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When Deafness Is Not Considered a Deficit

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Music rattled the windows of the one-room schoolhouse that was now serving as a dance floor for nearly the entire village, a population of about 100 people. Masato, a masticated yuca drink, was passed around the room. I tried to refuse it as it came to me — I had already shared an entire pot and was feeling woozy from both the alcohol and my full stomach. But this was a celebration and another bowl was pressed into my hands.

The party was the last night of my first field trip to the Amazon in 2012. I had spent nine weeks in Nueva Vida, one of four Maijuna villages, near a tributary off the Napo River in Loreto, Peru. This first trip was to study Maijiki, the spoken language of the Maijuna, an Indigenous Western Tucanoan people of the Peruvian Amazon. As I sipped the yuca drink and watched the party, one pair in particular caught my interest. The interaction was between two men, one who lived in the village and one who did not. What made this conversation worth noting was that one of these men, Raul,* a 27-year-old, was deaf, and the entire conversation was being conducted in signs and gestures. (I do not use the conventional d/Deaf to distinguish between the medical condition of hearing loss and the cultural Deaf identity because the Maijuna do not have the same notion of “Deaf culture.”)

Fascinated by the questions that arose from that interaction, I would return to the Maijuna communities three more times in the following years to study the gestural communication system I first observed at the party. I had many questions to seek answers to: How did the hearing man know these signs when he didn’t live in the same village? Were they just gesturing to each other, making it up as they went along, or was this an established sign language used by the Maijuna? Did all Maijuna know the sign language? This investigation of the sign system used by the Maijuna formed the basis of my doctoral research in linguistics.

Nueva Vida map - Grace Neveu

Nueva Vida, the author’s field site in the Peruvian Amazon. (Credit: Grace Neveu)

At first, it was difficult to find out whether there were other deaf people in the community. I asked about  personas sordas (deaf people), which turned out to be the wrong route. Everyone insisted that Raul was the only deaf person they knew. Six weeks into my second trip, one of my research participants showed me an old photo album. He pointed out Simón*, a 60-year-old man who lived in another Maijuna village, and informed me that he was like Raul and that he signed.

After I inquired specifically about Simón, everyone agreed that he signed. There was, however, some discussion about whether or not he was even deaf. I learned valuable information that day about how deafness is viewed by the Maijuna: The salient characteristic is that you can’t speak, not that you can’t hear. I would have found more success had I asked about people who spoke with their hands because the “deficit” that needed to be addressed was a communicative one rather than a physical one.

This was a different perspective than what I was used to in the United States. The clinicalization of deafness in North America and elsewhere results in the mindset that deafness is a defect that must be fixed. The choice to pursue sign language or speech — for it is almost always “or” and rarely “and” — is a contentious one for parents of deaf children.

For the Maijuna, there was no option to “fix” the deafness of Simón and Raul. Signing was the obvious solution to the communication barrier between the deaf and the hearing. When I asked Raul’s parents why they began signing with him, I was met with a moment of silence, which seemed to be from confusion, before they said they did so when they realized he was not learning to speak.

Maijuna Community Members Signing - Grace Neveu

Raul (left), a deaf member of the Maijuna community, signs “eat” to his mother (center) and the author (right). (Credit: Grace Neveu)

In the Maijuna community, those who can sign — primarily Maijuna men, due to the separation of labor by gender, and family members of Simón and Raul — never use their voices when signing, even when there are other hearing people nearby. There is no expectation that Simón and Raul will lip-read and as far as I was able to discern, they had no lip-reading abilities at all. Neither of them produced any mouthed Spanish — the dominant spoken language of the community — of even the simplest words. Both participated in all aspects of community life, from work parties to hunting and trading. One of Raul’s closest friends soon made it clear to me that he would rather not act as an interpreter. He wanted me to participate in interactions with Raul and encouraged me to sign myself rather than rely on his interpreting.

There was no deaf school for Raul and no access to hearing aids, cochlear implants, or speech therapy. His parents were unaware that national sign languages, such as American Sign Language, even existed, and they didn’t have the means to provide him with a deaf education. This is the reality for many deaf people around the world. Without outside ideologies impacting their choices, the Maijuna adapted as a community rather than enforcing conformity on the individual or reacting with ostracization. To the Maijuna, signing with their deaf community members was natural, not radical.

