There were 7,711 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in mainland China on Thursday. The number of confirmed cases has grown by about one-third per day for the past several days—a disturbingly steep growth curve for a highly contagious virus that is said to mutate rapidly. And that is already more than the 5,327 infections that happened during the SARS outbreak of 2003—also in China. Now there are also confirmed cases of coronavirus in every province of China and in 18 other countries, including the United States.
Despite quarantining Wuhan, a city of 11 million people (by comparison, New York City has 8.6 million residents), Chinese authorities have not been able to control the spread of this virus. As a result, the World Health Organization is considering declaring the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency.
As we consider the frequent outbreaks of deadly, highly contagious virus epidemics originating in China and spreading to the rest of the world; their slow, ineffective responses; and the curious circumstances surrounding the origin of this particular virus, in the context of China’s increasingly aggressive geopolitical ambitions, it’s time for the rest of the world to ask some hard questions.
Let’s start with just one: Is China merely bad (as in incompetent) or is it evil (that is, full of malevolent intent)?
This much is becoming clear: China is a public health threat to the rest of the world.
According to Penn State University biologist Edward Holmes, the primary strains of flu “appear to arise every year from a ‘reservoir,’ perhaps in the tropics.” A report by Reuters adds. “Many experts have long believed Asia, and specifically China, to be the source of most influenza viruses.” Whether or not China is the source of all or most flu viruses, it is certainly the source of many of the most dangerous ones.
The internet has been rife with memes about the current outbreak beginning in a live animal food market where people eat soup made from contaminated bats. Bats carry the virus but are not themselves infected by it.
But with China now widely understood as having ambitions to become the world’s hegemonic power, many people are wondering what they are up to, especially as information has come to light about the Wuhan Institute of Virology from which some people speculate that the coronavirus might have escaped. The Institute is a Level 4 microbiology lab (the most secure type that handles the most dangerous pathogens) operated by the Chinese government and it has been working on SARS, Ebola, and various strains of coronavirus. It is one of four labs in China that are believed to work on biological weapons. This is at the root of the “evil” thesis.
It’s worth noting that just last year, two Chinese nationals, husband and wife Dr. Keding Cheng and Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, and an unknown number of their students (also Chinese nationals) were removed from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as part of an intellectual property theft investigation. The NML is Canada’s only Level 4 microbiology lab, which is to say, it’s the type of lab the Chinese operate in Wuhan. Dr. Qiu is known for working on the Ebola virus, while her husband has published studies of SARS. The RCMP investigation noted that both made frequent trips back to China every year.
Does this mean that they were stealing intellectual property and sending it back to China? That’s not public information, but we do know that Chinese growth has relied upon the twin pillars of cheap labor and technology theft from the West. From semiconductors to software, power plants to pharmaceuticals, the Chinese are dependent upon espionage to keep up with the developed world. This is bad business for America and has led to stagnant wages, a shrinking middle class, and hollowed-out towns across the interior of the country.
When China steals technology, Americans lose jobs—that’s bad enough—but incompetence or malevolence in handling pathogens can lead to viral outbreaks that can kill you. That’s worse.
This leads to obvious questions without obvious answers:
1) Did the virus originate in the Wuhan lab?
2) If so, was it being developed as a bioweapon?
3) If it was being developed as a bioweapon, was it released intentionally? There is currently no public evidence that it was, but the Chinese government delayed reporting the outbreak to the WHO by several days. Again, this reasonably gives rise to the “bad or evil” question.
4) If the virus came from the Wuhan lab and was not released intentionally (we certainly hope not) why was the Chinese government unable to contain the virus at what should be a highly secure facility?
Occam’s Razor is a problem-solving principle that says “entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” It could be fairly reframed as “the simplest answer is usually right.” In practice, that means it’s usually incompetence rather than conspiracy. Incompetence is easy—just do nothing!—while successful conspiracies are hard to get moving as they require the cooperation of multiple entities.
So if this is incompetence, it speaks directly to the strength of the Chinese state which is currently spending vast resources around the globe in a largely successful attempt to buy influence and prestige, in short, to replace the United States and Europe in global leadership. The population of China (1.386 billion) is a potential source of strength—while also presenting governance challenges—that makes American dominance more difficult. After all, it was the ability of 18th century England to produce and export surplus population due to advances in agriculture that allowed them to quickly supersede their rival trading and exploring power of Portugal and Spain, even though that power had a substantial lead.
Chinese predominance clearly would be bad for American interests, though some Europeans (led by Germany’s Angela Merkel) have taken actions that suggest a decision on their part to realign with China against the United States. It’s worth noting the Trump Administration’s attempted rapprochement with Russia in 2017, in part, was about building relationships to counter the Chinese threat. But Democrats sacrificed that wise geopolitical effort for short-term political advantage.
Leaving aside American interests for a moment, what if China just isn’t up to it?
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 was a sign that the Soviet Union, though possessing a massive military bristling with nuclear weapons and remarkably, destructively active all around the world, was actually built on sand. In fact, it would last barely three more years before crumbling almost overnight.
Viewed in hindsight, the incompetence and apathy that led to Chernobyl were telling us something about the strength and stability of the regime. Perhaps, China’s inability to effectively control viruses and maybe—maybe!—even their inability to control high-value, high-security government laboratories tells us more about the Chinese regime than Xi Jinping would like us to know.
A compelling case could be made that the Chinese miracle is built on lies. It’s Enron times a billion. History supports this thesis. Throughout history, Han China has attempted hubristic expansion and then been defeated by much smaller regional rivals: the Manchu, Tibet, Mongolia, and Japan.
So as China continues pursuing its neo-imperialist political agenda and neo-mercantilist trade policy, buying local elites on the cheap, and impoverishing country after country, we should remember that powerful as China looks, the veneer is thin and the regime may be more brittle than we imagine. Social unrest is certainly something that concerns Chinese leadership. A broad-based virus epidemic could break the state.
Yes, China can build entire cities from scratch in the span of a few years. But then buildings collapse because of shoddy work. They are the world’s workshop but they also have the dirtiest air on the planet. They even export seafood around the world, but it’s poisoned by their own filth and often unhealthy to eat. In other words, it’s based on fraud and degradation.
So is China bad or evil? Maybe both. And perhaps the bad will save us from the evil.