The Wuhan virus caused a public health panic that shook the global economy and virtually shut down the United States. Things might have worked out differently if the international community had been given better warning of what was coming, and if the global scientific community had been mobilized to counter the threat early-on. But this did not happen because the Chinese government deceived the world and tried to hide the impact of the outbreak that has since become a pandemic.
A new report from the U.S. Intelligence Community concludes that China concealed the extent and severity of the COVID-19 outbreak starting in late 2019. As well, the report indicates that China has been underreporting the number of cases ever since, hyping the effectiveness of Beijing’s response measures based on flawed data.
The devastating impact of the Wuhan virus and the speed with which it hit the global economy is prompting a review of U.S. policy towards the PRC. Can a country so irresponsible in handling a health crisis of this magnitude continue to be so integrated with the rest of the world? Or should our posture towards Beijing be one of social distance?
Since the 1980s, China has developed into one of the most important U.S. trading partners. Chinese goods were less expensive, good or good-enough quality and of seemingly limitless supply. Corporations like Apple moved their production facilities to China to take advantage of relatively cheap labor, mostly ignoring questions about sweatshop conditions in the factories.
Some pointed out that “China Inc.” was still a communist dictatorship, that freedom of speech and worship were illegal, that dissidents and ethnic groups like the Uighurs were sent to prison camps and that China’s modernizing military and space forces posed a growing strategic threat. But the working hypothesis among most foreign policy experts was that as China developed economically, it would also begin to turn towards a more open, reformist, and gentler authoritarianism, culminating one day in a political conversion with the West which, if not exactly democratic, would not be communistic either. Hence Michael Bloomberg’s infamous comment that Chairman Xi Jinping is “not a dictator” because “he has a constituency to answer to.” Even though if his constituency talks back they may just vanish.
But Bloomberg’s view is consistent with what many policymakers believed about China, even after the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square. Meanwhile Beijing was erecting the most comprehensive system of surveillance and control in human history. Dissidents continued to be suppressed. The Communist Party maintained its tight grip on power. And in recent years China has begun to extend its strategic reach to the South China Sea, Southwest Asia, Africa and outer space.
Beijing’s reach even extends into the United States. For years China has been developing networks of influence in the United States, particularly aiming at always cash-hungry American colleges and universities. Beijing’s “Thousand Talents Program,” ostensibly a framework for encouraging innovation and global technology education, has been criticized as a cover for theft of intellectual property, espionage and fraud. There has recently been a spate of arrests of U.S. researchers and Chinese nationals tied to these programs.
As well, Beijing’s Confucius Institute, which lavishes money on higher education, has been accused of being a conduit for Chinese propaganda and encouraging communist-style censorship on American campuses (as if college administrators needed any help).
On the point of biosafety, the China threat goes beyond simple negligence. The FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate warned late last year about instances where Chinese nationals were stopped by customs agents attempting to bring undeclared samples of bacteria and viruses into the country. The FBI stated that “foreign scientific researchers who transport undeclared and undocumented biological materials into the U.S. in personal carry-on and/or checked luggage almost certainly present U.S. biosecurity and biosafety risks.”
Every aspect of U.S. policy towards China should now be reviewed. Medical supplies that had been outsourced to China should be brought back to the United States. Manufacture of electronic and communications equipment should also be returned to the U.S. Travelers to and from China should be scrutinized for early warning signs of new strains of infections. And it could be time for China to be held more responsible for its human rights abuses and dismal record on the environment.
Meanwhile, China is not done squelching information about the pandemic. Dr. Ai Fen, the head of emergency services at Wuhan Central Hospital, said she faced “unprecedented, extremely harsh reprimands” from her superiors after speaking out about the severity of the medical emergency, and has since disappeared. Why should we be surprised? As the United States and other countries begin a long overdue review of their relationships with Beijing it is important to remember that the Maoist state may change its tactics, but its fundamental nature is the same as it always was. We cannot afford to be placed in this situation again. But our suffering is not Beijing’s problem. Chairman Xi’s constituency is Chinese power, and so long as it grows he will survive, no matter how many Wuhan virus victims do not.
Chris Farrell is director of investigations and research at Judicial Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog. He is a former military intelligence officer.