Thinking Critically About China’s Responsibility for COVID-19 

When the Chinese authorities last year arrested the late Dr. Li Wenliang, along with seven others, for warning his fellow citizens about a deadly new coronavirus, those authorities, as usual, were engaged in a cover-up. 

What were they seeking to hide? A naturally occurring zoonotic disease that had leapt to humanity in a Wuhan wet market? Or a virus that had escaped from a supposedly secure facility where it was being studied and modified? 

Recent focus on the second possibility is appropriate, and long overdue, given the absurd feverishness with which it was first dismissed, in inverse proportion to its plausibility. 

Indeed, this “lab-leak theory,” in large part because it was deliberately ignored and thereby acquired the patina of “conspiracy,” seems to confirm our worst fears about China. A would-be superpower incapable of running a biosafety level 4 laboratory. A would-be superpower with the blood of millions on its hands because of said incompetence. 

We should be so lucky. 

Covering up a lab leak, though unjustifiable, makes sense. It’s not instinctive to publicly discuss dangerous, secretive research gone awry. Moreover, future lab leaks can, at least theoretically, be prevented. 

China—and when we speak of China, we mean specifically the Chinese Communist Party under the increasingly Mao-like Xi Jinping—can be taught, with enough pressure brought to bear upon it by the nations of the world, how to run its laboratories properly. China could be punished, with enough determination by those same nations, for the horrific damage caused by the COVID-19 lab leak. Alternatively, if the world decides that it prefers a new Cold War, where nuclear escalation is replaced by gain-of-function escalation, there is a model, however flawed, for dealing with such escalation. The world has seen a similar movie before; it ran from 1945 to 1991. 

Counterintuitively, it is harder to justify China’s actions if China was merely hiding a zoonotic crossover. What, after all, is so unspeakable about a “natural” occurrence? What matters of national security are implicated by people selling and buying wild animals for consumption? 

The answer, of course, is that the very existence of wet markets in China undermines China’s pretense to being a fully modern country worthy of being a global hegemon. 

China controls, or attempts to control, everything that occurs within its borders. Supposedly, nothing escapes the Chinese panopticon: not one Tibetan who venerates the Dalai Lama, not one Uyghur who dares to grow his beard too long, not one Christian who is forced to pray in a “house church,” not one surviving relative who wishes to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, and not one citizen who dares to disagree with the Chinese Communist Party.

And yet, somehow, wet markets, known by all to be entrepots for cross-species disease, continue to operate. 

China can terrorize Taiwan and Hong Kong, China can militarize rock formations and sandbars in the South China Sea, China can spread its debt-laden tentacles through the “gifts” it bestows via the Belt and Road Initiative, and China can steal intellectual property from all and sundry to become self-sufficient in emerging technologies.

And yet, somehow, China cannot feed its own people properly. 

Which means, to ensure it is seen by others as it sees itself, China must cover up the fact that COVID-19 jumped from a pangolin or a bat to a person. It must lie to its citizens, it must lie to the world, it must obfuscate and destroy evidence, and it must permit millions to die if doing so preserves the false image of itself it has long touted and presented to its citizens. 

Alas, this denialism is far harder to fix than a lab leak. 

China fears it cannot survive if it admits to reality. 

We all know that reality, as is its habit, will continue to exist no matter how much China wishes it away. 

As we have learned from China’s behavior since the emergence of COVID-19—and this is more true if COVID-19 emerged from a Wuhan wet market than from a Wuhan laboratory—it is not clear that any incentives are sufficient to convince China to confess to a truth that threatens it. 

Instead, the murder of millions becomes a small price to pay to preserve a lie. 

Let us hope, in other words, that COVID-19 was only a lab leak.

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About Joseph Bartel

Joseph Bartel is a national security attorney who currently serves as General Counsel for Persistent Systems. 

Photo: World Health Organization team arrives at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, 2021. Hector RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images