Artillery Row

The Coronavirus Cover-Up

How the West’s fear of appearing racist obscures the blunders at the beginning of this outbreak

The calamity unfolding all around us did not emerge from a void. It originated in China. And its eruption into a global pandemic is inseparable from the nature of the regime that has ruled China since 1949. Had the authorities in that country intervened early to contain the fresh strain of the Chinese coronavirus, there would likely have been 95 per cent fewer casualties. Instead, China’s one-party state created the conditions for the spread of the virus. For weeks, it suppressed information and punished those who shared it.

In December, Li Wenliang, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, the site of the outbreak, told his friends on a private online chat group that patients exhibiting symptoms akin to SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—were in quarantine at the emergency department at the city’s central hospital where Li worked. When SARS first flared up in China in 2003, Beijing covered up the scale of the horror for four months. The upshot of that concealment was 774 fatalities at home and abroad. Li warned his friends—all of them doctors—to be careful this time. China’s internet police intercepted the exchange. And three days later, Li was berated by his bosses, accused by the police of “making false comments” and coerced into signing a statement expressing contrition for disturbing “social order”.

Information that might have averted a global catastrophe was studiously suppressed

After forcing Li to return to work, where the young doctor immediately contracted the virus, the local apparatchiks of the Communist Party of China ordered labs to stop testing and destroy the existing samples and proceeded with a potluck banquet for 40,000 families in a precinct of Wuhan. As patients proliferated, Taiwan notified the World Health Organisation before the end of December that the virus spread from human-to-human. But rather than ring the alarm bells, as late as 14 January, the WHO was parroting Beijing’s line that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”. The genome of the virus, mapped as early as 2 January, was withheld from the world for a week. Information that might have averted a global catastrophe was studiously suppressed. And by the time President Xi Jinping properly acknowledged the crisis, on 20 January, three people had died. That number rose to above 200 by the end of the month. Li died in early February.

Once the virus made its inevitable outward march, claiming lives beyond China’s borders, the CPC mounted a major public relations exercise that exploited common human decencies to evade accountability. Criticism of the Chinese government was equated with racist prejudice against ordinary Chinese people. The result: rather than confront China, precious energies were exerted to avoid the trap set by China. In February, the Mayor of Florence launched a campaign encouraging Italians to “hug a Chinese”, describing it as a “fight of solidarity and unity against virus”. The People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the CPC, applauded young Italians advertising their virtuousness on the Internet with photos of themselves hugging Chinese tourists without mentioning a word about the mortal perils of human contact.

China didn’t owe an apology or an explanation to the world: the world owed China proof of its anti-racism. There was no time, of course, to ponder the irony of the most xenophobic despotism in the world, which has interned a million ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, cleansed Tibetan Buddhists from their homeland, and deluged restive regions with Han settlers, setting itself up as the certifying authority on what constituted anti-racist behaviour. There was no time to remember that, just three years ago, the state museum in Wuhan had put on an exhibition likening Africans to wild animals.

China didn’t owe an apology or an explanation to the world: the world owed China proof of its anti-racism

The offensive grew uglier as the morgues started filling up abroad. The fear of being called to account for the deaths made China even more brazen. In mid-March, Zhao Lijan, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, floated the theory that the US army had “brought the epidemic to Wuhan”. “Be transparent!” Zhao thundered on Twitter. To answer Zhao by telling him that the virus was Chinese in origin was to be accused of racism. The novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, was branded an “extremely irresponsible” bigot by the Chinese government for writing in a newspaper column that “none of this would be happening in the world if China were a free and democratic country”. Llosa was told by a Chinese official to “discard his prejudice and look at the issue in an all-round, correct manner”.

There is, alas, no shortage of people looking at this in the manner prescribed by the CPC. The infantile culture wars that have crippled the West—where preening troupes of virtue brandishers who cannot distinguish between the Chinese people and their tormenters parade themselves as enlightened tribunes of the oppressed—have also created a receptive audience for Beijing’s insidious spin. Xinhua, the Communist Party’s news agency that has a history of publishing hideously racist content, now feels comfortable trolling Washington in the language of a woke millennial—“Racism is not the right tool to cover your own incompetence”—because it knows that, rather than being laughed at, its laughable message will be amplified earnestly in the West. We are living through the phenomenon described by Susan Sontag as growing “stupid together”.

The very Western idea that the world should defer to Beijing’s sensibilities and delink this pandemic from its source and its causes is not anti-racist. If anything, subordinating discomfiting facts to the noble feelings of woke Westerners is itself a form of ethnocentricism because it effaces the experience of those who aren’t Western. To describe this malady as “Wuhan virus”, which the Chinese themselves do, is not to insult or to implicate ordinary Chinese people. It is to refuse to kneel before a regime that seeks to harry us into exculpating it.

