The US establishment is demonizing China over the COVID-19 crisis with a familiar Russiagate playbook of specious claims, fear-mongering, and deflecting responsibility for homegrown dysfunction.
The bipartisan US establishment has coalesced around increased hostility to China in response to the coronavirus pandemic. China has faced numerous allegations including that it covered up the pandemic at the world’s expense, developed the virus in a lab, and has spread disinformation. Journalist and attorney Ajit Singh debunks some of the most widespread claims lodged against China and analyzes the parallels between the current climate and Russiagate.
Guest: Ajit Singh, Attorney and Journalist.
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté. My guest is Ajit Singh. He is a lawyer and journalist who writes about China extensively, including for TheGrayzone.com. Ajit Singh, welcome to Pushback.
AJIT SINGH: Thank you for having me.
AARON MATÉ: So tensions now are high between the US and China, and a lot of allegations being hurled in China’s direction, including accusing China of covering up the outbreak of the coronavirus, of misleading the WHO of the virus itself possibly being started not via animal-to-human transmission but in fact inside a Chinese lab.
SENATOR TOM COTTON: Brett Baier’s reporting tonight, if it bears out, shows that the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for every single death, every job lost, every retirement nest egg lost from this coronavirus, and Xi Jinping and his Chinese communist apparatchiks must be made to pay the price.
AARON MATÉ: That was an allegation spread across the political spectrum, including by President Trump.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re looking at it. A lot of people are looking at it. It seems to make sense. They talk about a certain kind of bat, but that bat wasn’t in that area. So, a lot of strange things are happening, but there is a lot of investigation going on and we’re gonna find out.
AARON MATÉ: Chinese agents spreading disinformation, a lot of this stuff going on. But before we get into the specific allegations, I’m curious, your overall thoughts right now on the climate of hostility and antagonism towards China that we’re seeing right now.
AJIT SINGH: Yeah, I think there’s been a noticeable escalation in anti-China hostility from the US government establishment and corporate media in the past month or month-and-a-half. At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, when the epicenter was in Wuhan, China, much of the vast majority of the presentation that we received was that China was reacting in an authoritarian or draconian fashion when it was implementing its lockdown measures in Wuhan and Hubei Province. As the United States has had to deal with this virus on its own shores and has struggled to contain it in large part due to inadequate responses by the United States government and other levels of government, federal and state, this narrative has shifted from initially China was behaving in a draconian, over-the-top measure manner to now, China didn’t do enough and that China was nefariously or maliciously covering up the coronavirus outbreak and is responsible for the troubles that the United States and other countries of the world are facing.
This isn’t just an accident; it appears to be a coordinated campaign by the US government being aided by a very pliant corporate media. We know this from a March 21st report in The Daily Beast, which had obtained a US government cable outlining the White House’s strategy to launch a PR campaign as the United States was emerging as the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak, to shift blame from the US government and onto China, specifically seeking to accuse the Chinese government of orchestrating a cover-up and of creating the global pandemic. Since this time, we’ve seen an intense escalation by the US government and the media, which was already hostile in rhetoric and accusations against China. These can largely be grouped into a couple of narratives that we’ve seen. We’ve heard that China is hiding 40,000 or 50,000 additional coronavirus deaths from the official death tolls, that the World Health Organization is a Chinese puppet that’s controlled by the Chinese government, and most recently we’ve seen the revival of a fringe conspiracy theory by more mainstream outlets that the coronavirus was engineered in a Chinese lab, either deliberately as part of a bio warfare program or through an accidental lab leak due to reckless research and unsafe protocols.
And I think we’re seeing both parties of the US establishment coalesce around this anti-China narrative and seeking to sort of one-up the other and present themselves as the most ardently anti-China political force in the United States. And this is a very dangerous situation, not just internationally because of the risks that it poses between the world’s two strongest global powers in terms of aggressive confrontation, but also it has a lot of domestic consequences in terms of emboldening both parties and the political establishment to avoid or blunt the genuine deserved outrage of ordinary Americans against the systemic failure of US capitalism and of their administration. It allows them to blunt this and try to shift them on to a foreign boogeyman in a way that’s very similar to the Russiagate narrative that’s been deployed since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
AARON MATÉ: So, let me put to you some of the key claims that are reduced to pin the blame on China for and accuse it and the WHO of misleading the world about the coronavirus crisis, and then we’ll get into some of the other examples you mentioned. So, there’s a very famous tweet from the WHO from January 14th and it says this: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus identified in Wuhan, China.” So, you see this tweet, Ajit, being produced a lot as a way to accuse China and the WHO of lying in claiming that there was no human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. How do you take that allegation?
