How covid hastened the decline and fall of the U.S.-China relationship

Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 shattered a fragile understanding between Washington and Beijing and put the most important relationship of the 21st century in the hands of a novice. Trump had attacked China from the campaign trail and almost as soon as he entered office, he brought the long-simmering rivalry between the two countries to a full boil. Complicating the picture considerably, he also struck up a “friendship” with Chinese President Xi Jinping — and their private conversations would undermine his broader administration’s response to the historic challenge of a rising China. All the while, Trump’s advisers fought with each other to steer U.S. policy from within.

Trump’s approach to China in the first three years of his presidency sparked both a trade war and a tech war. At the same time, various sectors of American society — most notably, universities, Silicon Valley and Wall Street — awakened to the audacious and widespread influence campaigns perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party on U.S. soil. But as 2019 wound down, Trump’s team was still trying to put in place a trade deal so the president could enter 2020 with a foreign policy accomplishment he could run on. In early 2020, they succeeded. But a looming global health crisis would soon render this U.S.-China detente short-lived.

Part I

The first National Security Council meeting on the strange new flu spreading around China was held on Jan. 14, one day before Trump was scheduled to sign the “Phase One” trade deal between Washington and Beijing. The meeting’s objective was to get answers to some basic questions. What do we know about this thing? Do we have eyes on the ground? Where is the best information coming from? What are the Chinese saying about it? But all that came back were shrugs. The health officials said that information was scarce. The U.S. government had been trying to get permission to send Centers for Disease Control and Prevention personnel to Wuhan, where the outbreak began, for more than a week without success. The World Health Organization (WHO) had been issuing statements about the outbreak but had not been allowed to visit Wuhan either.

Excerpt from “Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century” by Josh Rogin. Copyright © 2021 by Josh Rogin. Out March 9 from HMH Books & Media.

Illustrations by Daren Lin for The Washington Post

The next day had been set aside for the East Room signing of the trade deal. Ever a showman, Trump had invited billionaires, lawmakers, senior officials, family members and friends to join the event. The deal itself was touted as a win by both sides, although both exaggerated its limited scope and impact. Throughout the festivities, the Chinese representatives didn’t say a word about the virus. And it didn’t even occur to the U.S. officials hosting the Chinese delegation to ask.

Deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger was an exception. The former Wall Street Journal reporter had covered the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China and was in touch with his former sources inside China, including doctors on the ground. His wife, Yen, is a trained virologist and former CDC official. His brother, Paul, is a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. Matthew Pottinger saw the pandemic coming before anyone else in the White House. But most people in the Trump administration didn’t want to believe what was unfolding — or at least didn’t want to speak up.

On Monday, Jan. 27, with the blessing of his boss, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, Pottinger called a Cabinet-level official meeting and chaired it, with the No. 1 or 2 officials from all the relevant agencies: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, CDC Director Robert Redfield, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony S. Fauci were all there.

“Look, you all need to convince me why we shouldn’t shut down travel from China,” Pottinger told the group. “Our default position should be to shut it down.”

No one agreed. They thought Pottinger was out of his mind. The next morning, Pottinger had a conversation with a very high-level doctor in China, one who had spoken with health officials in several provinces, including the home of the city of Wuhan. This was a trusted source who was in a position to know the truth on the ground.

“Is this going to be as bad as SARS in 2003?” he asked the doctor, whose name must remain secret for his own protection.

“Forget SARS,” the doctor replied, “this is 1918.” He was referring to the deadliest pandemic of the 20th century: an influenza outbreak that killed roughly 50 million people worldwide.

The doctor told Pottinger that half the cases were asymptomatic and added that there was evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission in several provinces. O’Brien and Pottinger briefed Trump in the Oval Office the next day, Tuesday, Jan. 28.

“This is the single greatest national security crisis of your presidency, and it’s now unfolding,” O’Brien told the president.

“It’s going to be 1918,” Pottinger told Trump.

Trump’s profane reply is unprintable.

O’Brien and Pottinger recommended that Trump immediately ban travelers from China, or anyone who had recently been there. Every Trump official opposed the move, even the health experts such as Fauci, for two more days.

Deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien at the White House on Jan. 31, 2020. Pottinger saw the pandemic coming before anyone else in the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On Thursday, Jan. 30, when the first U.S. case of human-to-human transmission was confirmed, the health experts changed their minds. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin held firm, warning Trump that it would tank the markets and hurt the airline industry.

Trump sided with O’Brien and Pottinger. He announced the ban on Friday, Jan. 31.

