Why “Chinese Virus” Is a Racist Phrase

Reformed Margins is honored to share this article from guest contributor Timothy Isaiah Cho. Timothy is the Associate Editor for Faithfully Magazine. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley

The current President of the United States has continued to refer to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” While people have accused the President of racism and xenophobia for this terminology, others have pushed back and stated that there’s nothing wrong with calling the virus by the name of its origin. If you take the words simply at face value, they argue, the President is just stating facts of origin.

As readers of the Word of God, Christians have intuitively been trained to recognize that language is much more complicated than taking words at face value. At the very basic, we recognize that God’s Word is not just a transfer of information but is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). God’s Word not only says something; it also does something. The Word of God never returns void but always accomplishes that which He has purposed it to do (Isaiah 55:11). 

What Is Speech Act Theory?

This performative element of language is something that’s been recognized broadly in the field of linguistics and philosophy of language in what is called “speech act theory.” Brought to the forefront of the field by 20th century British philosopher of language, J. L. Austin, speech act theory is the idea that an individual not only presents information with their words (a “speech act”) but also performs an action with that speech act. 

In his book How to Do Things With Words, Austin breaks down three elements that can exist within a given speech act: 

1.     Locutionary act: the actual utterance and its face value meaning.

2.     Illocutionary act: the result from or meaning under the surface of the locutionary act.

3.     Perlocutionary act: the actual effect of the locutionary and illocutionary acts.

At first, this all may sound extremely theoretical and abstract, but at second glance, it’s fairly down to earth. For example, we can use speech act theory to break down when someone shouts, “Fire!” in a building:

1.     Locutionary act: “There is a fire!”

2.     Illocutionary act: “Therefore, get out of the building!”

3.     Perlocutionary act: People leaving the building.

We intuitively realize that when someone shouts, “Fire!” in a building, he or she is not merely trying to express an observation of data. There is an intention and an ultimate goal that is expressed through the words.

Speech act theory is also helpful to understand aspects of the use of language in the Bible. When the Gospel of John tells us that through the Eternal Word “all things were made” (1:3), we see this more clearly seeing the creation account in the light of speech act theory. When God says, “Let there be light” at creation:

1.     Locutionary act: “Let there be light.”

2.     Illocutionary act: “I will create light.”

3.     Perlocutionary act: And there was light.

Applying Speech Act Theory to Political Discourse

Speech act theory is helpful for showing us that language is not just the downloading and uploading of information from person to person. In the act of communication, things are implied, connoted, and hinted at – recipients of terrible dad jokes can overwhelmingly attest to this fact! On a more sober level, when we communicate, there are intended effects as well as unintended consequences to our words. This requires us to consider language holistically.

I believe that speech act theory is a helpful tool to help us analyze political discourse because we are able to see language being used multifacetedly. Therefore, when the President of the United States uses the phrase “Chinese virus,” we can’t simply just look at the face value meaning of words. We must consider other important questions to get to the illocutionary and perlocutionary aspects of his words such as: 

1.     Why did he choose a phrase that takes more characters to type than “coronavirus” or “COVID-19”?

2.     Does using the purported origins of the virus as a moniker promote national unity or can it create the perlocutionary act of anger, distrust of, and violence against Asians and Asian Americans in our country?

3.     What is the illocutionary act in his speech act? What is the intention or meaning behind using the term “Chinese virus”? Who does it stir up and provoke to action?

4.     Choice of language isn’t arbitrary; it actually reveals something. When someone chooses to refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression,” that reveals a lot about their understanding of American history and slavery, for example. 

5.     Even if other sources have used the term “Chinese virus” before the President, that doesn’t make the term any more acceptable. Again, you have to break down those speech acts for the other individuals who used that phrase.


Especially in this time of hyper-polarization and hyper-partisanship, we all need to do a better job at language —both in communicating and understanding. There is more going on than the exchange of bare words —there are the underlying intentions and effects of each word spoken. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” couldn’t be further from the truth. Words have the power to heal or to harm, bind up or to destroy, unify or divide. Perhaps this is why Jesus gave a warning to His disciples that people will give an account for every idle word they have spoken (Matthew 12:36). 

Reformed Margins

Reformed Margins exists to celebrate the glory of God and exalt the person and work of Jesus Christ among the nations. We pray that this site provides a platform for Reformed Christian thinkers from various ethnic minority backgrounds to join in the broader Reformed and Evangelical conversations.

