May 11, 2020
Conspiracy theorists never let a crisis go to waste. When something truly terrible happens, the conspiracy theorist sets to work to determine the dark, hidden forces at work behind the scenes that have produced the crisis. Some people might see God or the Devil as the prime mover behind a catastrophe. Others throw up their hands and mutter, “shit happens.” Not conspiracy theorists. They need to find a secret human culprit, preferably someone or something that they’ve been warning about for years. A conspiracy theorist begins with a conclusion — the Bush administration engineered the 9/11 attacks, Barack Obama is a Muslim, the Democratic Party is running a child pornography ring in the basement of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC — and then works backward to fashion a faulty timeline that leads to that conclusion. Along the way, the theorist marshals the plausible, the implausible, and the downright ludicrous in an effort to prove a far-fetched contention. In this way, conspiracy theorists shoehorn messy reality into their simplistic worldviews. The current pandemic presents a grand opportunity for conspiracy theorists. Go on the Internet and you’ll find a bumper crop of lunatic notions: Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, one of the few sane voices coming out of the Trump administration, is actually “a Deep-State Hillary Clinton–loving stooge,” according to the right-wing American Thinker. Billionaire Bill Gates helped create the coronavirus so that he could put microchips into people’s heads, argues the unshameable Trump ally Roger Stone. The pandemic is just a ploy to push vaccines into people’s veins. “Make no mistake, the purpose of the coronavirus is to help usher in vaccine mandates,” writes anti-vaxxer Larry Cook. “Be woke. Know the Plan. Prepare. Resist.” The rollout of 5G networks caused the coronavirus. It’s bad enough to be hit by a pandemic and a massive economic downturn. Now we also have to deal with a calamitous collapse in common sense? Still, all of these conspiracy theories pale in significance next to the crazy and dangerous propositions about China and the coronavirus coming from Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and much of the Republican Party. The other conspiracy theories circulate the Internet like bad memes, chasing their tails until they’re replaced with newer nonsense. The Trump administration is playing a different game. Desperate to defect responsibility for its own catastrophic failures, Trump is weaponizing his China conspiracies — with considerably greater economic and geopolitical consequences. Did the Lab Do It? The Trump administration has made several accusations against China. It has asserted that the coronavirus was manufactured in a biological laboratory in Wuhan. It has argued that China engaged in a cover-up that allowed the virus to spread around the world. It has said that China underestimated the severity of the epidemic and hoarded medical equipment. The administration is now preparing to take actions that will make the earlier trade war with China look like a mere disagreement among friends. Let’s start with the various coronavirus origin theories. Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, was the epicenter of the current pandemic. In that same city, both the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention study coronaviruses and the bats that carry them. For conspiracy theorists, proximity is a sufficient smoking gun. They began linking one or the other institute to the outbreak back in January 2020. At the end of January, The Washington Post was already debunking the notion that the virus was manufactured in a lab. In February, 27 prominent public health scientists published a statement in The Lancet that they and their colleagues “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.” None of that has prevented Trump and Pompeo from asserting otherwise. Pompeo said this weekend that there is “enormous evidence” that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab. He neglected to furnish any of this evidence. When reminded that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that the virus was not manmade, Pompeo was forced to walk back his initial statement. It’s possible, of course, that a sample of the virus collected in the wild accidentally escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A set of State Department cables from 2018 reported on concerns over safety standards at the institute. Lab mishaps indeed happen with disturbing frequency. In the United States, for instance, such breaches have involved anthrax, Ebola, and the plague. So, an accidental breach at a Wuhan lab is within the realm of possibility. But scientists who have sequenced the genome of the novel coronavirus maintain that it is unlike the particular bat coronavirus studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But what if scientists in Wuhan had manipulated the virus they were studying, hoping to create what they call a “gain of function”? Again, given the genomic sequencing of the novel coronavirus, there’s no evidence of this kind of manipulation. As The Washington Postconcluded in its Fact Checker analysis, “The balance of the scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the new coronavirus emerged from nature — be it the Wuhan market or somewhere else. Too many unexpected coincidences would have had to take place for it to have escaped from a lab.” Cover-Up? As usual, Donald Trump is accusing others of sins that he has committed