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The novel coronavirus has only heightened tensions between Beijing and D.C., as leaders try to deflect blame. There are valid concerns – yet some experts fear the chance for life-saving cooperation has been squandered.
While government face-offs continue, a wide array of American and Chinese organizations are stepping into the void, helping doctors and health experts learn from each other, donating protective equipment, and raising millions to support front-line workers. Those efforts are especially widespread in Seattle, where COVID-19 first hit the United States hard.
Major companies like Microsoft are pitching in, as are Asian-American civic groups and mom-and-pop businesses, at a time when many feel scrutinized.
“I’ve been in this country for 33 years, and I have never seen the Chinese community so mobilized, engaged, generous,” says Haipei Shue, president of the nonprofit civic engagement group United Chinese Americans. The reasons are many, but amid deteriorating U.S.-China relations, and a recent spike in anti-Asian racist attacks, some Chinese Americans feel a need “to prove they are as American as others. ... It is very upsetting and sad,” he says.
As top Chinese doctors in Wuhan detailed best practices from their battle against the coronavirus, about 300 American health experts – including a dozen from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – listened intently by videoconference.
“During the early stage of the outbreak, you can … never imagine how the patients rushed the hospital,” Dr. Peng Zhiyong, intensive care unit director at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, told the U.S. scientists, hospital chiefs, and public health officials.
It was mid-March. The United States had fewer than 50 COVID-19 deaths and 2,000 confirmed cases, a number that would soon balloon. China had been fighting the outbreak for months. But such direct information sharing between Chinese and American practitioners was unexpectedly limited, said organizer Li Lu.
“I was surprised,” said Mr. Li, the Seattle-based investor and philanthropist who arranged the event. Worsening U.S.-China tensions and a raging blame game over the virus between Washington and Beijing meant “two months of valuable experiences [from China] are largely lost in America,” Mr. Li told the group.
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When the world most needs to join forces against a common threat, the two superpowers, gripped by nationalist impulses, have squandered the opportunity to lead, analysts say. Instead they have “engaged in a deeply counterproductive rhetorical battle to see who can be more sanctimonious in blaming the other side,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, associate professor of political science at Cornell University.
President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping both face a domestic legitimacy crisis for failing to keep their people safe from the virus, and “are seeking to deflect blame onto a rival,” says Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Nevertheless, a wide variety of American and Chinese organizations and individuals are stepping into the void. Often behind the scenes and unreported, they are carrying out vital cooperation ranging from scientific exchanges and donations of protective equipment to financial and practical support.
“The virus doesn’t recognize political disputes, nor national boundaries … nor ideologies,” nor trade wars, says Mr. Li, chairman of Himalaya Capital Management. “With this virus we have now found a real worthy adversary.”
Groups ranging from corporations and mom-and-pop businesses to local governments and nonprofits are bridging the divide. They are also pushing back against a broader economic decoupling of China and the United States, advanced by some leaders in Beijing and Washington.
Many in both countries see decoupling as self-defeating. In the United States, they predict, such a policy could worsen internal divisions. “It would decouple Washington from the rest of the United States, because the rest of the United States is not ready to decouple from China,” says Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser on China’s economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
More than 100 leading U.S. academics, executives, and foreign policy experts, including prominent Republicans and Democrats, signed an April letter urging a joint fight against the coronavirus, following a similar appeal signed by 100 Chinese academics. Despite rising competition and valid concerns on either side, “no effort against the coronavirus,” says the U.S. letter, “will be successful without some degree of cooperation between the United States and China.”
Fueling the frontline
Such goodwill initiatives are widespread in Seattle, where COVID-19 first hit the United States hard. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helped fund China’s front-line responders and vaccine researchers as part of a global $100 million donation in February. Microsoft procured masks and other supplies for China, and in March enlisted China’s help to send stockpiles of protective gear to the Seattle area.
Early this year, Mr. Li started the Guardians of the Angeles Charitable Foundation, inspired by the death of Chinese doctor and virus whistleblower Li Wenliang, to help protect medical workers. The foundation has contributed $4 million in medical supplies to more than 100 hospitals in China, and has raised $4.5 million for a similar U.S. effort, donating to 60 hospitals in 13 states.
Chinese and American cities are also leveraging sister city relationships and other municipal ties.
