It now seems unlikely that the virus destroying lives and livelihoods around the world began in a wildlife-for-supper market in Wuhan. More plausible: That it began in a laboratory in that same Chinese city.
The evidence that has come to light so far suggests the pathogen was neither genetically engineered nor released as a bioweapon, but that it got loose by accident or, more bluntly, due to incompetence. Chinese officials deny that. On Friday, President Trump confirmed that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating.
At least as early as January, China’s rulers must have been aware that they were dealing with a local epidemic that could become a global pandemic. At that point, if they’d shared what they knew, and prevented those infected from traveling abroad, less damage would have been done. How much less? According to a University of Southampton study, had interventions in China been conducted just three weeks earlier, transmission of COVID-19 could have been cut by 95 percent.
Instead, China’s rulers lied. On Jan. 14, they claimed the disease was not being readily transmitted human to human. On Jan. 19, they declared the virus “controllable” and its spread “preventable.” They silenced those who knew better, including Chinese doctors, Chinese journalists and even Wuhan’s mayor. Some were arrested and charged with “fabricating, disseminating and spreading rumors.” Some have disappeared.
The World Health Organization, a U.N. body funded largely by American taxpayers (our annual investment is 10 times that of Beijing) echoed such statements and praised the Chinese government’s response, including the “very rare leadership” of President Xi Jinping. The WHO resisted recommending restrictions on trade with or travel to China. Not until March 11 did it declare the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
Perhaps you’ll say that China’s rulers were deceptive because they were embarrassed, concerned for their country’s image. That’s understandable — which is not a synonym for forgivable. But there’s a more disturbing possibility.
President Xi knew the disease would seriously weaken China’s economy. He knew that if he helped other countries, those countries might suffer little or no damage.
Ben Lowsen, a longtime China expert at the Pentagon, wrote in The Diplomat that Mr. Xi may have asked himself this question: “Why should China suffer the effects of a pandemic while others stayed safe — and increase their strength relative to China — based on China’s own costly experience?”
We cannot assume, Mr. Lowsen added, that Mr. Xi would decide against withholding “support from the international community to ensure that China would not suffer alone.”
That would be immoral and, one might argue, criminally negligent. But don’t expect the International Criminal Court to take up the case. The ICC is too busy accusing the United States and Israel of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Nor is it likely that the U.N. Human Rights Council will say or do anything. The UNHCR has long been dominated by egregious abusers of human rights. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that Beijing this month secured one of five seats on the panel that makes appointments to the UNHRC.
Over many years, a growing list of transnational organizations have been taking Americans’ money and spitting in Americans’ eyes, under the direction of regimes hostile to America.
China’s rulers continue to lie. Last week, MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) reported that China’s Arabic language television network is still telling its 14 million viewers that U.S Army personnel visiting China last October probably brought the virus with them.
It is passing strange how many people, conservatives and liberals alike — including Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — have managed to convince themselves that the Communist dictatorship is evolving into America’s partner.
Vice President Joe Biden not long ago said: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man.” Also: “What a beautiful history we wrote together.”
President Trump has sung Mr. Xi’s praises. To be fair, buttering up dictators is part of Mr. Trump’s negotiating strategy. To be fairer, I don’t think that strategy has worked.
The Trump administration is, however, the first to identify China as an adversary. It did so in the National Defense Strategy written and released in 2017 when H.R. McMaster was serving as national security adviser.
Beijing is building its military strength, violating maritime laws, incarcerating Muslim Uighurs, colonizing Tibet, suppressing freedom in Hong Kong, stealing intellectual property by the ton, waging information warfare and lawfare, as well as hijacking international organizations.
Perhaps the current global health and economic crisis will prompt wider recognition of this one-party state’s oppressive policies at home and hegemonic ambitions abroad, the threat it poses to the security of America and what we used to call the Free World.
I was encouraged on Friday to see the editor of Bild, Germany’s largest and most important newspaper, publish an open letter to President Xi saying: “You are endangering the world. … You plan to strengthen China through a plague that you exported. You will not succeed.”
There’s one more point I want to make today. Taiwanese officials have coped with the virus extraordinarily well. As early as Dec. 31, they began screening arrivals from Wuhan. They also warned the WHO about person-to-person transmissions. The WHO ignored them.
That’s because China’s rulers insist Taiwan be treated as a rogue province rather than an independent nation-state — which, for all intents and purposes, it has been for more than 70 years. Over that span of time, Taiwan has become free and democratic. The Taiwanese have never been ruled by Communists, and few would choose to be. That should matter to the peoples of what we used to call the Free World.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.