“It wasn’t a consensus view, by any stretch of the imagination,” Pottinger said later. “Trump went with his instinct and shut it down.”

Concerned about the fallout, the administration didn’t ban travel from Europe until mid-March, nearly six weeks later. Nonetheless, top White House officials insisted to Trump that the national security team was overreacting to the threat. Mulvaney took O’Brien aside and told him, “You’ve got to get Pottinger under control.” Pottinger was too young, Mulvaney said, and too immature to be deputy national security adviser. Mulvaney was among the most skeptical of all the White House officials that the virus threat was real. In late February, as the markets tanked, Mulvaney said the media was exaggerating the threat in an effort to bring down Trump, calling it the “hoax of the day.” As he prepared the White House’s first budget to respond to the emerging crisis, Mulvaney pegged the total cost of the epidemic at $800 million. He was pushed out in early March.

The only other senior official to sound the early-warning alarm was Peter Navarro, Trump’s eccentric and staunchly anti-China trade adviser. He wrote a series of memos to Trump beginning on Jan. 29, urging the president to consider the possibility that the 2020 outbreak was a 1918-like pandemic, and that this worst-case scenario must not be discounted. If the United States didn’t move quickly to contain the spread and mitigate the damage, Navarro predicted the virus could infect up to 100 million Americans, cause 1 million to 2 million deaths, and cost up to $3.8 trillion.

The coronavirus pandemic would turn out to be even costlier — but Navarro was closer than most.

Part II

The propaganda war

Beijing’s efforts from the very start of the crisis to hide information, silence whistleblowers, put out false data and thwart any real outside investigation are too extensive to fully recount. But the highlights are enough to show that the Chinese government’s actions were both reckless and deliberate — and exacerbated the situation in those early weeks of the crisis.

Chinese authorities first alerted the WHO on Dec. 31, 2019, that an unidentified pneumonia was spreading in Wuhan, but they said “the disease is preventable and controllable.” That same day, Chinese social media censors started erasing from the Chinese Internet any references to “Wuhan unknown pneumonia,” “SARS variation,” “Wuhan Seafood Market” or anything critical of the government’s response. Publicly, Chinese officials were still mum. The next day, Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan, was summoned to the Public Security Bureau and forced to sign an apology for making false statements and disturbing the public order by sending a warning about the new SARS-like virus in Wuhan to a group of fellow doctors inside a WeChat group.

On Jan. 1, 2020, Wuhan authorities shut down the Huanan market and later quickly emptied and sanitized it. But they didn’t take thorough biological samples from the animals or workers, meaning key evidence that might tie the origin of the virus to the market was destroyed. A February study by Chinese researchers published in Lancet, the medical journal, would later find that the earliest known case at that time, identified on Dec. 1, 2019 — and over a third of the cases in the first large cluster — had no connection to the market, making it unlikely that the virus had originated there. But at first, Beijing pointed to the seafood market as the outbreak’s source — while simultaneously making sure that later investigators would never be able to prove or disprove the link.

Members of the Wuhan Hygiene Emergency Response Team at the closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 11, 2020. (Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Chinese authorities would later reveal that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), one of the world’s leading research centers for bat coronaviruses, had mapped the virus’s genome by Jan. 2. They had determined that the virus was a SARS-like coronavirus, which meant they were dealing with a pathogen that was dangerous, highly contagious and had no known vaccine. But the institute was ordered to destroy its samples of the virus and not to share them with U.S. researchers. Major Gen. Chen Wei, the Chinese military’s top epidemiologist and virologist, was sent to take over the lab.

Any information about the virus’s genome would be critical to containing its spread and starting the research for a cure — but the Chinese authorities sat on that information as the virus spread. On Jan. 5, the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center alerted Chinese authorities that it had also successfully identified and mapped the genome of the new virus. The government forbade that agency from sharing the information as well. Six days later, the researchers defied that order and released the genome publicly. The lab was shut down the next day for “rectification.”

The WHO regurgitated Beijing’s bad information about the virus from the very start. On Jan. 14, the organization tweeted, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCov) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” That same day, talking on an internal conference call with provincial officials, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei reportedly called the virus “the most severe challenge since SARS in 2003” and said “clustered cases suggest that human-to-human transmission is possible.” Beijing didn’t communicate that urgent update to anyone outside government channels for another six days.

In the meantime, millions of Chinese citizens traveled around the country for the Lunar New Year festivities, including in Wuhan, fueling the outbreak.

