Facing harsh criticism for allowing the novel coronavirus to spread, Beijing has settled on an international communications strategy: smearing the United States by claiming the virus originated with American soldiers visiting China.
This strategy, based on obvious lies, will not work out well.
Nobody outside China’s state broadcasters and some information-starved viewers could possibly believe it. For good reason: it’s bunk, and vile bunk at that. An infected unicorn is more likely to have started the virus in Wuhan than the US military. Yet that is the story the Chinese Communist party (CCP) is trying to peddle.
‘The US pushed out the vaccine so quickly,’ said one ‘expert’ on Central China TV, ‘that only means they have been working on it way before the pandemic.’ The host played right along, ‘So we can conclude that the US had this virus in their possession long ago.’
Actually, there is no vaccine yet, though US, Canadian, European, Japanese and Israeli labs are working aggressively to invent one and to produce effective treatments. Nor would all the advanced economies have been forced to shut down if the United States had understood the virus well in advance. We didn’t. Chinese scientists in Wuhan were the first to get samples and when they decoded its genetic structure in early January, their laboratory was shut down. Beijing tried to destroy all their information, but some had fortunately been shared with US scientists before the intellectual iron curtain fell.
Some elements of the CCP’s smear strategy have worked a little better. Beijing has convinced the credulous and woke Western media that even mentioning the Chinese origins of the pandemic is ‘racist’. One reporter for a major US television network said so this week in a comment disguised as a question for President Trump. He immediately slapped it down, referring repeatedly to the disease as the Chinese coronavirus. When asked why, he simply said, ‘because it comes from China’.
Trump is a counter-puncher and had never used that term until the CCP began its campaign of blaming the US for the outbreak. Washington asked them to stop, and they refused, so Trump changed his language. His aim is obviously political: he’s hitting back at China. But he’s right in noting that many diseases are named for their place of origin. The horrific 1919 outbreak is still called the ‘Spanish flu’. MERS refers to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. So Trump has some cover in calling it the ‘Chinese coronavirus’. The mainstream media actually called it the ‘Wuhan virus’ in the early days, probably before being admonished by some 19-year-old intern for employing terms of colonial oppression.
The CCP is happy for help like this, but the real target of its propaganda is the Chinese domestic audience. They want to shift the blame away from the regime’s incompetence, secrecy and oppressive control, and onto a foreign enemy. In doing that, however, the party will increase the price they pay abroad.
China was already facing a major global backlash for covering up the viral outbreak, which began in late November. By December, senior party officials in Beijing undoubtedly knew the gravity. They chose to keep it secret and allowed tens of thousands of people to fly out of China each week to Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia. You can see where most of those flights landed by looking at where the outbreak struck first.
All the people locked in their homes in California, all the people lying in intensive care units in Milan, Marseille and Seattle desperately ill, all the people being carried from those ICUs to cemeteries around the world: they are there because of policy choices by the Chinese Communist party. Every waiter and sales clerk who lost her job can look, in sorrow and anger, to those party apparatchiks in Beijing. The CCP may not have been able to stop the initial outbreak in Wuhan, but they could have prevented its spread to other countries. Instead, to protect their own hold on domestic power, they suppressed vital information and unleashed a deadly pandemic on the world.
The consequences will be far-reaching. Some will be the resulting Western policy responses. After China turned around shipments of masks and medical supplies headed for the US (presumably because China needed them at home), Americans began to understand how many of its medicines were now manufactured in China. That is likely to change, and change quickly. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is proposing legislation to return medical manufacturing to the United States. Expect similar legislation for other vital industries, now that China is increasingly seen as an unalloyed foe.
This shifting attitude toward China will undoubtedly strengthen Washington’s effort to prevent its Nato allies from buying Huawei equipment for their 5G telecom networks. The Trump administration has always seen Huawei and other large Chinese companies as arms of the regime, or at least close collaborators. The administration considers it folly to give them access to all Western telecommunications, but has had a hard time convincing even strong allies like the United Kingdom. It should be now considerably easier to persuade them. Washington’s own position will undoubtedly be even tougher.
Corporations will also act to rely less on China and more on other countries for their international supply chains. That movement was already underway because of rising costs in China. It will accelerate because China’s deteriorating relations with the West adds political risk to the equation. Companies will still want access to the Chinese domestic market, and Beijing will force them to produce there to gain it. But international firms understand that the global political environment has changed, and they will change with it. The big question is how open the world economy will remain for Chinese exports, the heart of Beijing’s industrial strategy since Deng Xiaoping transformed the economy in the late 1970s.
For now, the US is preoccupied with an unprecedented crisis. When it ebbs, expect a major bipartisan commission, like the one after 9/11, to assess the causes of this catastrophe and the response from national, state, and local governments, health care providers, and the private sector. Inevitably, it will closely examine China’s role in this global disaster. The results will not be pretty for the Chinese communist regime and its relations with the United States.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration will vigorously defend itself against the CCP’s smear campaign. Trump sees it, rightly, as a direct attack on his administration and America. It will reinforce his ‘America First’ slogan and his protectionist ideas.
The recent shift in Chinese propaganda, with its openly anti-American tone, is effectively a wager that Trump will lose the 2020 election. They didn’t think that was possible until the Wuhan virus upended America’s economic and political landscape. It’s a risky bet. But, then, the Chinese Communist party is now living in a very risky world, thanks to its own decisions.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.