For political scientists around the world, one of their biggest revelations from Covid-19 and its rapid spread since December 2019, is the significance of symbolism and rhetoric in international relations. This pandemic has created an unusual opportunity to witness nationalism in action. During normal times, politicians pay special attention to their rhetoric and try to curate their messages to maintain the moral high ground. However, confronted by this swift and unexpected pandemic, they did not have enough time to refine their language. This provided me—a scholar of nationalism—a unique opportunity to study the interactions between political leaders and the general public, and the specific manner in which politicians exploit people’s emotions and sentiments and employ nationalistic messages to mobilize citizens for their own political agenda and purposes.

“China and Japan have improved their relationship thanks to the former’s use of positive rhetoric and symbolism, despite their shared traumatic history.”

Two examples of how symbolism and rhetoric have been used as tools in international relations during the Covid-19 pandemic are the interactions between the United States and China and the Sino-Japanese relationship. While many people believe the US-China relationship has become the most important one in the current global system, the pandemic has opened the door for major rhetorical attacks between the two nations. On the other hand, China and Japan have improved their relationship thanks to the former’s use of positive rhetoric and symbolism, despite their shared traumatic history. Through examining the rhetoric employed in the US-China bilateral relationship and the China-Japan relationship, this essay will analyze how identity politics and nationalism are shaping their course.

The heightening of antagonism

Over the past few months, public opinion in China has changed dramatically. The propaganda system of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked tirelessly and effectively to motivate and transform public opinion—at its lowest during the initial phase of the outbreak owing to the slow official response—to the present high level of satisfaction and support toward the government. In the United States, the outbreak and spread of the pandemic in an election year has politicized a public health issue. This helps understand how blaming China became a Trump administration re-election strategy.

For the Chinese American community, March 16 was a pivotal day since this is when President Donald Trump openly started calling the coronavirus, the “Chinese virus.” As the statements of a nation’s leader are always influential, Trump’s branding of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” had serious consequences. As anticipated, a sharp rise in the harassment of Asian Americans followed. A Pew Research Center survey of Americans released on July 30, 2020, found that Americans’ views of China had become increasingly negative amid the Covid-19 outbreak. It stated that 73 percent of US adults say they have an unfavorable view of the country, up 26 percentage points since 2017 after Trump became president. Since March 2020 alone, the negative view of China has increased 7 points in three months. In the more recent survey, 83 percent of Republicans and those who lean to the Republican Party say they have an unfavorable view of China. As the numbers suggest, there has been a remarkable shift in US public opinion regarding China. This raises the question of why public opinion has shifted and the role of the Trump administration’s rhetoric and identity politics in shaping US perceptions of China.

“Both operationalized the negative messages from the other side to fuel domestic nationalism and distract people from their governments’ failures.”

Both the CCP and the Trump administration have employed the same strategy of trying to find a foreign enemy to help divert their people’s attention from the government’s dysfunctional performance. Both used an “us versus them” mentality to try redirecting people’s anger toward the foreign enemy. Both operationalized the negative messages from the other side to fuel domestic nationalism and distract people from their governments’ failures. Social media platforms were deployed to fuel domestic anger and agitation in both countries. For example, many of Donald Trump’s tweets from this period were translated in Chinese and shared across China. Even though the Chinese people don’t have access to Twitter, they were well aware of Trump’s tweets as well as those of other US government officials and politicians. On the Chinese side, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian shared tweets supporting the conspiracy theory that the virus came from a US military lab, which were widely shared across the United States and also received a response from Donald Trump. Intended essentially for their domestic audiences, these messages contributed toward the hostility and immensely angered citizens of the other country. Unfortunately, both sides seem to have realized some of their objectives through this strategy and in some ways mutually benefitted from the other’s rhetoric. President Trump calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” provided his counterpart in China, Xi Jinping, the best tool possible to stir and mobilize the Chinese and arouse their anger against a foreign enemy. This, however, is a very dangerous game to play. If we look back at the history of major catastrophes, they have very often become hotbeds for the development of radical nationalism and have frequently been followed by violent conflict.1New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017More Info →

The social sciences often view humans as rational beings making rational choices. This rationality is actually the very foundation of a series of theories that we use as a paradigm in international relations, such as Realism. However, the pandemic has exposed how leaders and citizens alike are not always necessarily rational and how, during moments of fear, they are highly susceptible to various rhetorical strategies and conspiracy theories. For instance, many Chinese people, including some senior scholars with whom I am in constant contact, firmly believe that the coronavirus was possibly produced in a US military lab and has been brought to China from the United States. Similarly, within the United States, there are innumerable different conspiracy theories and suspicions regarding the origin of the coronavirus in relation to China and about the country on the whole.2Yanzhong Huang, “US-Chinese Distrust Is Inviting Dangerous Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories and Undermining Efforts to Contain the Epidemic,” Foreign Affairs, March 5, 2020.

