On Tuesday, during a State Department news conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the Chinese Communist Party for hiding information and spreading false narratives about the coronavirus. He also criticized Beijing for its decision to expel all U.S. journalists from The Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal:
"The disinformation campaign that they are waging is designed to shift responsibility,” he said. “Now is not the time for recrimination. Now is the time to solve this global pandemic and work to take down risks to Americans and people all across the world.”
Pompeo then accused the Chinese government of withholding information about the virus early on, leading to its spread around the world and the suffering that has resulted.
“We know that the first government to be aware of the Wuhan virus was the Chinese government. … And it took an awful long time for the world to become aware of this risk that was sitting there, residing inside of China,” he said. “More information, more transparency are what will save lives.”
This is just the latest in a series of public rebukes exchanged by the U.S. and Chinese governments over the coronavirus. Pompeo called senior Chinese government Yang Jiechi on Monday to admonish him for Beijing’s effort to “spread disinformation and outlandish rumors.” Yang responded that U.S. efforts to smear China “will not succeed” and that Beijing would retaliate for efforts to harm China’s interests.
The U.S.-China information war is entangled with the U.S. political battle over the China challenge. President Trump came in for criticism on Monday for referring to covid-19 as “the Chinese virus” in a tweet. For many on the left and many Chinese Americans, referring to the origin of the virus is racist. For many on the right, using the origin in the name is a good way to push back against Beijing’s disinformation. (Pompeo says “Wuhan virus,” while the World Health Organization says covid-19.)
Trump administration officials told me they are fighting back against the Chinese government’s campaign for more important reasons than just making China look bad.
“The reason China’s actions are dangerous is because their censorship supercharged a virus that has now turned into a global pandemic,” a senior administration official told me. “By ignoring their responsibility and deflecting attention away from the core problem — their misgovernance — they are avoiding the transparency that ultimately keeps their people, and us, safe.”
Failing to call out this behavior now, the official said, could come back to haunt the world in the future. “If they don’t change their behavior now and admit their actions had consequences, there’s every reason to expect similar results the next time a virus erupts in China,” the official said.
China’s disinformation campaign has two parts. The first is to control the narrative about Beijing’s handling of the crisis. That is why the Chinese government no longer accepts that the virus originated in Wuhan, even though President Xi Jinping had previously publicly acknowledged it. Chinese official sources originally claimed the outbreak started in a Wuhan market, but in truth, the story of “patient zero” is still unknown.
“Scientifically, we need to know how the first patient was infected,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley. “We need to understand the virus spread in order to come up with solutions in this global crisis. It’s not about blame; it’s about facts.”
The Chinese government is thwarting science by interrupting the free flow of information, he said, citing the government’s move to close the research lab that released the first coronavirus genome sequence, for “rectification.” Scientific collaboration with China is crucial in the months ahead but can’t be corrupted by political interference.
“We are going to need to work with China and several other countries,” said Xiao. “That’s one more reason that everybody needs to hold everybody else accountable to speak truth. Whoever doesn’t do that is adding problems needlessly.”
What started as an effort to control information inside China (mostly for Chinese citizens) has now gone global. The Chinese ambassador in South Africa tweeted Monday the virus may not have originated in China. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman tweeted that the U.S. Army “might be” responsible for the outbreak, and claimed separately to have “Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the US.” Citing China as the origin, he wrote elsewhere, is “immoral & irresponsible.”
These lies have been widely allowed to circulate on China’s tightly controlled Internet. The United States isn’t the only target; Chinese officials in Tokyo have been directed to refer to the “Japanese coronavirus.”
The reason Beijing is playing these games is obvious: The Chinese Communist Party bases its legitimacy on the idea it is infallible. All criticism of the party is censored, and all critics are disappeared. The party protects itself by denying its own people the right to the truth.
But Beijing’s propaganda campaign is now risking lives all around the world. The Chinese government must acknowledge the reality of the origins of the coronavirus and reveal everything it knows now so that we can all work together on finding a solution to the pandemic.