The tenor of debate in the United States gives an indication of the stakes. The Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson – a favourite of the president – has been drawing on reports in the Australian tabloid the Daily Telegraph of a supposed secret dossier linking the outbreak to the Wuhan lab. “We are squabbling about lockdowns … that is the debate in this country,” said Carlson. “That is not the debate in China, why? Because they have bigger plans. By the time this pandemic has played out, China plans to rule the world.”
The dossier has been contradicted by intelligence sources, who believe it was based on freely available material and was most likely to have come from the US to help Washington “[build] a counter-narrative and [apply] pressure to China”.
Meanwhile, the scientific community says there is no evidence for the claim that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab – even Morrison has poured cold water on that particular idea. And a US intelligence community statement on the origins of Covid-19 was agnostic. Whether they can resist pressure from the Trump administration to produce a politically convenient narrative, as reported in the New York Times, is an open question. But given that anti-Chinese sentiment so evidently plays into ramping election rhetoric in the US, a blame-shifting operation seems to be under way.
Even so, there is a good case for an inquiry. From the shameful cover-up of the initial outbreak, such as the silencing of the heroic doctor Li Wenliang, to the subsequent censorship, the disappearance of critics and sowing of disinformation, there’s still a lot to learn. China has seen a litany of food and agriculture scandals (amazingly, it is still not well understood why 16,000 pig carcasses floated down the Huangpu river in 2013); its citizens certainly deserve to know more about the role of intensified animal agriculture and environmental destruction in propelling new pathogens into human population centres. Greater understanding may help societies across the world to better rebuild economies and improve public health and preparedness systems.
But US and Australian demands get us no closer to solving these problems in China or anywhere else. International inquiries do happen (into Venezuela and Myanmar, most recently), but great powers don’t play by the same rules as small countries. China will not accept being singled out by such an inquiry, any more than the US would have accepted a China-led inquiry into its role in sowing the 2008 global financial crisis. And even if it went ahead, China would likely give an inquiry the same heed it gave a critical 2016 UN ruling on the South China Sea, calling it “nothing more than a piece of waste paper”.
Instead of spurring learning or action, this type of aggressive diplomacy will only lead to the further emboldening of hardline nationalist and protectionist narratives in Beijing, along with the escalating sabre-rattling that keeps us as far as ever from the cooperation required to handle the pandemic and its aftermath.
Chinese elites may indeed be fearful of international pressure, with one intelligence-linked thinktank warning of the global fallout from anti-Chinese opprobrium. But punishing China will not improve international cooperation, any more than it will bring freedom of speech, encourage China to share information on future health crises, or improve supply-chain coordination on medical supplies.
After the outbreak, China banned eating wildlife and stepped up efforts to disrupt the illegal wildlife trade. It can go much further, and next year it will rightly be under scrutiny when it hosts the UN Convention on Biological Diversity talks in Kunming – this aims to reduce the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, which helps pathogens to pass between animals and people. In many other negotiations – such as the Paris climate agreement, and debt relief for the world’s poorest – the sheer size of its economy means China plays a critical role.
And while many Chinese citizens were initially furious about the government cover-up, there is also a widespread assumption in the country that “accusations from western governments are in bad faith” – as the academic Chenchen Zhang put it. This has only grown in recent weeks, especially since these same “international actors were silent” about China’s plight in late January and early February.
Carlson may dislike Americans “squabbling about lockdowns”, but criticising one’s government’s response is the right of citizens in open societies. Of course, the Chinese government will silence its critics and engage in blame-shifting rhetoric. It took brave, independent journalists in China to break the story of the Covid-19 cover-up, despite fears of reprisals, and pressure from the authorities to spread “positive energy” that hews to the official government line.
But in countries like the US, Australia and the UK, citizens have a choice. We can scrutinise our governments and societies – for the glaring failures of the pandemic response; the debasement of scientific inquiry and media freedom; the politicisation of intelligence; attacks on the “dual loyalties” of ethnic Chinese – or we can fall into line, direct our ire at the foreign enemy, and jettison the possibility of progress into the grinding gears of a great power conflict.
• Sam Geall is executive director at China Dialogue and associate fellow at Chatham House, a thinktank in London