Under most circumstances, children acquire their native language with little overt effort. Direct instruction is not necessary for a child to learn complex grammatical rules and extensive vocabulary. Whether signed or spoken, if there is a language used in their environment, children will learn it. Children who acquire a sign language as their native language achieve the same developmental milestones as those learning a spoken language.

Typically, language is passed from one generation to the next, but this generation-to-generation transmission can be broken if the child is removed from the environment in which the language is spoken. This is a tactic of cultural genocide, as practiced in Indigenous boarding schools in the United States and elsewhere in the 19th and 20th centuries. For a child not to learn any language at all, there must be no language use by others in their vicinity, or they must somehow not have access to that language.

Maijuna Guest house - Grace Neveu

The author has visited and studied sign language in the Maijuna community several times since 2012, staying in this guest house for researchers. (Credit: Grace Neveu)

Throughout history, scholars have contemplated the theoretical implications of a situation where a child cannot acquire any language at all. In 460 B.C., Herodotus, the Greek historian, reported that two children, whom he believed were raised in isolation and without language, began speaking Phrygian. From this, he concluded that Phrygian must be the first human language. In modern linguistics, the idea of innate properties of language that are hardwired in the human brain has had a major impact on the field. That hardwiring is not, of course, Phrygian. It is argued, however, that children have innate, language-specific abilities.

Notable historical examples of “languageless” children are Victor (“The Wild Boy of Aveyron”) and Genie*, two “wild children” who grew up deprived of both typical socialization and language. Victor was found in Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, France in 1800, having emerged from a nearby forest. Assumed to be about 12 years old, it was presumed that he had been living in the forest for most of his life. In this environment, he had no chance to acquire a language and had no language abilities when he was found. Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, the head physician at the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, attempted to teach him French, working with him for five years. However, after this period, he was reported to have only learned a few words and phrases.

As a child, Genie was severely neglected by her parents. Discovered by authorities at the age of 13 in her Los Angeles home in 1970, she was so deprived of socialization and language that she could not speak. Even after extensive therapy and linguistic rehabilitation, she was unable to fully acquire language. Although she was more successful than Victor with vocabulary and learned to produce some correct word orders, she never achieved complex linguistic structure.

These cases, however, are confounded by the extreme social isolation, and in the case of Genie, severe abuse, experienced by the children. It is impossible to tease apart the cognitive delays caused by a lack of interaction and cognitive stimulation from that of linguistic deprivation. If researchers were to construct an experiment to isolate only the linguistic factor, we would raise a child in a caring environment where they were never spoken to and where they never overheard language in use. This theoretical experiment is aptly titled “The Forbidden Experiment.”

We obviously cannot perform such an experiment, and Genie and Victor experienced such intense isolation as to confound the effects of language deprivation. Yet there are people who are deprived of natural language (because they cannot hear) but not socialization: individuals like Simón and Raul. Perfectly intelligent but unable to acquire the spoken language used around them, these individuals grow up “languageless.” But because they receive full socialization, they develop what is called a “homesign system.” These gestural communication systems often display language-like structures such as a stable vocabulary and consistent word order.

Because these systems develop without input from a language — the children cannot hear the spoken language and there is no extant sign language for them to learn — some linguists posit that any linguistic structures that develop in the system are evidence for innate properties of language; if they do not come from an acquired language, they must then be coming from the brain of the child. By studying these systems, linguists gain an important perspective on the processes of language formation and the resilience of human communication.

In the cases of Simón and Raul, a complex system of signs emerged in their community, one that was learned by family members and friends specifically for the benefit of these two people. It spans at least two different villages and three generations. The sign system has a highly stable vocabulary with about 80 percent overlap between Raul and Simón. This result is surprising because it means that, although Simón and Raul have never lived in the same village and rarely meet one another, the sign system is pervasive and stable enough that there is a significant commonality between their signing.

Even though Raul’s village has no other deaf people, the stability in the sign system can likely be attributed to the hearing people’s willingness to engage in signing. The hearing people who had known Simón and learned his sign system then later used that same sign system with Raul, creating a link between the two deaf men. This allowed for the system to persist across multiple generations.

Two Maijuna Community Members Signing - Grace Neveu

Simón (right), another deaf member of the Maijuna community, signs with his sister. (Credit: Grace Neveu)

The implications of the studies on homesigners are difficult to untangle. But they point to the human ability to create a complex communication system without a consistent language model. However, as Victor and Genie’s stories demonstrate, socialization is crucial. Alone and without healthy socialization, Genie and Victor were unable to learn how to speak. Raul and Simón, however, grew up with substantial socialization in a community that embraced their communicative needs, which resulted in an entire community of people learning a gestural communication system to the benefit of two deaf individuals.