AJIT SINGH: Yeah, it’s gotten a lot of attention, particularly by the right-wing, but also a lot of centrists and liberals, to suggest that, yes, China and the WHO were either colluding to mislead the world about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak or that China was duping the WHO. I think if we focus on the balance of the evidence as opposed to the wording of a single tweet, it’s pretty clear that this narrative is false.
First the tweet, in fact, is referring to the January 14th press briefing by the WHO, during which they didn’t say that there was no human-to-human transmission but stated that there was…the evidence thus far indicated limited human-to-human transmission. It’s important to note, at this time, coronavirus wasn’t a worldwide pandemic; it was a mysterious illness that of which there were only 41 cases. Still at this time they issued a guidance to hospitals worldwide to be prepared for infection control and a possible quote “super spreading event.”
AARON MATÉ: Let me just read…let me read to you quickly because that tweet gets a lot of attention. But that word you mentioned that they said, that there was actually “limited” human-to-human transmission, it was even reported at the time. So the same date, January 14th, from Reuters, and it says this, quote: “There has been ‘limited’ human-to-human transmission of a new coronavirus that has struck in China, mainly small clusters in families, but there is potential for wider spread, the WHO said on Tuesday.” So, it’s just an interesting case where you have one badly-worded tweet that gets a lot of attention, but contemporaneous accounts from the time of that very same WHO press conference, like this one from Reuters, get no attention.
AJIT SINGH: Yeah, I think it’s also important to note that the terminology “human-to-human transmission” has…and “limited human-to-human transmission” refers not only to the extent of the spread but also to the severity and the degree to which the pathogen is infectious. So, “limited human-to-human transmission” doesn’t mean that a virus or pathogen is not dangerous; it’s a designation which has been applied to very dangerous pathogens such as bird flu viruses, MERS—Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome—which have been categorized under limited human-to-human transmission, so that in and of itself isn’t an inherent downplaying. We see that very serious illnesses have been given the scientific designation, and the reason it’s given this is because it refers to the degree to which it is infectious. And at that time, it’s important to note that these limited amount of cases, the vast majority of them, were traced back to a wet market in Wuhan, and so it wasn’t clear to the extent to which this is rapidly transmitting between people or to which all of these people have a link to this one source. The designation “limited human-to-human transmission” is understood in contrast to what coronavirus was eventually designated, as being sustained human-to-human transmission, which refers to it being easily transmitted from one person to the next and onward in the way that the flu works.
And it’s important to note that less than a week later the WHO announced that there was evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission. So, in this narrative in which we’re supposed to believe that China and the WHO are trying to mislead the world—presumably for good PR or whatnot, less than a week later they’ve given themselves, what, six days of good PR?—to then switch to calling sustained human-to-human transmission, and then three days later, on January 23rd the Chinese government implements a systemic lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province, which led to immediately being criticized by the Western press. And, so, this whole narrative of misleading…it’s hard to see what they were misleading for. The evidence, in my view, much more strongly indicates that as evidence of this mysterious unknown…previously unknown virus was emerging, the assessments of the WHO and Chinese authorities were evolving, rather than some sort of conspiracy to mislead the world.
AARON MATÉ: And here’s one more thing that gets missed that I think is very important, which is that, according even to Secretary Azar, the US government was informed by Chinese colleagues, not in February or late January about the coronavirus, but in fact on January 3rd. Azar said this at a White House press briefing back in March.
ALEX AZAR, Secretary of Health and Human Services: So, we were alerted by some discussions that Dr. Redfield, the director of the CDC, had with Chinese colleagues on January 3rd. It’s since been known that there may have been cases in December; not that we were alerted in December.
