The stepped-up “Blame China!” rhetoric from President Donald Trump, Republican congressional leaders, and conservative pundits is widely seen — to some extent correctly — as an effort to deflect from the Trump administration’s failures in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. But whatever their motives, the China-blamers have an excellent point — and good company. A reappraisal of the democratic world’s relationship with China should be one the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The case against China is made, among others, by Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former justice minister and chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. In a Toronto Globe and Mail op-ed co-authored with Wallenberg Centre executive director Judith Abitan, Cotler chronicles the Chinese regime’s persecution of doctors who publicized the outbreak. Dr. Ai Fen, emergency department director at the Central Hospital of Wuhan, was rebuked for sharing the first lab results on the new coronavirus; after she wrote about efforts to silence her, Dr. Fen disappeared. Eight other whistleblowers were arrested; one, Dr. Li Wenliang, himself died from COVID-19 while seven are still missing.
According to Cotler and Abitan, “There is authoritative and compelling evidence that if President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had intervened and reported on its coronavirus outbreak three weeks earlier, transmission of COVID-19 could have been reduced significantly around the world.” For weeks, Chinese authorities insisted, with backing from the World Health Organization, that human-to-human transmission was unlikely. And while China eventually imposed a draconian lockdown, it waited until late January to quarantine Wuhan, allowing thousands to travel abroad.
Today, the Chinese regime is impeding inquiries into the origins of the outbreak, even as a growing number of non-fringe observers believe the virus may have come from Wuhan’s biomedical research laboratory rather than a “wet market” where live wild animals are sold for food. (The theory is not that it was designed as a weapon but that it escaped due to mishandling of tissue samples.)
The current crisis is the latest chapter in the Chinese dictatorship’s long record as a bad actor — during the period of supposed liberalization. That includes human rights abuses (most recently, mass detentions of Uighur Muslims), ruthless censorship, disinformation, and sabotage abroad — such as, apparently, using river dams to cause drought in neighboring countries.
Politicians, pundits and others in the free world have hoped that Communist China’s embrace of capitalism and consumerism would pave the way for social and political freedom. But despite some relaxation of totalitarian controls, the regime remains a repressive dictatorship, scarily efficient at squelching undesirable information.
Reassessing our relationship with China post-crisis seems reasonable. One can support free trade and yet believe that it’s a bad idea to become too economically dependent on a still-Communist, still-hostile regime, or to aid in it exploiting markets to boost its power on the international stage.
Yet some pundits’ stance on this issue seems to be based on knee-jerk reaction to anything Trump says or does. Critics such as The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart now argue cooperation with China is essential in the war against the coronavirus — even though China has been a woefully unreliable ally.
There are also fears that an anti-China backlash may be channeled into racism. But that’s a reason to stress that our problem is with the Communist regime in Beijing, not with people of Chinese background.
It is entirely fair to point out that Trump’s China-bashing is opportunistic and cynical, given his recent praise for China’s handling of the epidemic. It’s fair to point out his lack of moral authority to lead on this issue. But standing up to China should not be about Trump.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
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