This is not to say that being a homesigner is ideal. Homesign systems do not possess the features of a full language and communication breakdowns frequently occur. The embracing attitude of the community, however, does seem to have supported Raul’s and Simón’s innovation of an unexpectedly complex system. In many countries, the prioritization of speaking over signing forces the responsibility onto the individual to adapt and overcome rather than accommodating their needs and embracing their differences. Perhaps the Maijuna homesign system can teach the rest of us about much more than language.

 * Pseudonyms have been used to protect people’s privacy.


Grace Neveu is a linguist who studies sign languages. This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a creative commons licenses. Read the original here.

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Women in the newsroom: Why South Africa leads the way

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Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major broadcaster in South Africa. It’s a role she would have been unlikely to fill 30 years ago, under the apartheid regime, whose hierarchy put Black women on a bottom tier.

But no matter where you look in the world, women’s leadership in the news media has lagged – and still does. South Africa, in fact, is a relative success story. Today, women lead nearly half of the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That puts it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

Yet South African women’s gains have been especially hard-won, and incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. 

Ms. Mahlase says she has reflected on representation through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

Johannesburg

Nwabisa Makunga can point to the exact moment she knew she would become a journalist.

It was April 1993 and she was 11 years old, watching the TV broadcast of the funeral of assassinated anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani with her family in their living room. The presenter was a Black reporter named Noxolo Grootboom, and her powerful tribute to Mr. Hani brought Ms. Makunga’s parents to tears.

“She was a woman who looked like me, who spoke like me, telling the story of a man who had been so important to people from my community,” she recalls. “I said to myself – this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be like Noxolo, and I’m going to tell stories.”

Three decades later, Ms. Makunga is the editor-in-chief of the Sowetan, one of South Africa’s most-circulated daily newspapers. She is part of a generation of women who have risen through the ranks to take leadership of many of the country’s most important news outlets. Today, these women – most of them Black, Asian, and multiracial – lead nearly half the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That makes the country a global leader for women’s leadership in the media, putting it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

And the achievement is doubly remarkable in South Africa, where only a generation ago the entire country was run largely by white men. Editors like Ms. Makunga grew up not only with few role models who looked like them, but also in a world where the media was used as a weapon of the apartheid regime, premised on white supremacy – enforcing a hierarchy in which they were the bottom tier.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images/File

A vendor sells a Daily Sun edition honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18, 2013. The country’s transition to democracy opened up opportunities for many of today’s journalists.

Hard-won gains

Even after apartheid formally ended, these editors came up in newsrooms where its effects lingered. They were told their accents were “too African,” or their looks “too tempting.” Even as the newsrooms around them began to change from mostly white to mostly not, they still found themselves edged out of the pub trips and golf games where their male colleagues networked their way to the top.

“Make no mistake: Those statistics changing are the result of a fight,” says Mahlatse Mahlase, group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major breaking-news broadcaster. Women in South Africa’s newsrooms “have fought racism and they’ve also fought the patriarchy. The discrimination came from every side.”

Although they’ve now arrived, many of these same leaders note that South Africa’s media transformation remains incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. Just 19% of the board members at media companies here are female, according to a 2018 academic study of women in the media called “Glass Ceilings.” The vast majority of the country’s major media houses have a male CEO.

And while the proportion of Black, Asian, and multiracial women in the top echelons of South African media companies has grown from 6% in 2006 to 30% in 2018, that number still lags, in a country where they represent 46% of the population, according to the Glass Ceilings survey. Once they get there, meanwhile, they’re often placed under intense scrutiny and pressure.

“When men get to the top of their profession, they’re celebrated. When women get there, particularly Black women, there’s backlash, there’s trolling, there’s bullying,” says Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the co-author of the Glass Ceilings study. She uses the term “Black” as it is frequently applied in South Africa, to describe anyone who is not white. “Women at the top find they’re often exhausted just proving over and over that they deserve to be in the room.”

“Newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history.” – Mapula Nkosi, editor of the Daily Sun

Coming up the ladder

In 1994, the same year Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first Black president, an ambitious young reporter named Mapula Nkosi walked into the Johannesburg newsroom of the Weekly Mail, which made its name opposing apartheid, to begin her career as a cadet reporter.

