The US response to China’s disinformation on COVID-19

BY CLAUDE BELFIELD

On Monday, four of my AEI colleagues analyzed the calculated misinformation campaign by China’s Communist Party leaders regarding the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which began infecting humans sometime in late 2019. My own observations here are meant to complement the in-depth insights of my colleagues.

Let’s start with an acknowledgement for those of us who hold that the US case against Beijing’s COVID-19 duplicity is solid: President Trump and his advisers also have a strong domestic political imperative behind their charges against China. It is clear that the Trump political team believes playing the China card will give them a boost in the presidential sweepstakes. The fact of ulterior political motives, however, need not and does not undermine the power of the substantive evidence that China, abetted early on by the World Health Organization, hid the crossover jump to humans and then lied about it for several crucial months. To this day, Chinese officials have refused to allow foreign experts to analyze the data relating to the origins of the virus. Whatever the failings of the Trump administration once the deadly secret was out, it was China’s initial duplicity that allowed the deadly plague to spread worldwide.

A woman wearing a protective mask is seen past a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street as the country is hit by an outbreak of the coronavirus, in Shanghai, China March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

As my AEI colleagues underscored, Beijing has mounted a furious response to the US charges, with recriminations on multiple platforms. They have even claimed the US military was somehow responsible for COVID-19’s jump to humans. In combatting the Chinese disinformation onslaught, the US should keep the message simple and not go beyond indisputable evidence.

Thus, the debate over the accidental culpability of the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a distraction. It is particularly damaging to the US case for both President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to assert that they have “enormous” evidence that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab without providing solid proof. This is particularly the case when US intelligence officials have thus far refused to endorse such a definitive assertion.

All of this comes at a crucial time in the worldwide information war over the origins of the virus and Chinese culpability. The US is pushing the EU and other allies hard to join the call for a searching international inquiry. Though public opinion in Europe is swinging strongly against Beijing as a result of the deadly consequences of its COVID-19 deception, European leaders are still reluctant to bait the dragon. (China has threatened to boycott Australian products in response to Canberra’s call for a probe of the origins of the virus.)

Certainly, it will be difficult to mobilize an international probe, but the US will have a much better shot if it avoids introducing broader (valid) US grievances against Beijing’s predatory authoritarianism.

The central indictment of Chinese leaders does not rest on the route by which COVID-19 reached humans, but on how the Chinese government handled that discovery thereafter.

Learn more: China’s duplicity on COVID-19 rebounds against Huawei | Replacing phase 1: Options for dealing with China | President Trump’s persistent falsehoods about the World Trade Organization

Claude Belfield is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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