Beijing protested strongly when the pathogen spreading from Wuhan was initially called “the Chinese virus.” The name stigmatized the citizens of the People’s Republic. The World Health Organization (WHO) then named the pathogen Sars-CoV-2. In the meantime, it even declined the Greek alphabet to conceal the geographical origin of all mutations. Instead of British, Brazilian, South African or Indian variants, it now has to be politically correct: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. China is fine with that. It got its way: Nothing in the name of the virus any longer suggests a possible Chinese origin. For Beijing, this is a political issue.
Yet the People’s Republic is not so squeamish when it comes to infections that originate in other places. It calls Ebola the virus named after a river in Congo, or “African swine fever” for the deadly disease that infected and ravaged China’s pig herd in 2019. Just last Monday, the Global Times reported that the People’s Republic had defeated “African Swine Fever” (ASF) after two years, but the name ASF has survived in China, while the term “Chinese virus” disappeared globally under pressure from Beijing. The Congo, or Africa as a whole, simply does not have a lobby or as much influence as China’s government.
Xi relies on barbaric comparisons against corruption
Internally, Beijing has no scruples about stigmatizing others. It likes to expose them to ridicule with animal names to rob them of dignity and self-respect. Mao drew fully from the dictionary of inhuman denunciations for his Cultural Revolution. He had his opponents demonized as “cattle devils and snake spirits” (牛鬼蛇神) or as “chameleons or vermin.” (变色龙，小爬虫). His Red Guards shouted as a battle cry, “Smash their dog heads” (砸烂狗头).
Has the cultural nation of China learned from this? Apparently not. Even President Xi Jinping is reaching into the dustbin of barbaric comparisons. In January 2013, two months after taking office as party leader, he ordered the Central Committee’s anti-corruption agency to “clean up” the party, military and state apparatus. He mobilized a hunt, bypassing the judiciary, for actual or perceived corrupt top officials (the so-called Tigers). At the same time, they were also to clean up among lower-ranking party and state officials (the flies). A year later, the third persecutee in the group was all corrupt officials and corporate executives who had absconded abroad as economic fugitives with fortunes (the foxes). Xi coined the catchphrases for his campaign, in which he also dumped his political opponents: beating tigers (打老虎), swatting flies (拍苍蝇), and hunting foxes (猎狐).
According to China’s newly published party history, Xi has hunted down 440 high-ranking comrades as tigers in the first five years of his rule, many of whom were sentenced to life in prison. Among them were 43 members of the 18th Party Congress alone, who once helped elect Xi as CP chief. According to the report, the flies caught so far even number in the millions.
In July 2014, the hunt for the “foxes” was added. Xinhua published a tally of the international manhunt. By June 2020, 7831 economic fugitives from dozens of countries had been extradited to China, including 2075 former party officials. Beijing would have recovered nearly €3 billion.
Unlike in the Covid case, there is no public discussion about the stigmatization of those prosecuted within China. The arbitrary anti-corruption campaign is accompanied by a large number of suicides by which the accused evade arrest. The China Daily once dismissed such suicides cynically. “They weigh lighter than a feather.”
Animal names such as wolf, lion or dragon, on the other hand, have positive connotations in political China. Since 2018, Beijing’s diplomats and foreign ministry spokespeople have taken pleasure in making headlines as “wolf warriors” when they aggressively defend China’s offensive foreign policy in tone and content. The name – first raised by bloggers – derives from the Chinese hit movie Wolf Warrior 2, in which a Rambo-like soldier hero frees Chinese hostages abroad. Since the term “wolf warrior” sparked global alienation, however, Beijing turned the tables and accused Western media of inventing the word.
Beijing likes to think of itself as a friendly predator
It is undisputed that party leader Xi likes to compare China to the mighty lion or mystical dragon for the benefit of his own nation. In 2014, he wooed Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India: “The Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant” should join hands to establish a “fairer and more reasonable international order.”
Xi took the cake in his speech celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations with France. In Paris in March 2014, he asserted that no one needs to fear the People’s Republic: “The lion China has already woken up, but it is a peaceful, friendly, and civilized lion.” Xi was alluding to a bon mot allegedly attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. The Corsican, when asked for advice on how to deal with a China resisting foreign countries, is said to have once pointed to the world map and said, “There lies a sleeping lion. Let him sleep. If he wakes up, he may shake the world.” According to another version, Napoleon is said to have said “dragon.”
Foreign critics interpreted the image of the peaceful and civilized predator as a hidden warning. Beijing could change tunes if it didn’t get its way. Where on earth would there be such a thing as a friendly lion? Unless China saw itself as a domesticated zoo and circus lion. Or even as a paper tiger. But that’s certainly not what Xi, who loves animal imagery so much, meant.