Why Beijing Will Never Cooperate With a COVID-19 Investigation
Although a lab leak is unlikely, officials have plenty to conceal in Wuhan.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Chinese officials have no incentives to cooperate with the United States on a COVID-19 origins investigation, the U.S. Department of Defense China Task Force wraps up its work, and an escaped herd of elephants captivates the Chinese public.
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Another COVID-19 Origins Investigation? Not Happening.
Biden administration officials have repeatedly said it is in China’s best interest to cooperate with an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. That would certainly be true in an ideal world, where nations worked together in a spirit of pure-hearted scientific inquiry. But Chinese officials, from ground-level regulators to top leadership, have plenty to conceal in Wuhan—even if COVID-19 had nothing to do with a laboratory, as remains very likely.
It’s not just that Beijing denies the coronavirus came from a lab leak. It denies that the coronavirus originated in China at all.
All the precautions that followed the SARS outbreak in 2003 meant that another virus simply wasn’t supposed to emerge from China, not to mention that no country wants to be held responsible for a global megadeath event. That embarrassment has prompted Chinese authorities to promote conspiratorial claims as early as last March that COVID-19 originated in the United States.
Zoonotic transfer will likely trace back to bad agricultural practices or poor regulation. New research by Chinese and Western scientists finds that wildlife was being sold en masse in Wuhan, despite regulators’ claims otherwise. Chinese agricultural regulation is plagued by corruption and capacity gaps—problems that are embarrassing to talk about. So are the well-documented failings of the Wuhan government in addressing the initial outbreak and the likely involvement of national leadership in delaying an appropriate response.
China’s leaders themselves likely don’t even know how the coronavirus emerged. Despite the tropes of constant surveillance, the view from the top is often limited. Those involved in a laboratory accident would want to conceal it from the Chinese authorities as much as foreigners. China’s surveillance can be tightened, as after the initial outbreak, but most of the time it’s full of blind spots. Before the pandemic, Beijing dedicated resources to cracking down on Uyghurs and controlling speech, not monitoring rural health or enforcing wildlife regulations.
Meanwhile, officials who sign off on foreign cooperation face political consequences. The U.S.-China relationship is at its lowest point in decades, and political purges are common under President Xi Jinping. As a result, no Chinese official would offer risky cooperation with a foreign counterpart without absolute endorsement from the top of an international investigation, especially a U.S.-involved one.
That endorsement isn’t coming. The politicized discourse driven in part by the same intelligence services charged with spying on China makes it an absolute impossibility. Even as Beijing’s influence on international institutions like the World Health Organization and the United Nations grows, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still perceives them as fundamentally untrustworthy because they’re outside complete party control.
Nor is there any domestic public demand to cooperate on an investigation. Consider how the accusations over a supposed lab leak look from the perspective of ordinary Chinese people. Doctors and scientists who worked on coronaviruses are being painted as co-conspirators in the outbreak. And a country that utterly botched its pandemic response and that often refuses to participate in international accountability itself is making accusations against one that succeeded—driven in part by the politicians involved in that failure.
What We’re Following
Mission complete? A China Task Force assembled by the U.S. Department of Defense in February on President Joe Biden’s orders has ended its work without dramatic results. The press release vaguely mentions various interdepartmental initiatives, some of which are classified. Any increased cooperation on China within the U.S. government may be a good thing, but the changes seem like necessary bureaucratic reform more than anything else.
A joint departmental review of supply chains, prompted by the pandemic and concerns over China’s ability to potentially disrupt the supply of critical materials, also wrapped up this week. A new Supply Chain Disruption Task Force will focus on strengthening U.S. production, bringing allies into tighter supply chains, and cutting out Chinese suppliers from playing too critical a role.
To actually prevent suppliers from flocking to the cheapest Chinese options will require major investment and coercive measures.
Nationalistic fury. A number of Chinese intellectuals face online attacks for taking part in a Japanese-sponsored exchange program running since 2008, prompting worries from less extreme Chinese state media that nationalism is out of control. The concern admittedly rings hollow, given how enthusiastically that same media has taken part in stirring nationalism.
Herd of elephants. For over a week, a herd of 19 lost elephants that escaped a nature reserve in Yunnan province has captured the attention of the Chinese public. Although the authorities are tracking them via drone and attempting to return them to a safe location, the elephants have caused a fair amount of damage by breaking into village farmland in search of food.
Elephants were once relatively common throughout China. Xiangqi, a Chinese variant of chess, uses elephants as its equivalent for bishops. But over the centuries human expansion forced them into extinction or retreat, and by the 19th century they were confined to a tiny population in the south.
Tech and Business
Semiconductor concerns. The U.S. Senate passed the Endless Frontier Act on Tuesday, putting over $250 billion into research as part of technological competition with China and blocking Chinese investment in sensitive areas. Lawmakers have already considerably reduced the bill’s original spending goals, which were far more ambitious. One of the most notable parts of the bill is the $52 billion allocated for the U.S. semiconductor industry.
There are a couple of reasons why U.S. policymakers have lately become so focused on semiconductors, the crucial components in computer chips.
The first is China’s saber-rattling over Taiwan, which makes up 63 percent of the global semiconductor revenue. On the Chinese side, a failed yearslong plan to boost domestic production has caused concern. There’s also the chip shortage that emerged this year as economic growth resumed after the onset of the pandemic—slowing down global manufacturing of everything from toasters to cars.
TikTok, WeChat get reprieve. The Biden administration has dropped Trump-era attempts to ban or force the sale of uber-popular video app TikTok and ubiquitous Chinese messaging service WeChat. The decision was always likely, given U.S. courts had already blocked both attempts in no uncertain terms.
In both cases, the shaky argument for banning the apps was largely based on fears of CCP influence—circumstantial in the case of TikTok and well-documented for WeChat—that didn’t hold up against U.S. law, and especially the First Amendment. Moreover, the Trump administration itself gave up on trying to enforce the TikTok ban.
The decision doesn’t mean an end to scrutiny of Chinese technology’s presence in U.S. firms. But it is emblematic of how the Trump team’s chaotic attempts to make headlines on China often ran into legal quagmires.
Huawei’s “new” OS. The Chinese phone giant Huawei, battered by accusations of connections to the People’s Liberation Army and riding the nationalist wave in China, has launched its own supposedly domestically developed operating system called HarmonyOS. Chinese media have hailed the move as a step forward for the country’s technological independence.
There’s just one small problem. HarmonyOS is Android, at least on phones and tablets. There appear to be two systems, an Internet of Things and smartwatch version based off Huawei’s own LiteOS and a fork of Android running on the phones and tablets. The codebase is virtually identical, and early versions hadn’t even scrubbed “Android” from some references.
Forking Android is perfectly normal, but Huawei’s obfuscation that it’s done so for domestic political propaganda ends isn’t.
What We’re Reading
The Retreat of the Elephants, by Mark Elvin
In honor of the Chinese public’s pachyderm obsession this week, I’m recommending an old favorite: Mark Elvin’s comprehensive ecological history of China, and especially the relationships among intellectuals, officials, and animals. Using poetry, official accounts, and environmental data, Elvin traces the history of a country where people have lamented that nature is in retreat for over two millennia.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer