Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is, according to the official Chinese narrative, an “enemy of humankind” practicing “highly venomous” diplomacy. He’s a “super-spreader” of a “political virus.” He’s a “rumor monger” with a “dark mind.”
This past week, the organs of the Chinese state have unleashed surprisingly personal salvos against America’s top diplomat, one that is reminiscent of the way North Korea used to speak about former national security adviser John Bolton (He’s “human scum,” according to Pyongyang.)
In response to Pompeo’s relentless attacks on Beijing over the coronavirus outbreak — including unsupported claims that the virus could have leaked from a Wuhan lab — China’s most-watched nightly news broadcast has devoted prime airtime to lambasting the secretary of state.
The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, has spent whole editorials attacking him. TV screens on Beijing’s subway have even been showing photos of Pompeo with “liar” stamped in big red letters across his face.
The tirades underscore the woeful state of relations between the world’s two superpowers.
China and the United States are not only battling in areas of competition, such as trade and technology, but also in areas where they should be cooperating, like combating the coronavirus pandemic and contingency planning in case the rumors about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s incapacitation turn out to be true.
Analysts in both countries are now describing the worst state in relations since President Richard M. Nixon began the process of rapprochement with China in the 1970s.
“The quality of the relationship has deteriorated,” said J. Stapleton Roy, who became the U.S. ambassador to China at another particularly difficult time — just two years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“We are damaging our interests. We are dealing with real problems but using the wrong methods,” Roy said, pointing to the outdated tool of tariffs in a trade war as an example.
Some Chinese experts agree. “The bilateral relationship is arguably at its lowest point since 1972,” said Xie Tao, professor of international relations at Beijing University of Foreign Studies.
“I was expecting that this covid-19 would be an opportunity for nonpolitical cooperation . . . but this is making the two countries get into even worse arguments with each other,” Xie said on the “China in the World” podcast this month. “[With these] accusations and conspiracy theories, I feel very bad about the trend of the relationship.”
As the coronavirus continues to wreak devastation in the United States, Pompeo has emerged as the leading public proponent of the accusations that the virus could have leaked from a top-security laboratory in the outbreak epicenter of Wuhan. No evidence has emerged, however, to support the claims about a lab leak.
Pompeo is now pressing China to allow inspectors into the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab that has previously done research on bat-related coronaviruses. “The Chinese Communist Party tells us they want to be our partners. . . . There is a continuing obligation on the part of reliable partners to share this information,” he said Wednesday.
This comes on top of Pompeo’s insistence on calling covid-19 the “Wuhan virus.” He even refused to sign a Group of Seven communique unless it used the label.
Pompeo’s hard-line approach toward China is not new. He has repeatedly castigated China over human rights abuses and suppression of religion, its military expansionism and its trading practices, and its increasing encroachment on Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy.
But the pandemic and the need to find a vaccine against it has not led to an outbreak of cooperation. It has created only more friction, said Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“From their point of view, Pompeo is on a daily campaign to paint China as having been the evil perpetrator of a coverup from Day 1, and to make China look bad,” she said.
Analysts say that Pompeo is acting as a whipping boy for the Trump administration as a whole and the president in particular.
“Obviously they really mean it against Trump, but they’re not going to say it directly,” said Bill Bishop, the publisher of the influential Sinocism newsletter.
“Since the trade war started, they’ve never gone after the president; they’ve always gone after his proxies or his tweets. But Pompeo is an easy target because he’s taken the lead on pushing the origin question,” said Bishop, referring to the allegation that the virus leaked from the Wuhan lab.
China is particularly sensitive that once the crisis passes, affected countries may seek a reckoning over the origin and spread of the coronavirus. Trump has publicly expressed the desire to exact some form of compensation from China over the coronavirus but has not made clear what steps he could take.
For that reason, Beijing has been seeking to refashion itself as a responsible global power, supplying medical equipment to the world and sharing its experiences in containing the virus, while at the same time disseminating conspiracy theories of its own, like the one about American soldiers planting the virus in Wuhan.
Secretaries of state are often prime scapegoats for gripes about U.S. policies around the world, such as Colin Powell in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and Henry Kissenger during the Vietnam War. But China’s hostility toward Pompeo has taken on a deeply personal nature — that was further dialed up this week.
Beijing is now accusing the secretary of spreading a “political virus” that is just as dangerous as the new coronavirus.
On Monday, the People’s Daily said Pompeo had “fabricated rumors with prejudice and ignorance” and had shown his “most twisted and ferocious face.” That evening on the main 7 p.m. news bulletin, anchor Hai Xia labeled Pompeo an “enemy of the humankind.”
On Tuesday, anchor Ouyang Xiadan took it further. “Never in U.S. history has there been a secretary of state like Pompeo,” she said. “He is bringing those ‘lying, cheating and stealing’ tricks that he had mastered in his CIA times into American diplomacy, causing a free fall in the U.S.’s reputation.”
Next came an editorial in the People’s Daily asking if Pompeo was “planning to ‘make America great again’ by bullying?”
With Wednesday’s tirade, viewers starting congratulating the news bulletin for scoring a “Pompeo hat trick.”
Come Thursday, the People’s Daily ran an editorial saying Pompeo’s rhetoric was making the United States look like it had a “colossal moral deficit.” And China’s state-run news agency Xinhua tweeted a biting animation with Lego figures — China depicted as a medical worker and the United States as the Statue of Liberty — debating the pandemic.
China: We made our data public.
America: You lied to us.
The name-calling over the pandemic has starkly illustrated the level of suspicion between the world’s two leading powers. Roy, the former ambassador, compared the current moment unfavorably to the United States’ ability to work toward a goal shared with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“If they put their minds to it, big powers can find they have common interests and can work with enemies and rivals on those common interests,” Roy said, citing as an example a mutual interest in avoiding nuclear annihilation.
The speculation about the North Korean leader provides a further example of an area where the United States and China have been able, in the past, to at least talk about shared problems. A sudden change in the North Korean regime would have significant implications for both China, its benefactor and neighbor, and the United States, its chief adversary.
“I think that the Chinese mistrust of the United States is so deep and so broad right now that they could not help but assume that the United States would take advantage of a demise of Kim Jong Un, and that could potentially be very dangerous,” said Glaser of CSIS.
Despite these common interests, the war of words between Pompeo and Beijing means veteran China watchers are not expecting any improvement in the bilateral relationship anytime soon.
“It doesn’t seem like there is any way we can get back to a normal healthy relationship,” said Bishop, “and these kinds of attacks make that increasingly obvious.”
Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.