While coronavirus ravages the world, a political battle is also being waged with China resisting suggestions that it’s to blame. I have just spoken about this with Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, in a conference call with journalists from eight other European countries. I tried to gauge the mood in the White House towards China. Donald Trump has referred to the virus as the ‘China Virus’, a label vigorously resisted by Beijing. Some Chinese officials had even suggested that it might have American origins. Things seemed to have cooled after Trump’s recent call with Xi, but I asked Pompeo how worried he is about disinformation coming from China.
The answer, it seemed, is very concerned indeed. A Chinese official, Pompeo told me, had claimed a few weeks ago ‘that the US army had taken this to China’ and Trump had rebutted this. The record, he said, needed to be corrected. ‘This is a pandemic that began in Wuhan, China. And we need to make sure that we understand that so that we can handle the crisis that’s in front of us now — as well as make sure that we prevent something like this from ever happening to the world again. Every country has the responsibility to share information.’
He does not think China is doing enough sharing and said that American medics had been refused entry to China. ‘We’ve tried for an awfully long time to get our team into Beijing. We weren’t successful at doing that.’ He also suggested that Chinese offers of cooperation are now not being followed up. ‘Every country has to cooperate,’ he said. ‘It’s not about talking about cooperation. It’s about real actions that deliver.’
Overall, he said, there is grave danger in not being frank about the situation. ‘Even today, we need transparency about the virus: where it is, how many cases there are, what the nature of those diseases are, how they’re progressing, how we treat them, what the therapeutics are, the potential exposure moving forward. All of these things require enormous transparency. And any country that engages in disinformation is putting people’s lives at risk: not only the lives of their own citizens but the lives of citizens all across the world.’