5 thoughts on “Why “Chinese Virus” Is a Racist Phrase

  • March 19, 2020 at 8:20 am

    Calling covid19 the Wuhan virus is a dig at the ruling communist party in China. It is consistent with previously used terminology for contagious diseases when their place of origin is known and sometimes just suspected. The Spanish flu was never considered to be racial or ethnic condemnation of people who lived in Spain. The point of calling the current pandemic as starting in China is that it is spreading in large part because the communist party of china, lead by dictator for life Xi Jinping, covered up the breakout and refused entry to health experts from other parts of the world. Trying to blame the virus on the U.S. military adds insult to injury.
    Let us hear your analysis of socialism in China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Ecuador and other places where they have a top down government with control of the military and no weapons allowed for the general population to resist.

  • April 4, 2020 at 5:23 am

    Irv Cohen, the Spanish flu is called the Spanish flu not because it originated in Spain, but because of wartime propoganda/censorship designed to prevent panic and to safe guard morale. To put it differently, the Spanish Flu is called the Spanish Flu for POLITICAL reasons. In the same way, the novel Corona Virus was called “The Chinese Virus” by President Trump also for political rather than factual reasons. He was angry at the disinformation being spread by some conspiracy theorists in China that he purposefully gave the virus that particular name. He did not think about the fallout of violence that would befall all Asian AMERICANS in the form of racial violence. Over 100 acts of violence against Asians A DAY are being recorded in California alone. As our article points out, words have power to shape reality. When Trump uttered those words “Chinese Virus”, he created a new reality of racism on top of the existing racism that was already there. Trump created this racism and sparked this violence with his words…words that he refuses to stop using. The words ARE racist because they directly incite racial violence against Asian Americans. What worries me is that there are so many people who care more about these words being called “racist” or desire to defend the president more than they want to lift a finger to do anything to put an end to this VIOLENCE…a violence that is measurable, widespread and truly egregious.

    • April 4, 2020 at 5:02 pm

      That’s a lot of words that have nothing to do with my comment focusing instead on a straw man of your choosing. Not a word about the political party in China that would not allow outsiders to see what was going on in a timely manner. There is nothing racist about it. Your blind adherence of liberation theology will not allow you to criticize the governments listed at the end of my comment.

  • April 6, 2020 at 9:15 am

    Irv Cohen, I have to call you out here. The gross number of racist acts of violence against Asian Americans alone demonstrates that our outcry of racism is not whining. The main drivers of this violence are fear of the Corona virus and the president’s labeling it the “Chinese virus”. But you seem to be so intent on protecting the president that you are unable to see the bigger and more immediate problem are the huge number of acts of racist violence themselves. Protecting the president seems to be more important to you than protecting Americans who are literally being violently attacked more and more each day. The Chinese government has committed atrocity after atrocity and is quite evil. So are most communist countries as most of them have similar records of atrocity. Why is getting me to say that more important than helping AMERICANS from racially motivated violence? I have to conclude that either you are grossly effected by the noetic effects of sin, or you are trolling. Either way, your comments are grossly insensitive and inflammatory. They need to end here.

  • April 6, 2020 at 7:05 pm

    Joe Kim – and here i thought i was calling you out even expecting that it would not end there. You sound like a member of one of those child mobs that have come to populate american universities as they cry for safe space and refuse to allow those with a different point of view to be allowed to speak. I read Timothy Isaiah Cho’s analysis of racist speech and it does have a leaned sound to it. I don’t think it applies to Donald Trump because Trump’s criticism of China is as much about policies of previous administrations, going back at least as far as Clinton and probably back to Reagan, as it is of China. In other words his is mostly an economic critique and China became the biggest beneficiary of the off-shoring of jobs by U.S. based corporations. In the search for less costly labor, companies first went to right to work states, then Mexico and then China. If China had shaken off domination by the communist party I would at least in part celebrate the increase in world trade. China itself is sending out work to Viet-Nam to save on labor costs. But the party took a different turn in a manner similar to Russia and geo-political exigencies call for a pause while we reassess the relationship between the countries. I find Donald Trump to have a personality that is disagreeable to me, in particular the bullying and bragadoccio. His spontaneity is both refreshing and possibly dangerous for the position of commander in chief. But in American politics at the national level we have coalitions of interest groups that cause many people to align with the party that will reward by policy the one issue that matters most to them. The most important thing in politics to me is appointments to the supreme court. Many christians who believe much as Daniel Lee does also see the importance of these appointments. Opposed to Trump for much the same reason are those who believe abortion should be a woman’s constitutional right to choose and those who seek more powerful government, nationally and internationally, so the threat of climate change might be solved. Taking care of the disadvantaged is a minor issue in national politics at this time. So I suppose I have said enough to feel suitably called out. If you think anything I have said is racist I am open to your reasons. If you just want to shut me down and favor monologue to dialogue, i can accept that too. Not looking for an intellectual brawl. I’m just an older, 40+ year married, heterosexual man saying his piece.


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