AJIT SINGH: Yeah, in addition to this there’s a New York Times article which states that the head of the US CDC was informed directly by the Chinese CDC on January 1st, and according of The New York Times the Chinese head of CDC was in tears during this conversation. In addition, The Washington Post reported this week that from the outset there have been over a dozen officials…US government officials embedded at the WHO that have been giving real-time updates to the Trump administration. So, I think the whole narrative that Trump or the United States was not in the know, or was blindsided by the Chinese and WHO, has no merit in terms of evidence.
AARON MATÉ: Right, I think it’s a very good point. When people talk about the WHO covering something up or accusing them of that, they’re forgetting that there are officials from all these member states, including the US and other Western allies inside the WHO, which would mean that if there were a cover-up, that would have to mean that these Western officials who are right there at the WHO are complicit in it.
AJIT SINGH: And the United States’ own government officials.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, okay let’s take this to this theory that has gotten a lot of attention as of late. Donald Trump himself spread it, but also people in liberal media as well. This conspiracy theory that COVID-19 actually originated inside a lab inside Wuhan province. Talk to us about what was claimed and then what the actual facts were, which you went through in a recent piece with Max Blumenthal for TheGrayzone.com.
AJIT SINGH: Yeah, so in early January, a very fringe conspiracy theory in right-wing outlets such as The Washington Times claimed that the novel coronavirus was engineered as part of a bio warfare program by the Chinese government. This was roundly discredited by the scientific community first, but also mainstream media outlets in the United States also, as being a nonsensical conspiracy theory. A group of…a team of US, British and Australian researchers were quite emphatic in an article in the scientific journal Nature in March, in which they said there’s…we don’t believe any type of laboratory scenario is possible, both engineering or that it was some sort of laboratory experimental construct. And, similarly, a group of dozens of public health scientists wrote an open letter in The Lancet medical journal, stating that scientific findings today overwhelmingly conclude that the coronavirus originated in wildlife like so many other emerging pathogens, and condemned conspiracy theories.
Nonetheless, despite this conspiracy theory being discredited and despite the overwhelming scientific stance against this sort of theory, a sort of slightly altered version of this has been attempted to be revived by The Washington Post‘s Josh Rogin and the US government, relying on a couple of State Department cables from 2018. Rogin alleges there were dangerous safety issues and reckless research being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and that that was studying China bat coronaviruses. He bases, Josh Rogin [does], his fearmongering about safety concerns on a single comment by US embassy officials who have no apparent scientific expertise, and the comment referred to concerns that there weren’t enough trained technicians at the laboratory.
But Rogin’s own cable, in its own words, it says most importantly the thing that it identifies from its visit is that, from a public health perspective, the research being done at this lab is critical to preventing and predicting future emerging coronavirus outbreaks. I think there’s this idea that Rogin relies on, that this is some sort of shadowy lab doing reckless research, when in fact it has the highest international standard of biosafety precaution and it’s one of dozens of such facilities around the world. The United States has 13 of these types of biosafety labs as of 2013, and the goal of this research is not some nefarious reckless purpose but to understand, prevent, and treat these very deadly diseases. This biosafety lab was the product of not just a Chinese initiative, but it was a Chinese-French joint collaboration, and technicians who work there were trained not only in the United States…not only in China, but in the United States, Australia, Canada and France, before the lab became operational. They’ve published their training protocols transparently with the US CDC in a journal that the US CDC runs on emerging infectious diseases. And Rogin relies on this one comment in order to make this very damning claim, and he doesn’t speak to any scientists, any virologists, epidemiologists, anyone with expertise in the area. Instead he relies on the insinuations of anonymous Trump officials and someone he refers to as a research scientist who, in fact, is a Chinese dissident with decades of backing by the US government and National Endowment for Democracy, who has no expertise in the area but in fact teaches classes on blogging and internet freedom in China.
So, I think it’s important to understand that this is not a genuine scientific article but very much a WMD-style conspiracy theory attempting to gin up hostility against China. It’s important to note also that Rogin and his work has been roundly criticized by virologists in the United States for presenting vague claims that don’t present the specific risk with the research being done on bat coronaviruses by Chinese researchers, and that they ignore the importance of this work. And in response to these criticisms that he didn’t interview any virologists or scientists for his study, Rogin claims that he spoke to top virologists, but he refuses to include their comments in his article or indicate what they said. He just says he spoke to them and they disagree with these other virologists that are criticizing him. He’s also explicitly refused to publish the State Department cables in full when asked to do so by scientists.