The pandemic has severely affected the two world powers and dragged their bilateral relationship to a historic low point. To a certain extent, the political “virus” between these two countries is as dangerous, if not more, than the coronavirus. While the global community is in dire need of leadership at this critical juncture, what we are witnessing is deepening divisions between these two major powers. Instead of cooperating, the two are focused on blaming each other. There are vast areas in which the United States and China can work together and share global leadership responsibility, including the development of a vaccine and treatments, as well as providing assistance to developing countries, among other similar pressing needs.3Thomas J. Christensen, A Modern Tragedy? Covid-19 and US-China Relations (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, May 2020). Despite this, we are witnessing rationality being replaced by emotionality with the outsized role of rhetoric and symbolic politics.

Opportunity in crisis

“These past few months showed how the pandemic ushered a special reconciliation opportunity for China and Japan.”

However, pandemics are not doomed to only damage a bilateral relationship. These past few months showed how the pandemic ushered a special reconciliation opportunity for China and Japan. For anyone familiar with the history of East Asia, the ghosts of the past have always been an immense barrier for reconciliation between the two neighbors. Much before the coronavirus outbreak had happened, the two countries had scheduled Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan in Spring 2020. This was not a regular visit as it would have been the first time in 14 years that a Chinese president would have visited Japan. Between 1931 to 1945, the two countries were involved in an extremely violent war and share a traumatic history. Even though the war ended 75 years ago, and the two countries established a normalization of relations in 1972, a real reconciliation still eludes them. The two countries encountered another crisis in 2012 over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. According to a China-Japan joint public opinion survey, prior to the pandemic, over 86 percent of Japanese viewed China unfavorably. In comparison, in 2013, the negative impressions of both China and Japan toward each other were over 90 percent, a starkly significant figure between two neighbors.

This relationship has often focused upon symbolic things, such as the Yasukuni Shrine, a Japanese temple in Tokyo. Though dedicated to Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, Yasukuni also honors 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal. Visits to this temple by Japanese high-ranking officials has always led to diplomatic issues between Japan and its neighbors. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not visited the temple since December 2013, a visit that outraged both China and South Korea. Covid-19’s immense impact on Japan can also be seen in the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, for which the country invested years of planning. The Japanese could have also blamed China for this setback.

Yet, an exact opposite scenario to what transpired between United States and China took place. The symbolic politics and rhetoric that played out between China and Japan were positive. Elaborating upon this mask diplomacy between the two countries, some scholars have written on how the coronavirus helped mend generations of China-Japan antagonism. During the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak in China, the Japanese government and civil society provided prompt assistance to the Chinese people. They delivered a large amount of personal protective equipment (PPE), especially face masks, to China. For an extended period of time, it seemed like a majority of the face masks in Japan had been sent across to China thereby making it difficult for the Japanese to purchase any when the coronavirus spread to their country.

“These interesting interactions not only generated special correspondence between the two countries but also gave people positivity, hope, and warmth during the trying times.”

The symbolic politics of the eight Chinese characters that the Japanese put on the boxes of masks and thermometers headed to China, acted as a magic trick. Sent as a gift from the Japan Youth Development Association to Wuhan—the epicenter of the pandemic in China—these eight characters from an ancient Chinese poem can be translated as “lands apart, sky shared.” The English translation, while expressing the poem’s meaning, fails to capture the essence and sentiments attached to it. Many Chinese people were immediately touched by these words. The shared culture between China and Japan helped people immediately understand the deep meanings behind these characters. Many Chinese who were at home under self-quarantine and had a lot of time to think, followed the tradition to write their own phrases and poems to respond to these eight characters. These interesting interactions not only generated special correspondence between the two countries but also gave people positivity, hope, and warmth during the trying times.

When President Trump called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” in a tweet, these two words created a huge furor, making it a turning point in US-China relations. On the other hand, when the Japanese put an ancient Chinese poem on the boxes being shipped to China, it came as a huge surprise to the Chinese and greatly moved them. Kindness is free and can be easily expressed through symbols. When China later sent medical supply consignments to other nations suffering from Covid-19 outbreaks, the Chinese too adopted the Japanese initiative and put poems of encouragement in different languages on boxes headed out to countries, such as France, Iran, and also Japan. From these examples, we see that symbolic politics can work both negatively and positively. At times, in bilateral relations, a small action or gesture can create a huge impact and become a powerful force in changing peoples’ perception.

For social scientists, this pandemic has brought forth unthinkable experiences that urge us to reflect and rethink various long-drawn and steadfast conceptual frameworks around international relations, nationalism, and symbolic politics. In Chinese, the word for “crisis” is composed of two characters: Wei Ji. Wei means danger, Ji is opportunity. The beliefs held in ancient Chinese philosophy too confirm that dangers bring forth special opportunities. While a crisis does bring dangers and even major damages, it simultaneously ushers in novel opportunities to make changes and embark upon new explorations. I hope some years later when we reflect upon the Covid-19 crisis and its impact on international relations, we too will agree with this ancient wisdom.

Banner image: Gauthier Delecroix/Flickr.


New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017More Info →
Thomas J. Christensen, A Modern Tragedy? Covid-19 and US-China Relations (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, May 2020).