Could racism be the Real Sick Man?

An opinion piece by academic Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal has provoked anger in China (main image digitally manipulated)

Have western reports on the coronavirus crisis pulled aside a mask that reveals an ugly racism?

14 February 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein

Since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, now called COVID-19, there’s been an elephant in the room, ominously swaying from side-to-side. That elephant is Sinophobia.

The western perception of economic and strategic threats posed by the rise of China has now been accompanied by a very real threat, in a deadly virus whose epicentre is in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Thanks to the Wall Street Journal, the Sinophobe elephant in the room has rampaged through the walls.

An opinion piece authored by, noted US academic, Walter Russell Mead and published in the journal earlier this month, has sparked outrage in China.

The headline China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia has been shared millions of times across Chinese social media, with accompanying comments of shock and indignation.

It’s also prompted a sharp rebuke from the Chinese government, with Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang this week declaring, “China asks the Wall Street Journal to face squarely the severity of its mistake, make a public apology, and hold the persons involved accountable.”

The Wall Street Journal has not issued an apology – nor is it ever likely to.

What is the sick man of Asia?

Sick man of Asia is a western expression that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, referring to internal divisions in China and its exploitation by foreign powers. The origins of the term extend back to the 1850s when “Sick Man of Europe” was coined to describe the troubled Ottoman Empire.

China was not the first nation to be cast as the ‘sick man’, however, what the headline writers at the Wall Street Journal conveniently overlook is that it is a term from two centuries ago.

Language is very powerful and nobody knows this better than the editors of major newspapers.

This expression was born in the time of industrialisation in Britain, Europe and America, it was also a time of exploitation. Walter Russell Mead spent part of his childhood in the state of Massachusetts at one of America’s most exclusive private boarding schools.

Massachusetts is often labelled as the cradle of US industrialisation, yet had Professor Mead’s childhood been spent in the 1850s it is just as likely that he could have been a child labourer in a Boston factory.

And if you suffered the travails of being a child factory labourer in 1850s Massachusetts, it would not be until the birth of your great grandchildren that the US enacted laws to prevent other children from being condemned to the same factory floors.

Aside from the exploitation of workers, women in 1850s America had precious few rights, the economy of many southern states was propped up by slavery and native Americans were more than a century away from having their civil rights embedded in legislation.

Sick man comes from a time when Americans were subject to wholesale exploitation and the ‘civilised’ western powers were gearing up for a series of wars that would ultimately see the deaths of more than 100 million people.

Sick Man is an expression that belongs in the nineteenth century, there is no place for it in the twenty-first century.

In the context of history, the term has been applied to nation states and not to their people. However, what were originally racial undertones are now racial overtones.

Defenders of this headline contend it’s been applied to multiple nations, including Britain and Germany; but it is an expression largely abandoned in the early 1970s.

In the age of social media and viral messaging, citing historical context and peddling suggestions such criticisms are aimed solely at governments, is no defence.

An irresponsible journal

Professor Mead’s article was responsibly deposited in the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal. It is his opinion and in the great journalistic tradition (to which I fully subscribe) it is clearly distinguished as being aside from news contributions, which require balanced arguments and opposing comments.

Though I strongly disagree with his thesis, Mead’s right to his opinion is valid. His argument is supported by a good number of facts and presented in a coherent – albeit a negative and biased – narrative.

However, that narrative is buried beneath an overtly racist, and deliberately inflammatory, headline. For this reason, all reasonable people, not just the Chinese people, should be highly offended.

For readers unaware of how broadsheet news publications operate, the typical process is that journalists and contributors submit articles and editors write headlines.

There have been unconfirmed posts on Chinese social media of Professor Mead telling his students at Bard College he was unaware of the headline before the story’s publication.

That said, by Mead using his Twitter account to promote the story, with the “Sick Man” headline, he clearly does not object to it.

(To clarify the headline of this story, there is no suggestion that Mead himself is a racist. In my opinion, the headline inserted above his article is.)  

As a lifelong academic, and US foreign policy wonk, Mead’s thesis is most likely a product of a deep-rooted liberal democratic ideology. It’s something the publishers of the Wall Street Journal might explain in the pages of their multitude of tabloid newspapers as: “Democracy good. Communism bad.”  

The Chinese government is spot-on when it demands an apology from the publisher of this headline.

The ultimate targets of the “Sick Man” headline

The opening sentence of Mead’s opinion piece reads, “The mighty Chinese juggernaut has been humbled this week, apparently by a species-hopping bat virus.”

Ignoring the churlish and condescending tone of those words, they are squarely couched in the context of a human tragedy.

