China can’t intimidate the world into silence over Covid-19 for much longer

Early in March last year, as Covid-19 was beginning to take over the world, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Wuhan announced at a press conference that Chinese people “should learn to say ‘thank you’ to the party”. There was outrage on Chinese social media. Conditions in Wuhan had been appalling, citizens said. Many had died and many others had been immured for weeks. Reaching higher than the Wuhan leader, critics accused President Xi Jinping himself of concealing for a crucial 13 days in January his knowledge that the virus could be transmitted from human to human. So fierce was the backlash that the Beijing authorities actually deleted the Wuhan leader’s words online.

That was pretty much the last time that Chinese public opinion has been allowed to surface. Since then, criticising the regime inside China has been more than anyone’s life is worth. The fear totalitarianism inspires can be very effective.

Even more dismaying, in a way, is the discovery that it works abroad, too. You would have thought that the incubator and exporter of a disease which has now killed nearly 4.5 million people would run into some trouble from other countries and from international organisations about how it had managed to achieve this feat. The straightforward desire to know what started the plague, and how it spread, would have provoked the most rigorous inquiry from scientists, media and world leaders. But no, not really. Many even went so far as to follow the Wuhan leader’s call and say “thank you” to the CCP.

One of the most prominent was the leader of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Ghebreyesus, who announced, shortly after Xi’s 13 days’ silence over transmission, that China’s action had “actually helped prevent the spread of coronavirus to other countries”. He declared himself “very impressed and encouraged by the president’s detailed knowledge of the outbreak”. Dr Tedros had earlier gained his position in the WHO through Chinese backing.

In February this year, a top-level, but not fully independent WHO delegation visited Wuhan to investigate how the virus had spread. Each team member had to be individually approved by the Chinese government. The regime had spent the previous year busily effacing physical and computer records, so there was little for the visitors to see.

But the WHO appeared content. The mission’s leader, Peter Ben Embarek, said at the press conference that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus had spread from a lab leak in Wuhan. The BBC, always reluctant to touch the lab-leak theory, took this as all but conclusive. On its website, its health editor wrote that the WHO experts had “closed the lid on a controversial theory that coronavirus came from a lab leak or was made by scientists”.

This week, however, on a television programme (unreported by the BBC) in his native country, Denmark, Dr Embarek spoke in very different terms. It turned out that, in a conference call in January, he had privately expressed his worry about a possible leak from the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control (CDC), which might have lacked “the same level of expertise or safety” as that shown, in his opinion, by the separate Wuhan Institute of Virology. In an interview conducted in June, but released this week, he told the programme that it was “likely” that a member of the CDC staff had contracted the virus.

Why did Dr Embarek change as he did? Why did something he described as “extremely unlikely” in Wuhan in February become “likely” in Denmark by June? I do not know, but it is interesting to look at an interview he gave to Science magazine straight after his February visit to Wuhan.

If you read it carefully, you can see Dr Embarek squirming a bit about his own phrase “extremely unlikely”: “We should not put too much focus on the wording. We were looking at different options … It’s more an illustration of where these hypotheses are to help us organise our planning of future studies.” Besides, the WHO could not conduct those studies alone, he says. He admits the pressure he was under as he faced up to 60 Chinese officials, many of whom were not scientists: “The politics was always in the room with us on the other side of the table.”

Since then, the politics on the table of the world has changed considerably. So long as Donald Trump was US pPresident, many global bodies and scientific publications had a simple rule: if he took one view, they would take the opposite. Early on, Trump blamed a Wuhan lab leak, so they discounted it. Some outlets – notably Nature and The Lancet – seemed to be alarmingly uncritical of China. It seemed easier to blame the lab-leak hypothesis on Right-wing conspiracy theorists. Facebook removed material which, in its view, fell into that category. Scientists, such as Birger Sorensen and Angus Dalgleish, who published on the aetiology of the virus, were marginalised. Some people even said that to question China’s behaviour was racist.    

In May, however, Science magazine returned to the charge. It published a letter from several leading scientists, including Prof Ralph Baric, who had been involved in “gain of function” experiments in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which had originally cooperated with scientists in Wuhan. The lead signatory was the Stanford microbiologist, Prof David Relman, who has often advised the US government. Their letter said the leak theory had not been given enough “balanced consideration”. In an interview, Prof Relman complained that only four of the 313 pages of the WHO report dealt with the laboratory scenario, and those mostly under the heading “conspiracy theories”.

At much the same time, President Joe Biden publicly tasked his intelligence services to investigate the leak theory. Their report is due at the end of this month. It could be that those who previously felt safer in their jobs and reputations if they were soft on China are beginning to wonder how their attitudes might look as they come under the scrutiny of an open society.

Stand back and consider this sequence of events. It is an extraordinary story. The best way to understand it is to compare what would have happened if the Covid-19 virus had first appeared in, say, Oxford or Chapel Hill. How fast the world’s media would have been all over it, how violently would they have denounced any scientists, politicians or officials who tried to cover it up, restrict access to data or vet proposed investigators from international institutions. Think of how no prime minister or president implicated in such a global scandal could have survived. Then compare it with what a small price the Chinese regime has paid.

This seems even more extraordinary when one recognises that China’s behaviour over the virus is no freak, but part of a pattern. The secrecy and dishonesty were there in its exploitation of its WTO entry, in the use of Huawei to gain access to Western information systems, in its influence-buying and attempts at thought control in British universities, in its hidden persecution of the Uiyghurs, its successful plot against One Country, Two Systems in Hong Kong and its pretence to be complying with net zero obligations. We have at last come to recognise the CCP’s methods in most of the above, yet remain reluctant to do so in relation to the one that affects us all – the global pandemic.

China on the world stage cannot be trusted. Even now, the West finds it hard to think through what this simple fact means.

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