Tracking Western news reporting and Chinese Communist Party propaganda about the COVID-19 pandemic, we find an evolution of the use of “China” and “Wuhan” to define the deadly virus.
Chinese official publications and statements, under heavy party censorship, regularly affixed Wuhan to the then-unnamed virus. So did the prestige media – New York Times, CNN, and others.
The term did not become “racist and xenophobic” until March, 2020 – three months after the virus first appeared and days after President Donald Trump started saying “Chinese Virus.”
Let’s have a quick look at the evolution of the terms and their acceptability, as we track them on our Chinese Virus timeline.
- January 9: CCP TV calls it ‘Wuhan virus.’ China Central TV reports that a strain of the coronavirus that CCTV calls “Wuhan virus” has broken out in the city of Wuhan.
- January 9: CNN calls it ‘Wuhan pneumonia.’ A CNN article identifies the disease as “Wuhan pneumonia,” citing CCTV.
- January 9: Agence France-Presse calls it ‘Wuhan pneumonia.’ The French wire service editorially defines the disease as “Wuhan pneumonia” and a man-in-the-street AFP video shows a Hong Kong man calling the virus a “Chinese disease.”
- January 20: CCP propaganda strategy begins to take shape. In a major shift in policy, CCP leader Xi Jinping makes the first public comment about the virus. Singapore’s CNA news service calls it “Wuhan virus.” CNA-TV has the video report, citing Xi Jinping’s carefully scripted, first public comment.
- January 21: Chinese Communist Party makes first official mention of the virus. The Party’s official authoritative newspaper, People’s Daily, mentions the Wuhan virus for the first time. The official Party-authorized propaganda campaign begins.
- January 21: CCP outlet calls it ‘Wuhan pneumonia.’ The CCP’s English-language Global Times defines the disease as “Wuhan pneumonia” in the headline and text of an article. Another article in the Global Times says that “Wuhan pneumonia” will disrupt international capital markets. The report also calls the disease “Wuhan novel pneumonia.”
- January 21: CNN calls it ‘Chinese coronavirus.’ CNN tweets out an article about what it calls “a new Chinese coronavirus” that began in Wuhan. The tweet links to a story from the day before which uses the same terminology. After a CCP propaganda campaign to stomp out the term, CNN will stop using i
- January 22: CCP outlet calls it ‘Wuhan coronavirus.’ The CCP’s English-language Global Times calls the virus “Wuhan pneumonia” for the second day in a row. Another article in the Global Timescalls the disease “Wuhan coronavirus.”
- January 23: CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta calls the disease “Wuhan Coronavirus.” By March, Acosta will criticize people for using a geographic term.
- January 23: Virus still has no official name. The Wall Street Journal observes that the Wuhan-origin strain of coronavirus still has no official name.
- January 29: UN World Health Organization chief meets with Xi Jinping. Meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing, the head of the World Health Organization praises the Chinese Communist Party leadership for its response to the virus. Building up Xi’s image, the WHO director says, “We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated. . . .”
- January 30: New York Times calls it ‘Wuhan Coronavirus.’ A feature by Dan Werb is headlined, “To Understand the Wuhan Coronavirus, Look to the Epidemic Triangle.”
- January 31: New York Times publishes what it calls a ‘Wuhan coronavirus map.’ The map, updated regularly, shows in graphic form the spread of the virus. The graphic is titled “Wuhan Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Spread of the Outbreak.” A caption says, “The Wuhan coronavirus has sickened more than 4,500 people in Asia . . . .”
- February 13: WHO leader Tedros defends his praise for Chinese regime and Xi Jinping, and questions his critics. “The head of the World Health Organisation defended his earlier praise of China’s response to the deadly coronavirus epidemic on Wednesday, questioning critics who disputed President Xi Jinping’s leadership,” the South China Morning Post reported.
