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COMMENTARY: As COVID-19 spreads, the war of words between Beijing and Washington help

While the world seeks unity to fight COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, China and the U.S. have become involved in an ugly slagging match over the illness.

Beijing announced on Tuesday that it is expelling all China- and Hong Kong-based journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. It further demanded that those newspapers, as well as Voice of America and Time magazine, provide “detailed information ” about their work in China.

The deportation order came just hours after China denounced U.S. President Donald Trump for referring to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” in a tweet that a Communist Party newspaper immediately called “racist.” In what Foreign Policy magazine cited as an example of COVID-19 becoming a “geopolitical football,” Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, publicly referred to it two weeks ago as “the Wuhan virus.”

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Though it is hard to see a direct link between the deportation of journalists and the disease that the World Health Organization finally decided to call COVID-19, a Chinese academic was quoted Tuesday in official media as saying the tweet from the White House “appeared to be a tit-for-tat move in response to a decision earlier this month by U.S. President Donald Trump that five Chinese state media companies reduce to 100 the number of Chinese citizens they employ in the U.S.”

Only last Friday, the U.S. State Department summoned China’s ambassador to Washington to explain why his foreign ministry’s chief spokesman had publicly demanded an investigation into whether a U.S. military lab had created the new coronavirus and suggestions by other Chinese diplomats that U.S. troops had brought the highly infectious disease to China.

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Also tumbling out there in the digital and electronic fog has been a conspiracy theory, perhaps first circulated by a U.S. senator, that the pathogen causing global hysteria got its start at the People’s Liberation Army biochemical weapons lab in Wuhan.

There is a preposterous Canadian angle, too: that the virus might have come from research allegedly stolen by Chinese scientists working at a lab in Winnipeg.

Trudeau closes Canadian borders to most foreign travellers amid coronavirus outbreak

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The rift between Beijing and Washington comes at a moment when the stark outlines of the terrible economic effects of this scourge are starting to become known. Production in China was down by about 13 per cent in January and February. Retail spending dropped by one-fifth. And the figures for March and April are unlikely to be any better.

The collapse is a…

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