In Seattle’s waterfront industrial district, the fire department last month welcomed 10,000 respirator masks donated to the city by the coastal metropolis of Hangzhou.
“That’s a few weeks’ worth for the entire department, so the impact is big,” says Seattle Fire Department warehouse chief Sundae Garner, adding that the department had only one pallet left in stock.
Washington state has relied heavily on donations for protective gear, with 20% of N95 respirator masks donated, says J. Norwell Coquillard, executive director of the Washington State China Relations Council. The WSCRC’s new sister charitable organization handled the mask import from Hangzhou, overcoming major bureaucratic hurdles in both China and the United States, says Man Wang, director of the council.
Groups like WSCRC with ties in both countries have proven particularly proactive.
Seattle-based entrepreneur Lv Lili, head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Washington state, spearheaded campaigns to donate medical supplies in China and locally. The chamber most recently helped launch a “#FoodWithLove” drive that has so far delivered more than 15,000 free meals to front-line health care workers and police in the Seattle area.
“I love this city, I love the people here, and I want the environment to be better,” says Ms. Lv, who arrived from China in 2014. The food is donated and prepared by 15 local restaurants and delivered daily by Chowbus to 26 hospitals, clinics, testing sites, and police stations. The goal is to raise donations to pay for future meals, to help keep restaurants afloat.
“Everybody’s doing their best to help fight the coronavirus and get through this hard time, we’re just doing what we can,” says Liu Zhixiong, whose family operates Frying Fish restaurant in Bellevue. Despite suffering a 60% to 70% decline in business, Mr. Liu is donating hundreds of free meals to first responders. “They are doing something we are not brave enough to do,” he says.
Receiving 30 meals of spicy tofu and stir-fried green beans from Frying Fish one recent night, Bellevue police Capt. Robert Spingler calls the “#FoodWithLove” deliveries “pretty unprecedented.” “The officers really enjoy it,” he says. “The food will be gone in an hour or so.”
A similar scene unfolded at the University of Washington virology lab, where program coordinator Lisa Rider emerged from the around-the-clock COVID-19 test analysis facility to collect 50 meals and two ornate cakes from Chengdu Memory restaurant in Seattle’s Chinatown. “It’s been a godsend, particularly for people who are working the midnight shift,” says Ms. Rider, whose lab analyzes about 1,500 tests a day.
The Dolar Shop, a Chinese hot pot chain, is distributing 100 free meals to the public from its Bellevue restaurant and another 150 meals to hospitals and first responders each day.
Help across borders
Chinese Americans feel a special responsibility, says Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans, a nationwide nonprofit focused on boosting civic engagement. “I’ve been in this country for 33 years, and I have never seen the Chinese community so mobilized, engaged, generous,” he says. The reasons are many, but amid deteriorating U.S.-China relations, heightened scrutiny of ethnic Chinese, and a recent spike in anti-Asian racist attacks, Chinese Americans feel insecure, he says, “like they have a target on their back.” They want to go the extra mile to help, in part “to prove they are as American as others. ... It is very upsetting and sad,” he says.
United Chinese Americans of Washington (UCAWA) rallied 65 local organizations to obtain protective gear for China, then pivoted to do the same for Seattle, while raising $140,000 for EvergreenHealth Foundation in Kirkland, the first U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are clearly living in an interconnected world, and the pandemic calls for more international cooperation,” says Hong Qi, secretary of UCAWA. “We don’t feel like the government and public officials should ... play the blaming game,” says Ms. Qi, who arrived in Seattle 30 years ago and has worked as a civil servant promoting election participation.
The sheer human suffering should compel the United States and China to rise above their differences, says Mr. Li, who has overcome his share of adversity. Having survived Mao Zedong’s radical Cultural Revolution and the massive 1976 Tangshan earthquake, he emerged as a student leader in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. After the military crackdown, he escaped China for the United States, where he is now a successful hedge fund manager, and last month was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“No matter what happens on the level of the two governments, if you feel the pain, people on both sides, you [do] what you ought to do,” says Mr. Li, who describes himself as “100% Chinese and 100% American.”
A popular line from Chinese poetry expresses it best, he says: “Though mountains and rivers separate nations, together we share the same sky.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Liu Zhixiong’s name.
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