in spades. The president ignored various briefings throughout January 2020 about the dangers of the coronavirus. He now claims that he only learned in late January about the disease and that these briefings stressed that it was “non-threatening.” Given the overwhelming evidence of the earlier briefings — he ignored direct warnings from Alex Azar on January 18 and an intelligence briefing on January 23 — Trump is doing his damnedest to pretend ignorance. Now, let’s jump ahead more than a month. If Trump had issued social distancing guidelines two weeks earlier than he did — on March 2 rather than March 16 — the death toll could have been reduced by 90 percent, according to two epidemiologists writing in The New York Times. That’s over 60,000 deaths (and rising) that should rest on the president’s conscience (if he possessed one). Of course, other politicians — like New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio — should have also acted with greater urgency. But there’s no substitute for confident national leadership. And there’s no nightmare like bad national leadership. And now, in the midst of his own dizzying attempts at covering up his own mistakes, Trump has decided to blame China for its own cover-up. “They made a mistake, they tried to cover it, like a fire,” he said at a Fox News virtual town hall over the weekend. “They couldn’t put out the fire.” Unlike the United States, China had no advance warning that a new disease was about to strike and spread. Still, when doctors started to report a new disease in Wuhan in late December, the Chinese government reacted with its usual authoritarian approach. It tried to clamp down on the bad news. So, yes, that was a mistake. And it wouldn’t be the only one, as I noted in a column in mid-March. But it was only three weeks between the identification of the new disease and the lockdown of Wuhan. The disease emerged at the end of December and by the third week of January, when deaths were in the low double digits and infections still in the triple digits, virtually all of Hubei province was under quarantine. In between identification and lockdown, China briefed the World Health Organization on the situation and released the genome sequence of the new disease. And China practiced early detection and isolation, a technique that South Korea would implement even more effectively. As David Cyranoski wrote in Nature back in March: "Before the interventions, scientists estimated that each infected person passed on the coronavirus to more than two others, giving it the potential to spread rapidly. Early models of the disease’s spread, which did not factor in containment efforts, suggested that the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, would infect 40% of China’s population — some 500 million people. But between 16 and 30 January, a period that included the first 7 days of the lockdown, the number of people each infected individual gave the virus to dropped to 1.05, estimates Adam Kucharski, who models infectious-disease spread at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 'That was amazing,' he says." So, China was putting out the fire with greater dispatch than most other countries. It’s one of the reasons why it has been the first country to emerge from the other side of the crisis. The rapid containment of China’s outbreak is one of the major reasons that other countries even had a chance at containing their own. What about Homeland Security’s contention that China misrepresented the severity of the crisis in order to stock up on medical supplies? This seems unlikely. The Chinese government didn’t seem to understand the severity of the crisis in those early days. In fact, it was only later, between January 24 and February 27, that China imported “2.5 billion healthcare items, including visors, masks, gloves and ventilators,” according to Chinese statistics. But this was well after China was telling the world that the epidemic was serious, and it coincided with its efforts to deal with its own crisis. Was it hoarding, or was it preparing for a potential catastrophe of 500 million infected people? Could China have done better? Absolutely. Earlier action would have even more significantly reduced the infection rate. Even the Chinese government has admitted that. “In response to the shortcomings and deficiencies,” the Politburo admitted in a report in early February, “we must improve our national emergency management system and improve our abilities in handling urgent and dangerous tasks.” Trump, in contrast, has made no such admission of deficiencies. Let’s be clear: China screwed up during one critical week at the beginning of January when it misunderstood or downplayed the risk of the new disease. But compare that with the two months of Trump dismissing the severity of COVID-19. During that period, by the way, Trump had nothing but praise for China’s handling of the crisis. It’s not just the Trump administration that is dumping on China. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin published a tendentious piece last week that mixed the factual with the fictional. He correctly notes that China silenced critics. But then adds that China “manipulated statistics to downplay the outbreak’s severity.” Follow that link and you’ll discover that China updated its statistics to account for uncounted deaths, for instance those that died at home. Perhaps Rogin hasn’t been paying attention to the reporting in his own paper about excess U.S. deaths during the first months of the coronavirus crisis, at least some of which will ultimately be attributed to the pandemic. “The problem of undercounting coronavirus deaths is not unique to this pandemic or to the United States,” the April 27 article concluded. China could indeed be a great deal more transparent about its statistics, the origins of the virus, and its response to the pandemic. But The Economist is off base when it asserts that “China’s opacity has allowed dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.” The relationship between opacity and conspiracy theories is by no means so direct. Obama went to great lengths to prove his citizenship, and it did little to quiet the “birther” movement. Many conspiracy theories are politically motivated. The Trump administration feels an urgent need to shift the blame. China could submit to a full proctological exam, and Trump would still accuse Beijing of covering its ass. Trump on the Offensive The United States and China have been entangled economically for decades. Trump is determined to end all that. His earlier trade sanctions have done much to untie the two economies, as suppliers and importers in both countries have looked for other partners. The battle over the world’s digital infrastructure has also sharpened competition between two IT giants. The pandemic is providing a pretext for Trump to double down. “We’ve been working on [reducing the reliance of our supply chains in China] over the last few years but we are now turbo-charging that initiative,” a State Department undersecretary told Reuters. Trump is also targeting scientific cooperation between the two countries. He is considering an executive order banning government pension funds from investing in Chinese companies. He signed into law the Taiwan Act in March committing Washington to push other countries to recognize Taiwan diplomatically. The president’s more radical advisors are even pushing Trump to default on the U.S. debt to China, claiming that withholding repayment would constitute a form of reparations for the damage that China has “caused” with the coronavirus. (Ah, so calling it the “China virus” was not merely racist, it was part of building a legal case for compensation.) Since the “Spanish flu” originated in the United States, Trump may open up the United States to more court challenges than it bargained for. “The United States would be better advised to focus on those genuine abuses rather than playing the pandemic blame game,” observes Max Boot in The Washington Post, “lest other nations start demanding reparations for the 1918 flu.” The Chinese ambassador to the United States brings the arguments closer to the present day. “To ask a victim for compensation is simply ridiculous,” Cui Tiankai argues. “If that made sense, then who was to compensate for the fatalities of the H1N1 flu and HIV/AIDS? Who was to pay for the huge losses caused by the 2008 financial crisis?” Floating the nuclear option of debt default is probably just another example of Trump’s tactic of calculated overreach. He’s likely gearing up for another round of tariffs on Chinese goods, which will then seem sensible in comparison (instead of just plain insane given the circumstances). But who knows: Trump likes dramatic, unprecedented, and stupid actions. I was never a big fan of the “adults in the room.” But realists like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis are no longer counseling caution in the administration. Instead, squawking in Trump’s ear is a flock of hawks — Pompeo, Peter Navarro, and the National Security Council’s China hand, Matt Pottinger. Trump is susceptible to man-crushing on autocrat Xi Jinping. The hawks are determined to nip that relationship in the bud. Of course, you don’t have to be a realist to understand that an economic and diplomatic war with China at this point is a bad idea. You just have to register a modicum of brain activity. The U.S. economy is crashing. The pandemic here is far from over (despite what some governors and gun owners think). What a great time to make it even more difficult for U.S. farmers and manufacturers to survive the downturn. It’s not as if China is weak at the moment and eager to capitulate. It has recovered from the pandemic. It has reopened its economy in a more-or-less responsible fashion. It has the financial resources to help countries that have been hobbled by the crisis. It has achieved even greater international credit in the wake of Trump’s disastrous foreign policy, for instance by upping its contribution to the WHO as Trump suspends U.S. payments. Trump, however, knows that only a conspiracy theory (or better yet, several) can get him reelected. Compared to his previous efforts in the genre — the “birther movement,” Obama’s alleged wiretapping of his phone — this mythmaking about China has the full force of the U.S. government behind it, along with much of the pundit class, and a bunch of disgruntled allies as well. The Republican Party, desperate to deflect attention not only from the pandemic and the economic depression but from Trump’s patent irresponsibility as well, has seized on China as an electoral “Hail Mary” pass. Republican congressional candidates are now running ads that blame China for “the Wuhan epidemic,” promise to “make China pay” for “the lies they told and the jobs they stole,” and warn, “To stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.” With November in their sights, Trump and the Republicans are digging themselves into a hole — all the way to China. This article has been republished with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.