When she looked up the ranks, she says, she saw only men. But all around her, the country had a new buzzword: transformation. The process was often fuzzy, but the objective was clear: The structures that ruled the country should look more like the people who lived in it.

“Those newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history,” says Ms. Nkosi, now the editor of the Daily Sun, the country’s most-circulated daily newspaper. “The whole time I was coming up I had people on one side of me saying, ‘We don’t understand why you’re in this position,’ and people on the other side saying, ‘We are so excited to see where you go.’”

Those competing forces followed many of South Africa’s women journalists through their rise. Each time they pulled themselves up another rung on the ladder, they heard whispers – that they only got this job because leadership wanted a woman, that they’d never make it.

But when they did, the conversation changed.

“When you do well, you become almost genderless,” says Paula Fray, a media consultant and the first woman to edit the Saturday Star, a major South African newspaper. “But if you don’t do well, then your failings represent your whole gender.”

Meanwhile, women leaders in the newsroom “carry the added responsibility of making these environments more welcoming for women,” says Mary Papayya, a veteran journalist and editor who now sits on the board of the South African Broadcasting Corp. That, she notes, is a particularly difficult task at a time when many outlets have seen their budgets slashed and are now contending with a pandemic that has made news reporting both more dangerous and less lucrative.

And the fight for change goes beyond who sits in the corner office. In South Africa, like many countries, men are disproportionately both the experts and subjects of news stories. A recent analysis of the South African media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the organization Media Monitoring Africa, for instance, found that 80% of those quoted in stories about the virus were men.

Ms. Mahlase, the radio news editor, says she sees these kinds of statistics through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

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Environment

Women in the newsroom: Why South Africa leads the way

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on

Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major broadcaster in South Africa. It’s a role she would have been unlikely to fill 30 years ago, under the apartheid regime, whose hierarchy put Black women on a bottom tier.

But no matter where you look in the world, women’s leadership in the news media has lagged – and still does. South Africa, in fact, is a relative success story. Today, women lead nearly half of the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That puts it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

Yet South African women’s gains have been especially hard-won, and incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. 

Ms. Mahlase says she has reflected on representation through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

Johannesburg

Nwabisa Makunga can point to the exact moment she knew she would become a journalist.

It was April 1993 and she was 11 years old, watching the TV broadcast of the funeral of assassinated anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani with her family in their living room. The presenter was a Black reporter named Noxolo Grootboom, and her powerful tribute to Mr. Hani brought Ms. Makunga’s parents to tears.

“She was a woman who looked like me, who spoke like me, telling the story of a man who had been so important to people from my community,” she recalls. “I said to myself – this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be like Noxolo, and I’m going to tell stories.”

Three decades later, Ms. Makunga is the editor-in-chief of the Sowetan, one of South Africa’s most-circulated daily newspapers. She is part of a generation of women who have risen through the ranks to take leadership of many of the country’s most important news outlets. Today, these women – most of them Black, Asian, and multiracial – lead nearly half the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That makes the country a global leader for women’s leadership in the media, putting it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

And the achievement is doubly remarkable in South Africa, where only a generation ago the entire country was run largely by white men. Editors like Ms. Makunga grew up not only with few role models who looked like them, but also in a world where the media was used as a weapon of the apartheid regime, premised on white supremacy – enforcing a hierarchy in which they were the bottom tier.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images/File

A vendor sells a Daily Sun edition honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18, 2013. The country’s transition to democracy opened up opportunities for many of today’s journalists.

Hard-won gains

Even after apartheid formally ended, these editors came up in newsrooms where its effects lingered. They were told their accents were “too African,” or their looks “too tempting.” Even as the newsrooms around them began to change from mostly white to mostly not, they still found themselves edged out of the pub trips and golf games where their male colleagues networked their way to the top.

“Make no mistake: Those statistics changing are the result of a fight,” says Mahlatse Mahlase, group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major breaking-news broadcaster. Women in South Africa’s newsrooms “have fought racism and they’ve also fought the patriarchy. The discrimination came from every side.”

Although they’ve now arrived, many of these same leaders note that South Africa’s media transformation remains incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. Just 19% of the board members at media companies here are female, according to a 2018 academic study of women in the media called “Glass Ceilings.” The vast majority of the country’s major media houses have a male CEO.