We are living through the phenomenon described by Susan Sontag as growing “stupid together”.

China’s power to browbeat the world flows from the world’s dependency on China. The workhouses there don’t just manufacture the cheap goods that inundate the world’s markets. China has also been allowed to dominate almost every vital global supply chain and practically monopolise the supply of active pharmaceutical ingredients. Ninety-seven percent of all antibiotics consumed by Americans, for instance, are manufactured in China. In early March, Xinhua, speaking for the Chinese government, painted a lurid portrait of the apocalypse that would befall America if Beijing decided to impose a “strategic control over medical products and ban exports”. China, it warned, possessed the power to plunge America at the time of its choosing into an “ocean of the new corona viruses”. On Tuesday, Beijing decided to expel American journalists working for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The West is fractured. Italy now expresses gratitude to China for selling equipment its neighbours do not have. Serbia’s president pays tribute to “my brother and friend Xi Jinping”. Others will follow.

This disaster is a great clarifier. From London to Washington, it has exposed the malign incompetence of major Western governments. It has also shattered every supposition on which the ascent of China was premised. The liberal assumption that the West was more likely to influence China by making concessions to its rulers has proved to be a fantasy. The West, it was claimed, was more likely to influence China by partnering with it—by creating a prominent position for it inside, rather than keeping it outside, global institutions. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the US locked itself into a self-wounding trade relationship with China. Advanced economies, underwriting Beijing’s rise by incinerating the jobs that supported their own working classes, scattered the seeds of explosive discontent at home to export material prosperity to a regime that converted it into crude power to wield against its own benefactors.

In the decades thereafter, far from shaping the Chinese state’s behaviour, it is the West that incrementally relinquished its own avowed values to appease Beijing. The CPC under President Xi is more repressive today than it was just a decade ago. It is Western authors who self-edit for the tawdry privilege of being published in China. It is Hollywood that modifies its films to placate the Chinese censors. Governments that never tire of puffing their chests at the Middle East’s tin pot tyrannies in the name of human rights now spurn the Dalai Lama for fear of offending China. And international agencies that happily hector others lose their voice when dealing with Beijing (notice the long weeks it took for the WHO to declare a pandemic).

From Taiwan to Hong Kong and Tibet to the South China Sea, China expects the world to accept its paramountcy—but refuses to accord any deference to the interests of other nations. It sends thugs to beat up protesters in London, punishes Norway for awarding a Nobel Prize to a Chinese dissident, wages a relentless cyber war against the US, blocks water to downstream neighbours by aggressively damming rivers that flow from territories it has colonised, and endlessly bullies its neighbours. For those exposed to its rough edges, China is not a “peaceful” power. It is an expansionist imperium.

For those exposed to its rough edges, China is not a “peaceful” power. It is an expansionist imperium

The pressing priority should be, as it is, the deployment of every resource in service of bringing this nightmare to a swift end. Before we arrive there, we will have to dig mass graves, and those mass graves will multiply. Many of us will personally be ravaged by this virus; some of us will lose someone we cherish. But it will eventually be defeated. And when it is, we can either continue with the delusions that rendered us so helpless in this moment—or we can commit ourselves to self-renewal. Self-renewal will require us to cultivate self-dependence—and, given the indisputable reconfiguration of power that is occurring before us, affirming independence from China will be the condition of achieving self-dependence.

In Britain, this will mean banning, as an initial measure, Huawei from the 5G infrastructure. Rebellion is brewing in the Tory party. A small band of MPs is coordinating to push the prime minister to abandon the deal. Their ranks should swell. Elsewhere, this will have to take the form of doing exactly the things China forbade us to do. Individuals can conscientiously boycott to the extent possible goods made in China. They can lean on their governments to end their dependency on Beijing—and demand reparations from the CPC. In democracies, citizenly acts can make an enormous difference. Nothing irks China more than spotlighting its occupation of Tibet, the world’s largest colony, and there is no more effective way of demonstrating freedom from fear of Beijing than standing in solidarity with the Tibetans. It has been customary since the early 1990s for American presidents to invite the Dalai Lama to Washington. In 2009, Barack Obama did away with this token gesture of support for the Tibetans for fear of offending Beijing. Even the brief private audience Obama reluctantly granted the beleaguered Tibetan leader was accompanied by humiliation: the Dalai Lama was made to exit the White House through the back doors, surrounded by bags of garbage. Here’s one idea: when the last vaccine for the Wuhan virus has been administered, the president of the United States—whoever he might be—should host a state dinner for the Dalai Lama.

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