A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, made waves in March by tweeting that the coronavirus may have been inadvertently introduced to China by U.S. Army officials visiting Wuhan in October. Zhao’s comments followed equally baseless statements by Senator Tom Cotton alleging that the coronavirus may have escaped from a Chinese biosecurity lab in Wuhan.
Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai publicly disavowed such conspiracy theories last week in an interview with Axios on HBO. He stated that efforts by journalists and diplomats to speculate about the disease origins were “very harmful,” and that such matters should be left to scientists. He reaffirmed his view stated earlier in February on CBS’ Face the Nation that the idea that the coronavirus could have originated in a U.S. military lab was “crazy.”
When asked whether he endorsed Zhao’s views, Cui replied, “No, I’m here representing my head of state and my government, not any particular individual.” This statement in an interview with a prominent U.S. media outlet sent a strong signal that the Chinese government disavowed Zhao’s remarks. The next morning a tweet from Zhao’s Twitter account echoed that by calling for international cooperation to deal with COVID-19. This deescalation in turn paved the way for a phone call between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping last Thursday about efforts to manage the pandemic and a tentative truce in the U.S.-China coronavirus propaganda war.
This episode reveals that the Chinese government is composed of officials with diverse and often competing strategic perspectives. Many Chinese government officials, like Cui, favor maintaining positive relations with the United States and pursuing policies that defuse conflict. Other officials, like Zhao, endorse more confrontational tactics and zero-sum goals.
These variations in approach also exist within the U.S. administration. In the context of the current crisis, The New York Times reports that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, as well as senior advisor Jared Kushner, encouraged Trump’s shift toward a more cooperative stance toward China over the past week. They have pushed back against China hawks such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House trade and manufacturing policy director Peter Navarro, who have sought to use the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to push their anti-China projects on an unwilling world and accelerate so-called decoupling between the American and Chinese economies.
The caricature of China as a monolithic authoritarian state that demands conformity leads American strategists to be dangerously ignorant of how such diversity of attitudes also exists within the Chinese government, making U.S. policymakers indisposed to identifying and then building on moderate arguments within China’s bureaucracy.
Although the Chinese government is draconian in silencing dissent and has grown more so under Xi Jinping, robust disagreement and debate persist in Chinese society. Chinese citizens are frequently critical of their government, expressing grievances through written complaints and lawsuits against officials and innovating resourceful ways to evade the Communist party’s online censors. This creativity enabled Chinese “netizens” to spread a censored interview with Dr. Ai Fen, director of Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency department, who first raised the alarm about the coronavirus.
Likewise, Chinese policy elites have diverse opinions and debate policy outcomes. Those debates are often opaque to the broader public and foreigners because of China’s lack of a free press and punishment of intellectuals who openly criticize top leaders. It is abetted by the fact that too few Americans read Chinese publications or other news from China — an effect likely to be exacerbated by China’s recent decision to evict U.S. reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Notably the eviction was itself a response to the Trump administration’s visa restrictions on reporters working for five official Chinese media outlets.
Just because Americans don’t see these debates does not mean they do not occur, though. Foreign observers conduct in-depth analyses of such debates drawing upon Chinese-language open sources and interview-based research in China that documents this diversity of thought.
I, too, encountered a wide range of attitudes among those I interviewed in China last summer about Chinese attitudes toward international law and maritime security. Researchers at government think tanks, professors at state-run universities, advisers to top party officials, and even former government officials criticized Chinese policies and expressed reservations about Xi Jinping’s governance reforms and foreign policy instincts. They alluded to robust disagreements within and between government task forces and agencies.
To be sure, my interviewees were often guarded in these criticisms, only levying them off the record with assurances of confidentiality. But my research, like that of countless foreign experts on China, reveals the inadequacies of the simplistic image of Communist Party members brainwashed or coerced into mindless conformity.
Such stereotypical assumptions prevent U.S. policymakers from realizing the complex reality of strategic debate within China, further hampering America’s ability to craft strategy toward China that rewards moderate behavior and affirms moderate arguments.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, relations with China, as well as global public health and economic stability, are best served by a U.S. strategy that elevates and praises the more moderate perspectives of senior statesmen such as Cui Tiankai, refusing to add fuel to the fire of less senior and more irresponsible voices such as Zhao Lijian. This requires focusing on opportunities for cooperation to manage the virus’s spread rather than assigning blame and floating conspiracy theories. This should, in turn, be coupled with private diplomatic outreach that promotes a steadier, more nuanced approach. Only through such collaborative strategy can we successfully confront the coronavirus, thereby saving countless lives and preserving the health of the global economy.