Somebody has to pay for this unprecedented damage. That somebody should be the government of China.
No one can blame Beijing for a viral outbreak beyond its control. But the Chinese communist regime should be blamed — and held legally liable — for intentionally lying to the world about the danger of the virus, and proactively impeding a global response that might have prevented a worldwide contagion.
We now know that the first case of covid-19 appeared in China’s Hubei province on Nov. 17. By mid-December, Chinese officials knew that the virus was capable of human-to-human transmission because doctors and nurses were getting sick. But instead of alerting the world, they tried to cover it up and punished doctors who tried to sound the alarm. On Jan. 14, the World Health Organization tweeted that “Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” On Jan. 15, the head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention declared on state television that “the risk of human-to-human transmission is low.” These were lies, and Beijing knew it. More than 1,700 Chinese medical workers had been infected.
As China lied, it intentionally hampered U.S. efforts to prepare for the virus’s arrival on our shores by refusing to share samples with us. U.S. officials became so frustrated that they tried a back channel — asking the director of the biocontainment lab at the University of Texas, which had a research partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to see whether he could get samples. The Post reports that “At first, the lab in Wuhan agreed, but officials in Beijing intervened Jan. 24 and blocked any lab-to-lab transfer.” That intervention came one day after Beijing finally imposed a belated lockdown on Wuhan — which means even after Chinese officials finally publicly acknowledged they were battling a pandemic they were still obstructing the U.S. response.
It took Beijing more than two months after the first case appeared to impose that lockdown. That coverup had deadly consequences. A University of Southampton study found that if Beijing acted just three weeks sooner, the number of covid-19 cases might have been reduced by 95 percent — which would have prevented a pandemic.
And China’s lies and obstruction are ongoing. The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly concluded that Beijing is underreporting both total cases and deaths it has suffered from covid-19 — denying U.S. scientists accurate data they need to understand how the virus behaves. This is more than mere negligence; it is active disinformation and obstruction.
Why are Chinese officials so determined to cover up the outbreak? Perhaps because, as David Ignatius recently reported, the virus might not have originated organically in Wuhan’s wet market. It might have begun instead as an accidental lab release of bat coronavirus from the Wuhan branch of China’s CDC less than 300 yards from the market — perhaps through the infection of a lab worker, a leaked sample or poor hazardous waste disposal. If so, that would add an additional layer to China’s culpability.
China must be held to account for its lies and obstruction. U.S. health-care workers and business owners recently filed the first lawsuits against the Chinese Communist Party for its complicity in this pandemic. Congress should help them and others by lifting China’s statutorily granted sovereign immunity and allowing the individuals and businesses harmed by China’s actions to sue Beijing for damages. There is precedent for doing so. In 2016, Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which permitted victims and survivors to sue Saudi Arabia for complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Because of Beijing’s lies, we are now in the midst of a pandemic 9/11. The victims should have a right to sue China for these damages.
China would not be able to ignore such lawsuits. As former Justice Department official David Rivkin told me, “Once default judgments are obtained, they can be used to seize any Chinese commercial assets, including any proceeds of Chinese exports anywhere in the world.” But, Rivkin says, the benefit is not just recovery of money damages for the victims. “Litigation discovery,” he said, “is a great vehicle for fact-finding.” We have only scratched the surface of China’s complicity in this pandemic. The best way to uncover the truth might be through the U.S. legal system.