While the story is in great part a critique of China’s economy and its financial markets, the fact is the Wall Street Journal chose to hang it on a headline that exploits human suffering. There can be no justification for this.

It is headline aimed at China’s government, but it defies belief that its publishers would not fully realise those words would strike at the hearts of the Chinese people.

Millions of people in Wuhan and Hubei province are directly faced with worry, grief and uncertainty. At the same time thousands of health workers and volunteers from all over China have ignored their own personal safety and descended upon the epicentre to fight the virus.

These people are not ideologues or lackeys of the Communist Party. Nor do they have any argument with America, the Wall Street Journal or an academic they have never heard of. They are simply people. Chinese people in the midst of an enormous crisis.

Their combined efforts have restricted the global spread of COVID-19 to the point where currently there is no mass threat of infection around the world.

And when hundreds of millions of Chinese people confined to their homes look to see how the world reacts, they are told by one America’s most austere publications that they – the Chinese people – are the real sickness.   

When you scratch below the surface of Mead’s anti-China rhetoric, the headline, timing and tone of his piece targets all Chinese people. On that front, it is an entirely unforgivable piece of journalism.  

Had this been a one-off headline, perhaps there might be some slither of an argument that reaction to it has been overblown.

The reality is that it’s not a one-off, western social media is awash with vile, hateful and racist commentary directed squarely at China and its people.

The Chinese diaspora in western countries has been met with snide passing comments, looks of deep suspicion; and both implied, and explicit, discrimination in workplaces and on campuses.

More often than not, western media and politicians have either ignored or been slow to call out that racism. It brings to mind the words of the nineteenth century British philosopher John Stuart Mill who said for evil to triumph “that good men should look on and do nothing.”

The Wall Street Journal stands on shaky ground not the moral high ground

In 2007, global media giant News Corp bought the Wall Street Journal amidst decries from journalists that, its Chairman, Rupert Murdoch would ruin it forever. The worst fears of those who thought Murdoch would destroy the editorial traditions of the journal have not materialised.

However, the paper has changed and, like every news outlet in the world, its editorial policies are to some degree aligned with the opinions of its owners.

The pedigree of the Wall Street Journal’s owners is hardly one of high morals and balanced reporting.

For more than four decades, News Corp’s flagship tabloid was Britain’s News of the World, the undisputed heavyweight champion of inflammatory front-page headlines.

Under the ultimate ownership of News Corp, the News of the World was forced to shut down in 2011, after 168 years of continuous publication.

The shutdown came amidst the damning Leveson Inquiry into practices at the London tabloid, at which Rupert Murdoch gave public testimony.

Whilst giving evidence at the inquiry, Murdoch was famously attacked by a pie-wielding protester. In the context of the current furore, it’s ironic that the first person to jump to his aid was his then wife, Chinese-born, Wendi Deng.    

Amid a litany of misdeeds perpetrated by the News of the World, private investigators hacked into the voicemail messages of murdered English schoolgirl Milly Dowler and published unsubstantiated (and ultimately false) reports suggesting she may have been alive some time after her disappearance.

There were a multitude of targets of this wholesale campaign of phone hacking. They included members of the British royal family, politicians, sports people, celebrities and public figures. Sparking even greater outrage was the hacking of the phones of families of deceased British soldiers, victims of London’s July 7, 2005 terror attacks and victims’ rights campaigner Sara Payne whose eight-year old daughter had been murdered in 2000.

Ultimately a number of senior editorial staff, and people connected to the phone hackings, were criminally prosecuted and jailed. Such activities were not confined to News Corp titles, a number of its rivals engaged in similar behaviour.  

There is no suggestion any such activity has ever been carried out by the Wall Street Journal. However, if it produces headlines that throw a blanket over China, there’s an argument that aligning the journal with the wrongdoing of other arms of its powerful media empire is fair game.

The end game

It’s hard to see how the Wall Street Journal will apologise for, or retract, this story. In the face of Chinese government threats of retaliation, the editors and publishers will no doubt double-down on their resolve to dig their heels in.

While the Chinese people en masse have been offended and upset by the journal, the ordinary American in the street has no idea who Walter Russell Mead is, nor has she, or he, ever heard the expression “Sick man of Asia”.

Whether by accident or design, Professor Mead is now immeasurably more infamous in China than he will ever be famous in his homeland.

His message, however, will resonate among elites in the United States and those walking its corridors of power in Washington DC. If they can’t reconcile themselves with China’s emergence as a global power, let’s hope they might at least give the Chinese people the benefit of the doubt.