United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has run afoul of the language police. Last Thursday he publicly called the “coronavirus” that has already killed 0,000013% of the world’s population the “Wuhan virus”. When challenged about this criminal violation of linguistic propriety on Friday he just said it again.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) was shocked.
I know how Pompeo must feel, because my innocent suggestion that we call it the “Pangolin Balls Erectile Dysfunction Chinese Wet Market Virus” got an equally hostile reception. It broke the WHO’s rules on naming new human infectious diseases.
The WHO guidelines, issued in 2015, say that names must avoid geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), people’s names (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), species of animal or food (swine flu, monkey pox), cultural or occupational references (legionnaires’ disease), and terms that incite fear (e.g. “fatal” or “epidemic”).
So you may die of it, but nobody’s feelings will be hurt. Covid-19, as the coronavirus is also known, may be boring, but at least nobody will think it has anything to do with China. In reality, however, everybody knows that China made a mess of this.
First of all, the age-old Chinese cultural tradition of blaming the messenger, reinforced by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC)’s very hierarchical structure, delayed public acknowledgement that there was a dangerous virus active in Wuhan for several crucial weeks.
Dr Li Wenliang, the first person to raise the alarm about a viral outbreak on social media, was warned by the police not to spread rumours. (He died recently after being infected with Covid-19.)
The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, admitted last month that he had delayed taking public action to slow the spread of the virus — like banning Wuhan residents from travelling elsewhere for Chinese New Year, for example. Why? Because local government had to get permission (from CPC headquarters) before fully disclosing information about the virus.
Secondly, the Chinese version of the internet is now seething with stories about how the US developed the virus in its secret labs and deliberately planted it in China. There are conspiracy theorists everywhere, but in China the hundreds of thousands of censors who man the Great Firewall instantly take down posts that deviate from the official line. They are not doing it this time, which tells you all you need to know.
Indeed, while CPC initially accepted that the outbreak began in China, denial is growing even in official statements. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian complained last week that by calling the outbreak “China virus” or “Wuhan virus” “and thus suggesting its origin without any supporting facts or evidence, some media clearly want China to take the blame and their ulterior motives are laid bare”.
Zhao insisted that no conclusion has been reached on whether the coronavirus originated in China, and the Chinese military’s online portal Xilu.com recently published an article claiming that the virus is “a biochemical weapon produced by the US to target China”. But behind all the bluster and denial, China is actually doing the right thing.
Folklore, superstitions and “old wives’ tales” abound in every culture, but beliefs about the power of jinbu are unique to China and explain why eating specific wild animals plays a major role in traditional Chinese medicine. The exotic meat “fills the void”, allegedly enhancing sexual performance in men and beauty and fertility in women.
Yi-Zheng Lian, former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, noted in a recent Washington Post article that eating bats, thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, is said to be good for restoring eyesight. Bile and gallbladders harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone, or snakes and bulls’ penises for the impecunious, are for erections.
Small wild animals are often the intermediaries that transmit the new coronaviruses to people. The ground-up scales of pangolins supposedly cure cancer and asthma, but are also implicated in passing the “Wuhan” virus to human beings. Palm civets, suspected of having transmitted the SARS virus to humans, are said to cure insomnia when stewed with snake meat.
China’s “wet markets” sell a wide variety of these animals — and they often sell them live, because that supposedly makes the jinbu stronger.
China is not the only source of new viral diseases, but it certainly produces more than anywhere else. Yet in all the previous epidemics, the Chinese regime did not dare to shut down the trade in wild animals. Popular belief in jinbu was just too strong.
Now it has finally done it. Late last month all the enterprises breeding wild animals were shut down permanently, markets have been forbidden to sell them and even eating them has been banned. They are closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, you might say, but it will help a great deal in the future.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).