- February 15: WHO says CCP has ‘bought the world time’ at great sacrifice to China. World Health Organization leader praises CCP leadership for buying the world more time, at a terrible cost to China itself.
- February 18: CNN calls it ‘Chinese’ and ‘Wuhan coronavirus.’ CNN is among the first to label the deadly new virus as “Chinese coronavirus” and “Wuhan coronavirus.” Jen Christensen and Meera Senthilingam of CNN report, “A new Chinese coronavirus, a cousin of the SARS virus, has infected hundreds since the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December. . . . It’s not clear how deadly the Wuhan coronavirus will be. . . .”
- February 24: World Health Organization issues instructions not to say “Wuhan” or “Chinese Virus.” After praising Xi Jinping for his “transparency,” the World Health Organization (WHO) launches international propaganda directives of its own. The Geneva-based organization instructs health care professionals worldwide NOT to say “Wuhan Virus” or “Chinese Virus.” (Meanwhile, WHO maintains the geographic names of other diseases.)
- February 27: CCP starts propaganda line that the virus might not have originated in China. Zhong Nanshan, a pulmonologist allowed to speak to reporters in China, holds a news conference and alleges, “the coronavirus first appeared in China but may not have originated in China.” South China Morning Post reports, “a new study published by a team of Chinese scientists last week said the virus might have been imported from somewhere else.”
- February 27: CCP pushes new theme to strengthen central government. “Beijing is tapping its old propaganda playbook as it battles the relentless coronavirus outbreak, the biggest challenge to its legitimacy in decades,” Straits Times reports in Singapore. “State media is filling smartphones and airwaves with images and tales of unity and sacrifice aimed at uniting the people behind Beijing’s rule.”
- February 28: Top international news organizations are almost uniform in their assessment of CCP’s self-serving propaganda campaign. New York Times headline sums it up: “China Spins Coronavirus Crisis, Hailing Itself as a Global Leader.”
- Early March: CCP instructs its ambassadors abroad to spread Twitter rumor that the virus did not originate in China.
- Chinese Embassy in Tokyo starts labeling coronavirus as “Japanese virus.”
- Other Chinese embassies label coronavirus “Italian virus” and “Iranian virus.”
- CCP instructs its ambassadors and other diplomats to persuade pro-Beijing foreigners not to state the Chinese origin of the virus, and to insisted instead that “while the virus severely hit Wuhan, where it really originally came from is unknown. We are conducting new studies to locate the virus’ true origin.”
- China’s ambassador to South Africa hints that the virus originated outside China. “Although the epidemic first broke out in China, it did not necessarily mean that the virus is originated from China, let alone ‘made in China,’” the ambassador said on Twitter.
- March 10: Xi Jinping visits Wuhan as a nationalist hero and defender of China.
- March 10: New York Times tweets that use of the term ‘Wuhan virus’ is ‘racist and xenophobic.’ The New York Times as an entity (@nytimes) tweets a harsh criticism of those who use the term it once used: “Some conservatives, including Mike Pompeo, Sen. Tom Cotton, and Rep. Paul Gosar, are using the term ‘Wuhan virus’ to describe Covid-19. Critics accused the term, which goes against the recommendation of health officials, of being racist and xenophobic.”
- New York Times removes ‘Wuhan’ from its daily coronavirus map. By this date, the New York Times has erased “Wuhan” from its map that tracks and updates the spread of the virus. In January, the map was called “Wuhan Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Spread of the Outbreak.” The map is now renamed to “Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Spread of the Outbreak.” The caption reference to Wuhan is also removed. The change is not reflective of the WHO re-definition of the virus, as the map makes no reference to COVID-19.
- March 11: New theme in CCP outlets says virus was ‘imported.’ Global Times, a CCP English-language mouthpiece, tweets an emphasis on foreigners who “imported” the virus to China.
