Americans who were duped by Chinese misinformation over the coronavirus crisis could sue the Chinese government in U.S. courts under new legislation introduced in Congress on Friday.
Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, said the bill strips sovereign immunity from China and any other country that misleads the World Health Organization, giving Americans the ability to pursue Beijing in court.
“Knowing full well that they had a deadly and highly contagious disease on their hands, as late as mid-January China’s communist leaders told the WHO that there was no need for any precautions, as everything was under control. Fact is, it wasn’t,” said Mr. Smith, who announced the bill along with Rep. Ron Wright, Texas Republican.
The legislation is similar to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which gave families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackings the ability to pursue cases against Saudi Arabia for what those families see as the Saudi government’s role in facilitating the attacks.
The novel coronavirus first spread in China, though leaders from a number of countries have questioned the information the communist government in Beijing provided about its origins, its spread and its deadliness.
President Trump has perhaps been the most vociferous of those world leaders, and he has announced that he was withholding U.S. funds from the WHO, accusing officials at that organization of accepting China’s story too readily.
The WHO has said the middle of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic is no time to spar over blame.
But Mr. Wright said China’s “manipulation” of data has cost lives around the world.
“Time and time again, we have seen actors such as Communist China use the World Health Organization (WHO) as a mouthpiece to spread lies and misinformation to the international community, and they need to be held accountable,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Smith has long been a top critic of China and a backer of human rights advocates in that country and said stripping the country of sovereign immunity in this case fits with that work.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, have similar legislation, announced earlier this week. Their bill would declare that giving misleading information about the spread of the virus is a tortious act — but it says if China agrees to settle claims with the U.S., the private lawsuits could be dismissed.
The lawmakers didn’t say what they think of the legislation’s prospects.
JASTA, the bill that allowed lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, took years to get passed, and only became law after Congress mustered the votes to override a veto by President Obama in 2016.