 

So, when Trump and others use that term, he is effectively spreading disinformation about the virus. The term is misleading, dangerous, and inaccurate. The name is a political/social statement, not an objective, neutral designation. It operates to deflect blame away from Trump and towards China and Chinese Americans and nationals. It’s pure demagoguery. And it needs to stop. 


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Reginald Oh is Associate Director of The Loyal Opposition. His primary focus is on issues relating to constitutional law, the protection of vulnerable communities, and the reduction of political polarization in America. A law professor at the Cleveland Marshall College of Law who teaches constitutional law and legal ethics, Reggie’s scholarship is focused on the meaning of equality under the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. His current research focuses on the central role that dehumanization plays in fostering inequality and discrimination, and the possibility for law to counter it.
Reginald is on the Board of Directors for DemCast.

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