Just a few weeks ago a newspaper published the headline result of a survey about the coronavirus epidemic that the majority of Britons blame China. This got a headline, but is useless.
You have to ask what ‘blame China’ actually means, and what it means to different people.
Blame is not a fixed word. It is a general disapproval but has no set meaning. If a fence falls down, someone looks for the blame: the builder who put it up, or the person who should have maintained it (or the structure of ownership that left it without a responsible owner), or the children who keep falling against it in their rough games of football, or the lack of space for them to play elsewhere, or the developer who should have provided that space, or the high wind the other night. It is not a moral judgment as you cannot condemn the moral failings of the wind or dumb luck: in that case “blame” just means identifying the cause.
You could have stopped the fence from falling had you kept the boys inside that afternoon, had you not gone for the cheaper option, had you paid attention to the lean it had developed, had you put another inch of concrete round the post. The guilt grows not from actual responsibility but fear of the word ‘blame’.
The word sounds like condemnation: casting ‘blame’ is an assault, and the one blamed will bridle and protest. Blame suggests responsibility, moral failing, even legal liability. Court proceedings have been started by outraged parties not for compensation, but just to have the power of the state declare that blame is to be attributed to their opponent.
In the context of a global pandemic, the protest rises to a deafening roar and demands that blame be attached to someone or something. China is to blame, but that means something different in every mouth. To some, ‘blame’ is a high threshold to be attributed only to clear, actual moral culpability; to others it just means the cause lies there.
Then there is China. What does it mean to blame China? That is a tract of ground encompassing more than two billion acres, scoured by more rivers and winds than you can count in a lifetime: are the mountains and meadows and wastelands able to answer a charge of negligence? The disease started there, and that as the location of the cause is enough for the lowest-rung meaning of ‘blame’, for some.
We can assume that those who blame China mean specifically the People’s Republic of China not Taiwan or Hong Kong, but even then is it just noting that the contagion began there, or is an accusation pointed at the government of that country? If the latter, it might mean no more than that the outbreak began on their watch (which is rather like blaming the local policeman for an assault that happened when he was at the other end of the village). Maybe an accusation is levelled at a culture which does not consider hygiene as we do.
The Chinese government is culpable in its way. It did not cause the disease nor its spread, and they did not determine for it to escape their borders and infect the world, but they took it with their usual approach which prioritised suppressing the news and not the epidemic, and thus ensured that the infection could not be kept in check. Maybe it would not have spread outside China if they had behaved better. Then again, the infection broke out in one of the largest cities in the world, Wuhan, so it might have escaped in any case. There are further stories: in January Australian companies celebrated major domestic sales of gloves and facemasks, which were promptly shipped to China, depleting Australia’s stocks – they knew what was coming. When it all started we cannot tell – such is the secrecy in Red China and such is the fear of authority felt by everyone who might otherwise have alerted the country and the world. Yes, the Chinese government is culpable of cynical neglect, though not malice. They did not start it: it just happened. In a crowded sub-continental landmass like China, new, horrid diseases often appear and will always do so.
Blame is needed because if it is just dumb luck then we are powerless in the face of the universe. Modern life is about control, and about man’s mastery of nature, but here is a disease, primal, a primaeval timeless event, and we cannot grasp it unless someone is at fault: there must be blame.
The word ‘blame’ is like an infection itself. It may start as the lower end, with just an acknowledgement that events began in China so there is the cause. Then having fixed that impersonal blame, it grows into finding a moral fault. The Chinese government is not without moral fault in the matter but they still did not cause it, but if they are not guilty, it means that we are the victims of untamed nature and that will never do, so the light blame must grow: the tinge of turpitude in Peking is enough for resentment to grow. That may be why conspiracy theories have appeared with fantastical claims of deliberate, even manufactured diseases. It beats the mundane reality.
We come back then to those two words “blame China”, and see they are meaningless – no two people have the same understanding of the word ‘blame’, and how blame, by whatever definition, gets attached to the amorphous concept of ‘China’ is a mystery even to those thinking it.