It was Jan. 20 when a WHO delegation was allowed into Wuhan and found that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission. Still, the WHO declined to name the crisis a “public health emergency of international concern.” Two days later, Chinese authorities locked down the entire city of Wuhan, population 11 million. On Jan. 30, a WHO committee praised the Chinese government’s “commitment to transparency.” On Feb. 3, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s strategy and credited Beijing for preventing even more cases.

Just as they had done during the SARS campaign, the Chinese authorities mounted a concerted effort to present a false picture to the world. They missed key opportunities to stop the outbreak early in its tracks by warning the public about human-to-human transmission, stopping travel out of Wuhan earlier, and sharing the information they had with international scientists and foreign governments.

For those who had studied China’s actions during the SARS crisis, these tactics were no surprise — in fact, they were predictable. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) paranoia, defensiveness and overall lack of concern for things such as truth and transparency are part of its character. But now, for the first time, those deficiencies threatened to kill thousands of Americans.

Part III

The Xi calls

For the first few weeks of the crisis, the State Department maintained constructive communication with its Chinese counterparts. Foggy Bottom needed to keep close watch on U.S. diplomats and their families and eventually sent planes to Wuhan to extract them. Those planes also delivered crucial medical equipment for Wuhan hospitals.

China mounted its own aid offensive as well. By the end of March, China had delivered aid to 120 countries, a massive “mask diplomacy” effort. Early on, these Chinese efforts were widely welcomed — but later “mask diplomacy” would become synonymous with China’s use of aid as a means of leverage over countries that might want to criticize it or its handling of the coronavirus outbreak that had begun within its borders.

But the cooperation ended after Trump announced the travel ban. Beijing launched a worldwide campaign to prevent others from following Washington’s lead. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Indian counterpart on Feb. 1 that China “opposes certain countries’ actions that are creating tension and causing panic.” In fact, the longer travel from China continued uninterrupted, the more quickly the pandemic spread.

Trump continued to play down the virus’s severity at home. Pottinger’s and Navarro’s pleas to Trump to take the pandemic more seriously might have had an impact were it not for another voice in Trump’s ear — that of Xi Jinping’s.

On the evening of Thursday, Feb. 6, Trump and Xi had a lengthy phone call in which they discussed the emerging health crisis in China. In a statement after, the White House said, “President Trump expressed confidence in China’s strength and resilience in confronting the challenge of the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak.” According to a senior administration official who was on the call, Trump had come away from it with a decidedly warped view of the threat.

In the conversation, the official said, Xi told Trump he opposed the decision to close U.S. borders to flights from China. Trump asked Xi to allow CDC officials into Wuhan, which by that point had been locked down. Xi demurred and asked Trump not to take any more actions that would create further panic, in essence asking him to play down the threat. Xi also told Trump that China had the coronavirus outbreak under control, that the virus was not a threat to the outside world, and that the virus was sensitive to temperature and therefore would likely go away when the weather got warmer.

None of these things was true, but Trump believed them — or wanted to believe them — enough to start saying them out loud, both internally and otherwise. “That was a soothing call,” said the official, who paraphrased Xi’s message as "nothing to see here, we’ve got this handled, don’t overreact."

It was a message Americans would soon be hearing directly from the mouth of their own president.

“Now, the virus that we’re talking about having to do — you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in,” Trump said on Feb. 10 at a White House meeting with state governors, not revealing that when he said, “a lot of people,” he was referring to the Chinese president.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with state governors at the White House on Feb. 10, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As covid-19 cases in the United States mounted, the Trump team seemed to realize it had been duped and began to point fingers at China. It was important to make the origin of the outbreak clear, they reasoned. But at this stage, the State Department wanted to blame China without setting itself up for accusations it was stoking racism against Asians or Asian Americans. So, after some deliberations, it was determined that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would use the term “Wuhan virus,” which was determined to be strong but not too inflammatory.

But after Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian, a particularly aggressive Foreign Ministry spokesman, tweeted on March 12 that perhaps the U.S. Army had brought the virus into Wuhan, the gloves came off. In his news conference on the pandemic on March 18 at the White House, Trump ignored the cautions of his staff and called covid-19 “the Chinese virus,” something he would go on to do more than two dozen times. The propaganda war was on, with the two countries’ officials insulting each other in public and private.

Privately but explicitly, Chinese diplomats told U.S. officials they would cut off exports of medical supplies to the United States if Washington wasn’t careful in this war of words. Beijing was seeking to snuff out any discussion of the virus, along with any criticism of its domestic response and any allegation that it was hiding or misrepresenting information about the virus. In a move that U.S. officials saw as punitive, Beijing had halted exports of items such as face masks, even when they were made by American companies like 3M, which had factories inside China — prompting Navarro to comment on Fox Business that China had moved to “nationalize, effectively, 3M, our company.”

The staff set up another call between Trump and Xi for March 26. In this call, Xi told Trump that infections in China were now on the other side of the peak and case numbers were dropping significantly. He claimed that new cases in China were only from people who imported the virus from other countries. Xi didn’t directly threaten to hold back personal protective equipment if Trump continued to criticize China, but he said it obliquely, telling the U.S. president there was a cause and effect between the tone of U.S. statements and Chinese cooperation. Xi also claimed that herbal medicine was very effective against the virus.

The two leaders agreed to tell their aides to halt the blame game and focus on cooperation to fight the virus. But the fact that Beijing had made the threat convinced everyone in the White House that U.S. dependence on critical supply chains in China was a huge problem. “We’ve got to keep our mouths shut until the planes from China get here,” a senior official said at the time. “But let me tell you, after this is over, we are going to make sure we never find ourselves in this situation again.”

Throughout the summer of 2020, as his reelection prospects seemed to dim, the president gave the green light for his national security team to take whatever policies to push back on China’s malign behavior they had sitting on the shelf and let them fly. The Phase One trade deal was in limbo, and anyway, who cared about $50 billion in soybean sales when millions of Americans were out of work? Increasingly, there was no longer a relationship to save.

The Justice Department continued arresting and charging Chinese scientists who were found to have lied about their pasts or to have stolen research. The U.S. Navy ramped up its missions reinforcing the U.S. right to sail through waters claimed by China in the South China Sea and near Taiwan. In May, the State Department issued a rule limiting Chinese media visas to 90 days, whereas previously their duration had been unlimited. The Commerce Department sanctioned dozens of Chinese companies for proliferation and human rights abuses. Even the Treasury Department, for the first time, used its sanctions power against China in a real way, by applying the Global Magnitsky Act, a powerful law that could be invoked against officials in any country, to punish some Chinese human rights abusers.

Top Trump officials also gave a series of tough-on-China speeches. Pompeo, Attorney General William P. Barr, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and national security adviser O’Brien each made their final public cases for an approach to China that viewed the CCP as a malign actor and called on Americans and citizens of other democracies to wake up to what these officials saw as the urgent need to confront the Chinese government’s threats across the board.

In early July, I traveled with O’Brien to Arizona, an increasingly competitive 2020 battleground state, to watch him deliver his remarks on the CCP’s global ambitions and its influence operations inside the United States. “America, under President Trump’s leadership, has finally awoken to the threat the Chinese Communist Party’s actions pose to our way of life,” he told a room of about three dozen socially distanced audience members.

On the plane ride home, I asked him how the pandemic had altered the overall relationship with China. “We had hoped … that China’s behavior would change, that it would be modified,” the national security adviser said. “It became very clear to the American people with the Wuhan virus outbreak that China is not going to change its behavior. The Chinese have weaponized covid, they are trying to take advantage of this crisis to displace the United States as a global power.”

Two weeks later, O’Brien was diagnosed with covid-19.

Part IV

The fallout

Beijing saw in the pandemic both a challenge and an opportunity, a chance to demonstrate that its authoritarian, state-driven governance model was more efficient and effective than the messy liberal Western democracies. Because China was the first country to get hit by the virus, it was also the first country to deal with the consequences and come out on the other side. But the ways the CCP decided to use that advantage only turned more countries against it.

Rather than pursue open collaboration with the world’s scientists by making available all the experts and information they had accumulated, Chinese authorities banned Chinese researchers from sharing coronavirus research without explicit government approval. When the U.S. company Gilead Sciences sent Chinese researchers samples of its antiviral drug remdesivir for clinical trials using Chinese patients, the WIV tried to patent it. The U.S. government also publicly accused the Chinese government of trying to steal vaccine and therapeutic research from American labs through cyber-hacking and other means of intelligence collection.

Around the region, China flexed its muscles at the very moment its neighbors were most vulnerable. Chinese troops crossed into India over the Himalayan border, provoking armed confrontations. The CCP’s rubber-stamp legislature passed a new national security law for Hong Kong, destroying the concept of “one country, two systems” that Hong Kong residents had depended on to maintain their freedom of speech and limited autonomy from Beijing. Immediately after passing the law, Hong Kong police arrested high-profile members of the pro-democracy movement and raided independent media organizations. China’s threats against Taiwan, its provocations in the South China Sea and its repression of the Uighurs all increased, too.

The rest of the world was too distracted to object. But China’s behavior did not go unnoticed. The British government, for instance, reversed an earlier decision and decided to ban Chinese smartphone maker Huawei from its most sensitive networks. (Pompeo traveled to London to celebrate.) After the Netherlands recalled thousands of defective masks sent from China, Beijing threatened the country, angering its people. The Dutch government responded by gently asserting its independence and upgrading the name of its representative office in Taiwan, a symbolic gesture of support. The Chinese government threatened to hold back medical aid as punishment. Similarly, after the Australian government called for an investigation into the origins of the virus, China restricted beef imports, a gut punch to the Australian economy in the middle of the pandemic crisis.

By the summer of 2020, even Americans were souring on China, polls showed. This was a problem for Democratic leaders, who wanted to take a tougher stance on China but didn’t want to appear to be punishing Beijing, lest that be seen as validating Trump’s efforts to deflect blame for his own failures in dealing with the crisis. They also had concerns that Trump’s anti-China rhetoric was fueling an increase of attacks on Asians and Asian Americans. To show that it was active on China, the Democrat-led House passed several bills on Tibet, the Uighurs and Hong Kong, which all went through with strong bipartisan support. But when the Republicans put forth bills that sought to assign blame for the outbreak to China or call for investigations into the virus’s origins, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ordered her caucus not to cooperate with the Republicans.

When Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) put forward a resolution calling for an investigation into the virus’s origin, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) was the only Democrat to sign on. His fellow Democrat Judy Chu of California called Moulton and said he was supporting racism. Moulton took his name off the bill. There were other signs that the coronavirus pandemic was destroying any bipartisanship on the rising influence of the CCP. Democrats and Republicans had been working for over a year to plan a new China task force to coordinate policy and move important legislation. But Democrats pulled out the night before the task force was set to be announced.

Trump made bipartisanship harder by ramping up the racism, using terms such as “Kung Flu” at rallies. The Biden campaign switched from accusing Trump of being too tough on China to accusing him of being too deferential to Xi. At the Democratic National Convention in early August, China was hardly mentioned. But when it came time for the Republicans to hold their convention, China was the featured villain. Trump brought up the “China virus” several times in his convention appearances. Donald Trump Jr. focused on a statement put forth by senior intelligence official William Evanina that suggested the leadership in Beijing wanted Trump to lose because he was so “unpredictable.” “Beijing Biden is so weak on China that the intelligence community recently assessed that the Chinese Communist Party favors Biden,” the president’s eldest son said. Former Trump administration U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley declared that Biden is “great for Communist China,” while Trump is “tough on China.”

The State Department declared Chinese state media outlets in the United States to be “foreign missions,” meaning they had to report on their activities to the federal government, as did their hired lobbyists. A presidential proclamation was issued banning researchers from China in science, technology, engineering and math fields if they had any association with the Chinese military. The Trump administration ordered the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, which was suspected of running extensive spying and research theft operations. The Federal Communications Commission named Huawei and ZTE as national security threats, banning the use of federal funds to purchase their equipment.

The Chinese leadership, meanwhile, seemed content to wait for the election result before trying to reengage with Washington in a serious way.

Both Beijing and Washington knew the virus had left the U.S.-China relationship forever changed. All indications were that the Xi regime would continue its ever-increasing economic aggression, military expansion, internal repression and interference in democratic societies. The Biden campaign advertised a China policy that would retain some elements of Trump’s competitive approach. They promised to focus more on multilateral strategies and alliances and get rid of Trump’s tariffs. But there was no going back to the stance that the Obama administration had taken toward China in 2016, when officials had attempted to shape the U.S.-China relationship into one in which any opportunity for cooperation took priority and most uncomfortable issues were swept under the rug.

Whatever else might have been accomplished with Beijing during Trump’s tumultuous term, those days were gone. In their place was a realization that China’s rise now much more directly affected Americans’ security, prosperity, freedom and public health. It was an awakening Xi surely didn’t anticipate and one that threatened to upend his grand plans to restore China’s place atop the international order. Did the realization that China could reach much further into American life than most Americans previously understood signal a longer-lasting change in the relationship between Washington and Beijing? There was, according to most experts, good reason to think the Chinese government might finally have gone too far. “As Napoleon warned, don’t rouse a sleeping giant,” said Harvard professor Joseph Nye at the (virtual) Aspen Security Forum in August 2020. “But he was talking about China. We’re talking about the United States.”

Read more from Josh Rogin:

How Clubhouse (briefly) exposed China’s fear society

Trump’s China hawks are loose and not wasting any time

Biden must not fall into China’s smooth relations trap

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