VIEWPOINT: China, ‘the sick man of Asia’ 2.0 – the securitization of Coronavirus

VIEWPOINT: China, ‘the sick man of Asia’ 2.0 – the securitization of Coronavirus

Ferran Perez Mena

At the end of the 19th century, the imperialist western powers, during their “civilizing” mission of plundering in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, depicted China as the “sick man of Asia”. This derogatory term to define China can be related to wider processes of racialisation which were deemed as instrumental by the imperialist powers to legitimize their colonial adventures overseas. In an article published in 1897 titled “On the future strength of China”, the Confucian reformist Liang Qichao (梁啓超) wrote on how Western imperialism was scourging a decadent Qing empire in its final stages.

Liang analysed how the Western press at the end of the 19th century had become a propaganda machine of the imperialist interests in China. In regard to this problem, Liang (in Karl, 2020) asserted “I read Western newspapers and they report on… the disorder in the Chinese polity… This has been going on for the past few decades. Since September or October of last year [1896], they have been more openly and brazenly publicized how wild and uncivilized the Chinese are, how ignorant and dishonest, how empty Chinese Confucianism is. The meaning is clear: they will move to eliminate China at once.”

After examining how Western media, and specifically the US and the British news outlets, is reporting the global effects of the coronavirus, one might argue that the legacies of colonial domination remain imprinted in the ways in which coronavirus is represented in popular discourses. Following Liang’s analysis, I suggest that Western media has securitized and weaponised the social effects and perceptions generated by the global crisis of the coronavirus. In other words, the coronavirus has been constructed in the public debate as a security threat. This in turn has shaped the way it has been perceived by the public. In practise, this means that such social effects and perceptions, after being securitized, have become a weapon that can be utilized against political or economic opponents, in this case, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In this sense, coronavirus, by being treated as an existential threat, has moved beyond being a global health problem, but a global security matter that needs intervention – at times through the use of extraordinary measures, which can be used as a political and economic weapon-. According to Thierry Braspenning-Balzacq (2005, p.179), “securitization is a rule-governed practice, the success of which does not necessarily depend on the existence of a real threat, but on the discursive ability to effectively endow a development with such a specific complexion”.

Fred Vultee (2007, p.2-3) argued about the importance of new media in the process of securitization. “Media frames are the lens through which the public sees an issue like terrorism or immigration either as a routine matter best dealt with through the normal 3 workings of law enforcement and politics or as a crisis that requires extreme measures for indefinite periods”. With this in mind, the securitization and weaponization of the coronavirus is therefore not accidental, given the intertwined relation between western media and economic and political interests.

Whilst this piece does not seek to undermine the serious health effects of the coronavirus nor to excuse the Chinese government for its terrible adventures in its periphery such as in Xinjiang or romanticize the anti-imperialist legacy of CCP, it does maintain that it is essential to critically analyse such phenomena. Why has a virus with a mortality rate of 2.2% – according to data published by the UN and WHO on the 31st of January – caused such a stir in the international press? The answer is to be found in the contemporary geopolitics of capitalist competition, which is shaping the social, political and economics processes caused by the coronavirus.

On the one hand, the weaponization of the coronavirus that has been fostered by the Western media has enabled a subtle media attack on China. The aim of this manoeuvre is to produce an image of disorder that casts doubt on the management of the crisis by the CCP. In addition to this, it seeks to question the global campaign of soft power that China has been promoting for the last decade. The deterioration of the Chinese regime that the Hong Kong protests sought to achieve, could be gained instead through a media campaign of misinformation on the coronavirus.

In this vein, the German media Deutsche Welle published an article considering the relation between the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and the expansion of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, the Western media forgot to mention on its front pages the 10,000 deaths caused by influenza in the US – the great bulwark of liberal democracy – between 2019 and 2020. Could anyone imagine the European governments sending planes to rescue European citizens in the US from the crisis caused by the Influenza? On the other hand, the securitization of the coronavirus has allowed the implementation of emergency measures such as the rescue of Western citizens in China, cancellation of university classes, exams, flights, important business decisions, etc.

Even though these activities have been framed under the necessity of protecting citizens from the coronavirus, I contend that in practice all these measures have been covert or collateral activities that have deeply affected the Chinese economy. In other words, against some of the views that argue that this virus is the chief reason of the current destabilization of the Chinese and global economy, I contend that the securitization of its social effects and perceptions have been the main cause of the deacceleration of China and global economy.

Regarding the economic effects of the coronavirus, on the 3rd of February of 2020, the BBC published an article that discussed how the Shanghai Composite Index, the stock market index of all stocks that are traded at the Shanghai Stock Exchange, had “closed nearly 8% lower, its biggest daily drop for more than four years”. “Manufacturing, materials goods companies were among the hardest hit, while healthcare shares soared”. In an infamous article published on the WSJ titled “China is the real sick man of Asia”, the professor of International Relations Walter Russel Mead declared that “the likeliest economic consequence of the coronavirus epidemic, forecaster expect, will be a short and sharp fall in China’s economic growth in the first quarter of 2020, and recovering as the disease fades”.

In addition to this, Mead argued that the “most important long-term outcome would appear to be a strengthening of a trend for global companies to “de-sinize” their supply chains. Add the continuing public health worries to the threat of new trade wars, and supply chain diversification looks prudent”. In essence, what Trump government hasn’t achieved during the last impasse of the trade war with China, might be gained through the weaponization of the social effects and perceptions spawned by a media campaign of misinformation about the coronavirus.

Against this backdrop, the rampant racism that the Chinese community has experienced in the West is not accidental. It is thus a result of an irresponsible media campaign triggered by the Western media that once again is endorsing political and economic interests that not differ much from those that Liang Qichao was criticizing at the end of the 19th century. In this light, we shouldn’t be afraid of the coronavirus but of the aggressive geopolitical situation that is weaponizing health issues and is leading humanity to a collective disaster.

Balzacq, T. (2005). The Three Faces of Securitization: Political Agency, Audience and Context. European Journal Of International Relations11(2), 171-201. doi: 10.1177/1354066105052960
Vultee, F. (2007). Securitization as a Theory of Media Effects: The Contest over the Framing of Political Violence (PhD). University of Missouri-Columbia.
Karl, R. (2020). China’s revolutions in the modern world: a brief interpretative history. London: Verso.


Ferran Perez Mena is a PhD Student at the department of International Relations at the University of Sussex. He is working on the intersection between the production of Chinese International thought, China´s political economy and the expansion of global capitalism. His research areas are International historical sociology, IR in East Asia, Non-western IR theory, social movements in East Asia, Chinese political thought and the relation between Securitization theory and media.

Image Credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay