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Why Beijing won’t ever cooperate with a COVID-19 investigation

A weekly recap of the stories to watch in China this week, plus an exclusive analysis. Delivered Wednesday.

June 9, 2021, 5:51 p.m.

Welcome to Foreign Policy's China Brief.

This week's highlights: Chinese officials have no incentives to deal with the US at one COVID-19 origins Investigation, the US Ministry of Defense China Task Force finished his work, and an escaped Herd of elephants captivates the Chinese public.

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Another COVID-19 origin investigation? Does not happen.

Biden government officials have repeatedly stated that it is in China's best interest to cooperate on an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. That would surely be true in an ideal world where nations work together in a spirit of pure hearted scientific research. But Chinese officials, from ground-level regulators to top leadership, have a lot to hide in Wuhan – even if COVID-19 had nothing to do with a laboratory, as it very likely remains.

Beijing not only denies that the coronavirus came from a laboratory leak. She denies that the coronavirus came from China at all.

All the precautionary measures that followed the SARS outbreak in 2003 resulted in the fact that no more virus should emerge from China, let alone no country wants to be held responsible for a global mega-death event. That embarrassment prompted Chinese authorities back in March last year to spread conspiratorial claims that COVID-19 originated in the United States.

The transfer of zoonoses will likely be due to poor farming practices or regulation. New research by Chinese and Western scientists has shown that wild animals have been sold en masse in Wuhan, despite regulators claiming otherwise. China's agricultural regulation is plagued by corruption and capacity gaps – issues that are embarrassing to talk about. Likewise, the well-documented failure of the Wuhan government to deal with the initial outbreak and the likely involvement of national leaders in delaying an appropriate response.

China's leaders themselves may not even know how the coronavirus came about. Despite the constant monitoring, the view from above is often limited. Anyone involved in a laboratory accident would like to hide it from the Chinese authorities just as much as foreigners. China's surveillance can be tightened as it was after the initial outbreak, but it is mostly full of blind spots. Prior to the pandemic, Beijing devoted resources to cracking down on Uyghurs and controlling speech, not monitoring rural health or enforcing wildlife regulations.

Meanwhile, officials who sign a foreign cooperation agreement face political ramifications. US-China relations are at their lowest level in decades, and political cleansing is the order of the day under President Xi Jinping. As a result, no Chinese official would offer risky collaboration with a foreign counterpart without the absolute approval of the head of an international investigation, particularly one involving the US.

This confirmation does not come. The politicized discourse, driven in part by the same secret services entrusted with spying on China, makes this absolutely impossible. Even as Beijing's influence on international institutions such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations grows, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still perceives them as fundamentally untrustworthy because they are beyond the party's complete control.

There is also no domestic public invitation to cooperate with an investigation. Think about what the alleged laboratory leak allegations look like from the perspective of ordinary Chinese. Doctors and scientists who have worked on coronavirus are known as co-conspirators of the outbreak. And a country that has completely botched its pandemic response and often refuses to participate in international accountability itself is making allegations against a country that has succeeded – driven in part by the politicians involved in that failure.

Mission accomplished? A China task force set up by the US Department of Defense in February on the orders of President Joe Biden ended its work without dramatic results. The press release vaguely mentions various cross-departmental initiatives, some of which are classified. Any increased cooperation within the US government on China might be a good thing, but the changes seem more than anything but necessary bureaucratic reforms.

A joint departmental supply chain review, triggered by the pandemic and concerns about China's ability to potentially disrupt supplies of critical materials, was also completed this week. A new supply chain disruption task force will focus on empowering US manufacturing, bringing allies into closer supply chains, and preventing Chinese suppliers from playing an overly critical role.

In order to actually prevent suppliers from flocking to the cheapest Chinese options, it will take significant investment and coercive measures.

Nationalist anger. A number of Chinese intellectuals have been attacked online for participating in a Japan-sponsored exchange program that has been running since 2008. The concern sounds admittedly hollow, considering how enthusiastically those same media outlets have been involved in the arousal of nationalism.

Meanwhile, some popular WeChat bloggers have expanded their anti-US bloggers. Conspiracy theory in anti-Semitic conspiracy politics – which is already advocated by some state media representatives.

Wild Asian elephants make a temporary stop on the outskirts of Kunming, China on June 7th.Xinhua via Getty Images

Herd of elephants. For over a week, a herd of 19 lost elephants that fled a wildlife sanctuary in Yunnan Province has caught the attention of the Chinese public. Although authorities are tracking them via drones and trying to get them back to a safe location, the elephants have done a lot of damage by entering the village's farmland in search of food.

Elephants were once relatively common across China. Xiangqi, a Chinese variant of chess, uses elephants as a counterpart for bishops. But over the centuries, human expansion forced them to exterminate or retreat, and by the 19th century they were limited to a tiny population in the south.

Concerns about semiconductors. The US Senate passed the Endless Frontier Act on Tuesday, which invests over $ 250 billion in research in technological competition with China and blocks Chinese investments in sensitive areas. The legislature has already significantly reduced the originally much more ambitious spending targets of the draft law. One of the most notable parts of the bill is the $ 52 billion allocated to the U.S. semiconductor industry.

There are a number of reasons why US policy has recently been so focused on semiconductors, the critical components in computer chips.

The first is China's saber-rattling over Taiwan, which accounts for 63 percent of global semiconductor sales. On the Chinese side, a failed plan to boost domestic production has raised concerns for years. Add to this the chip shortage that emerged this year as economic growth resumed after the pandemic broke out, slowing global production from toasters to automobiles.

TikTok, WeChat get a respite. The Biden administration has stopped Trump-era attempts to ban or enforce the sale of the hugely popular TikTok video app and the ubiquitous Chinese messaging service WeChat. The decision was always likely as US courts had already clearly blocked both attempts.

In both cases, the shaky case for banning the apps was largely based on fears of CCP influence – an indicator in the case of TikTok and well documented for WeChat – that failed to stand up to U.S. law, and especially the First Amendment. In addition, the Trump administration itself has given up trying to enforce the TikTok ban.

The decision does not end the review of the presence of Chinese technology in US firms. But it's emblematic of how the Trump team's chaotic attempts to make headlines about China often got into legal swamps.

Huawei's "new" operating system. Chinese phone giant Huawei, battered by allegations of links to the People's Liberation Army and the nationalist wave in China, has launched its own supposedly domestically developed operating system called HarmonyOS. Chinese media hailed the move as a step forward for the country's technological independence.

There is only one small problem. HarmonyOS is Android, at least on phones and tablets. There appear to be two systems, an Internet of Things and a smartwatch version based on Huawei's own LiteOS, and a fork from Android that runs on the phones and tablets. The code base is practically the same, and early versions didn't even remove "Android" from some references.

Splitting Android is perfectly normal, but Huawei's obfuscation that it is being done for domestic political propaganda purposes isn't.

What we read

The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, Mark Elvin, Yale University Press, 2006, 592 pp., $ 25.

The Retreat of the Elephants by Mark Elvin

In honor of the pachyderm obsession with the Chinese public, I recommend an old favorite this week: Mark Elvin's extensive ecological history of China, and specifically the relationships between intellectuals, officials, and animals. Using poetry, official reports, and environmental data, Elvin traces the history of a land where people have lamented for over two millennia that nature is retreating.

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