- March 12: Chinese Foreign Ministry hints that US Army brought the virus to Wuhan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweets out a question to imply that the US Army brought the virus to Wuhan in October, 2019. Later, Global Times tries to soften Zhao’s statement: “But Zhao only raised the question and demanded the US explain on his personal Twitter account, and not on a diplomatic occasion.”
- March 12: Beijing coordinates theme that US created the virus. The theme is more integrated now since the February 27 trial balloon by a party-approved physician that was “repeated by Chinese diplomats, state media and officials who have subtly encouraged the idea,” according to the Guardian. “Diplomats, state media and officials in China encourage idea that COVID-19 came from the US,” the Guardian reports from Beijing.
- March 16: Pompeo calls out regime for ‘disinformation.’ Secretary of State Pompeo admonishes Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi for the CCP’s campaign to “spread disinformation and outlandish rumors.”
- March 16: Regime slaps back. CCP outlet CCTV says that Yang Jiechi told Pompeo that the American “smear” campaign against China “will not succeed” and that Beijing will retaliate.
- March 16: Trump tweets about ‘Chinese Virus.’ President Trump sends out a short tweet assuring US industries and airlines of support as they are affected by the “Chinese Virus.”
- Certain media outlets take the bait, attack Trump as racist. Some American news outlets start attacking Trump as a racist and xenophobe. Huffington Post headline: “Trump sends hateful ‘Chinese Virus’ tweet…”
- Mother Jones embraces virus labeling propaganda theme. Mother Jonespublishes a long feature about why saying “China virus” is wrong.
- March 17: People’s Daily recycles WHO statement. On Twitter, the CCP’s People’s Dailycirculates a video of the World Health Organization’s Mike Ryan, who says it is wrong to call the pandemic “Chinese Virus.”
- March 17: Beijing ‘strongly condemns’ Trump for ‘despicable’ tweets about ‘Chinese Virus.’ Without mentioning the president by name, the Chinese foreign ministry denounces Trump’s rhetoric: “Some US politicians have tried to stigmatise China … which China strongly condemns,” a ministry spokesman tells reporters, according to the Guardian in Beijing. “We urge the US to stop this despicable practice. We are very angry and strongly oppose it [the tweet].”
- March 18: Taiwan says it isn’t racist to call virus by geographic name. Republic of China on Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu says that it is proper to label a pandemic by its place of origin. He says that Taiwan calls the disease the “Wuhan pneumonia coronavirus.” Wu “stated that because the Chinese government is aware that its ‘national reputation suffered tremendously’ due to the outbreak, it’s trying to shift blame,” the Taiwan News reports.
- March 18: Big Media in Washington object to Trump naming the virus by its origin. At a White House press conference, Cecilia Vega of ABC News hints that President Trump is racist by using the term “China Virus.” She asks Trump why he uses the term.
- “Because it comes from China,” Trump replies. “It’s not racist at all. No, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.”
- PBS White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor questions Trump’s use of attributing the virus’ origin to China.
- CNN “opinion” headline: “Trump’s malicious use of ‘Chinese Virus.”
- Associated Press headline: “Trump dubs COVID-19 ‘Chinese Virus’ despite hate crime risks.”
- March 19: CCP says ‘Chinese Virus’ rhetoric endangers all Asians. So far, the CCP outlets do not denounce Trump or others of using the term “Chinese Virus” to attack the Chinese government or Communist Party. The propaganda theme is that the attack is against all ethnic Chinese people as human beings. The theme is now broadened to portray the term as an attack on all Asians and people of Asian ancestry. Global Times now headlines that “Trump puts Asian Americans at risk with racist claim.”
The World Health Organization (WHO), an arm of the United Nations, re-cast the term on February 24 when it issued instructions for health professionals worldwide never to identify the virus with Wuhan or China.
While some news outlets may have changed their reporting guidelines in response to the recommendation from WHO, our tracking of WHO’s positions on the virus show that the instructions did not occur until two weeks after the WHO director general met personally with Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.