And while the proportion of Black, Asian, and multiracial women in the top echelons of South African media companies has grown from 6% in 2006 to 30% in 2018, that number still lags, in a country where they represent 46% of the population, according to the Glass Ceilings survey. Once they get there, meanwhile, they’re often placed under intense scrutiny and pressure.

“When men get to the top of their profession, they’re celebrated. When women get there, particularly Black women, there’s backlash, there’s trolling, there’s bullying,” says Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the co-author of the Glass Ceilings study. She uses the term “Black” as it is frequently applied in South Africa, to describe anyone who is not white. “Women at the top find they’re often exhausted just proving over and over that they deserve to be in the room.”

“Newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history.” – Mapula Nkosi, editor of the Daily Sun

Coming up the ladder

In 1994, the same year Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first Black president, an ambitious young reporter named Mapula Nkosi walked into the Johannesburg newsroom of the Weekly Mail, which made its name opposing apartheid, to begin her career as a cadet reporter.

When she looked up the ranks, she says, she saw only men. But all around her, the country had a new buzzword: transformation. The process was often fuzzy, but the objective was clear: The structures that ruled the country should look more like the people who lived in it.

“Those newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history,” says Ms. Nkosi, now the editor of the Daily Sun, the country’s most-circulated daily newspaper. “The whole time I was coming up I had people on one side of me saying, ‘We don’t understand why you’re in this position,’ and people on the other side saying, ‘We are so excited to see where you go.’”

Those competing forces followed many of South Africa’s women journalists through their rise. Each time they pulled themselves up another rung on the ladder, they heard whispers – that they only got this job because leadership wanted a woman, that they’d never make it.

But when they did, the conversation changed.

“When you do well, you become almost genderless,” says Paula Fray, a media consultant and the first woman to edit the Saturday Star, a major South African newspaper. “But if you don’t do well, then your failings represent your whole gender.”

Meanwhile, women leaders in the newsroom “carry the added responsibility of making these environments more welcoming for women,” says Mary Papayya, a veteran journalist and editor who now sits on the board of the South African Broadcasting Corp. That, she notes, is a particularly difficult task at a time when many outlets have seen their budgets slashed and are now contending with a pandemic that has made news reporting both more dangerous and less lucrative.

And the fight for change goes beyond who sits in the corner office. In South Africa, like many countries, men are disproportionately both the experts and subjects of news stories. A recent analysis of the South African media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the organization Media Monitoring Africa, for instance, found that 80% of those quoted in stories about the virus were men.

Ms. Mahlase, the radio news editor, says she sees these kinds of statistics through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

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Trump Administration Penalizes Chinese Officials for Hong Kong Crackdown

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday imposed sanctions on 11 senior Chinese Communist Party officials and their Hong Kong allies, including chief executive Carrie Lam, over their role in cracking down on political dissent in the southern Chinese territory.

These are the first sanctions against officials from China and Hong Kong over suppression of pro-democracy protests and dissent in the territory. They are being imposed as actions following an executive order President Trump signed last month seeking to punish China for its repression in Hong Kong.

“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said in a statement.

The action is another in a series of measures the Trump administration has taken in recent months to ratchet up pressure on Beijing. Last month, the administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese government, including a senior member of the Communist Party, over human rights abuses against the largely Muslim Uighur minority.

Beijing announced in June that it was imposing a new national security law in Hong Kong to grant security agencies expansive powers to crack down on dissent.

Since then, American officials have debated how to get Beijing to roll back the law or how to penalize the action.

Last month, Mr. Trump signed an executive order ending the special status that the United States grants Hong Kong in diplomatic and trade relations, saying Hong Kong was no longer an autonomous entity, and officials are now beginning to treat the territory like mainland China.

Some administration officials had wanted Mr. Trump to announce during the signing that his government was imposing sanctions on Ms. Lam and other officials in China and Hong Kong. The president declined to do so then.

The current flurry of actions against China dovetails with a core part of Mr. Trump’s campaign strategy. His campaign aides are trying to show Mr. Trump is hitting China hard in order to shift the national conversation from his failures on managing the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.

The initial virus outbreak began in central China, and Mr. Trump has blamed Chinese officials for failing to contain it, though he also praised China’s leader, Xi Jinping, for efforts this winter.

Some of the administration’s China hawks are trying to set the two nations on a course for long-term confrontation and ensure that relations remain in a state of open rivalry even if Democratic candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the November election.

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