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Trump Defends Calling the Coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus’

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday defended calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus,” ignoring a growing chorus of criticism that the practice is racist and anti-Chinese.

“It’s not racist at all,” Mr. Trump said, explaining his rationale. “It comes from China, that’s why.”

But the term has angered Chinese officials and a wide range of critics, and China experts say labeling the virus that way will only ratchet up tensions between the two countries, while resulting in the kind of xenophobia that American leaders should discourage.

“The use of this term is not only corrosive vis-à-vis a global audience, including here at home, it is also fueling a narrative in China about a broader American hatred and fear of not just the Chinese Communist Party but of China and Chinese people in general,” said Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

When Mr. Trump was asked about the term on Wednesday during his now-daily appearance at the White House’s coronavirus briefing — after he pointedly referred to the “Chinese Virus” in two morning tweets — he insisted that he was simply pointing out a fact: that the illness was first detected in China.

Public health officials have tried to avoid names that might elicit discrimination against locations or ethic groups since releasing more stringent guidelines for naming viruses in 2015. The White House on Twitter, however, later admonished “the media’s fake outrage,” pointing to other illnesses that had been named after places, including the Ebola virus and the West Nile virus.

But Mr. Kennedy said that past language used by Mr. Trump and his administration had eliminated the benefit of the doubt. “Given the Trump administration’s long record of statements and actions on immigration, immigrants and issues of race,” he said, “use of this term can’t but be interpreted as xenophobic and tinged with racist overtones.”

At the briefing, a reporter also asked the president what he thought of an unnamed White House official referring to the coronavirus as the “Kung Flu.” Mr. Trump skirted the question before asserting that the Chinese “probably would agree” with the coronavirus as the “Chinese” virus, though Chinese officials have made it clear they do not.

Medical historians and public health experts — including some in Mr. Trump’s administration — have emphasized that pandemics have no ethnicity and stressed that associating them with an ethnic group can lead to discrimination.

But since the beginning of the outbreak, Mr. Trump and high-ranking administration officials have sought to pinpoint blame for the spread of the virus on China, and Beijing has responded in kind. The finger-pointing over which country has done less to contain the disease has caused tensions between the two countries almost daily.

On Tuesday, the Chinese government announced that it would be expelling journalists from major news outlets, including The New York Times, in a response to the Trump administration’s decision to severely limit the number of Chinese journalists working in the United States. At the White House briefing that day, Mr. Trump told reporters that he was attaching “China” to the disease name to combat a disinformation campaign promoted by Beijing officials that the American military was the source of the outbreak.

“I didn’t appreciate the fact that China was saying that our military gave it to them,” Mr. Trump said. “I think saying that our military gave it to them creates a stigma.”

Last week, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, shared the conspiracy theory in a tweet. “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” he said. “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

The president’s allies joined him on Wednesday in defending his use of the term. Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, said that Mr. Trump was just trying to be accurate. “I think what the president is saying is that is where it was first started,” she told reporters in the White House driveway.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said on Twitter that “I don’t understand why China gets upset bc we refer to the virus that originated there the ‘Chinese virus’ Spain never got upset when we referred to the Spanish flu in 1918&1919.”

The phrase “Spanish flu” is itself a misnomer: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say experts are still not sure where the disease originated.

Perhaps no administration official has been as staunch in using the term “Wuhan” or “China” virus as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a press briefing on Tuesday, Mr. Pompeo six times referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” after the city that was the epicenter of the virus in China.

Even as he said that “now is not the time for recrimination,” Mr. Pompeo also again accused China of initially playing down the threat posed by what is now a pandemic.

“We know this much: We know that the first government to be aware of the Wuhan virus was the Chinese government,” Mr. Pompeo said. “That imposes a special responsibility to raise the flag, to say: ‘We have a problem. This is different and unique and presents risk.’ And it took an awful long time for the world to become aware of this risk that was sitting there, residing inside of China.”

“The Chinese Communist Party had a responsibility to do this — not only for Americans and Italians and South Koreans and Iranians who are now suffering, but for their own people as well,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Mr. Pompeo said the expulsions were just the latest example of how China wants to “deny the world the capacity to know what’s really going on inside of their country.”

Government officials in China and Iran — both of which are diplomatic adversaries of the United States — have publicly cast doubt on whether the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, as health authorities believe. On Tuesday, Mr. Pompeo also accused Iran of misleading its citizens, who are facing the third-largest outbreak in the world.

But on Wednesday, a senior State Department official said President Xi Jinping of China in early January also repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan” illness, and that many Chinese citizens still do.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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