I think it’s important that we also recognize that the work being done there, there’s no evidence that he provides that the work being done on coronaviruses is unsafe. He tries to smear the work of the head of the lab’s research on bat coronaviruses, Shi Zheng-Li, and he cites a 2015 article in Nature, which refers to a debate by scientists over the risks associated with certain research done of bat coronaviruses. That article doesn’t even name Shi Zheng-Li and refers to a study that was being conducted not in Wuhan but in the United States and led by majority American researchers of which Shi Zheng-Li was one of 13 co-authors. And, so, we can see that this is completely a speculative hit piece and not a substantive concern with safety issues in this lab. And it’s very concerning that this article has not been met with any resistance by the so-called “liberal resistance” to Trump. We’ve seen Chris Hayes of MSNBC promote it. We’ve seen Yashar Ali of New York magazine promote it, along with other liberal media members who are purportedly anti-Trump. They’re helping mainstream this very fringe conspiracy theory. And that’s very concerning to see.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, I think Chris Hayes shared the article on Twitter and just wrote “Yikes”, which was my reaction to seeing Chris Hayes credulously share this article on Twitter, without questioning it.
Well, speaking of Russiagate peddlers, let’s talk about the parallels here to Russiagate. So that lab theory is a very good example of a conspiracy theory. Sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be correct. In this case, though, you’ve just laid out some of the reasons why it is very specious, to say the least, and you detailed it even more in your piece with Max Blumenthal at TheGrayzone.com.
Now, Russiagate was based on a conspiracy theory that Russia conspired with Donald Trump and that’s what decided the 2016 election. And it served multiple political goals that I’ve covered extensively and you touched on, including helping Democrats excuse their loss, and also helping the national security state undermine Trump’s calls, however sincere they were, of better calls with Russia, and to keep the US and Russia locked in a dangerous Cold War. And now we’re seeing, in the case of China, there is utility for the conspiracy theories we’re hearing about China and the blame towards China. You know, there is an imperative in maintaining tensions with China and keeping the very expensive but lucrative for military industry coffers Cold War going, and also for deflecting blame from the failures here at home, that failed to adequately prepare for the coronavirus and stop its spread.
So, let’s talk about these interests here. I want to read to you a couple of things. There was a report by the Congressional Research Service written in December of 2019, just before the coronavirus crisis began, and it notes that under Trump the US has escalated what’s called this shift towards Great Power Competition, shifting its national security strategy away from fighting so-called terrorism and instead engaged in Great Power Competition, namely with Russia and China. And the Congressional Research Service says this, quote, “Department of Defense officials have identified countering China’s military capabilities as the Pentagon’s top priority.” And since the coronavirus crisis has broken out, we’ve seen them capitalize on that. Or at least pursue that goal. Recently a report to Congress called…from the Pentagon, asked for $20.1 billion in equipment, and I’m quoting from The New York Times here, “in equipment, exercises and defense investments to counter China in 2021 and beyond.” Ajit Singh, if you could respond to all this.
AJIT SINGH: Yeah, I think we’re seeing an escalation of not a new phenomenon but a long-standing bipartisan strategy of the United States that dates back to, at least in its modern iteration, the 2008-2016 Obama administration, which started off the Pivot to Asia, which was the military pivot of US naval assets to the Asia-Pacific. And this trend has been escalated under the Trump administration with, as you mentioned, this sort of identification of quote-unquote “Great Power Competition” taking over from quote-unquote “The War on Terror” as the now primary objective of US national security.
We’ve also heard statements at the recent…another number of statements identifying China along with countries like Russia as the principal threat facing the United States. In November at a NATO ministerial meeting, Mike Pompeo explicitly referred to the first Cold War and the so-called victory of the Allies against the threat of the Soviet Union. He explicitly referred to that with mention of now the threat facing…the primary threat facing the NATO allies and the United States being the Chinese Communist Party. I think there are a number of structural reasons for this in addition to the narrow-minded or the narrow self-interest of, like, the military-industrial complex or the self-interest of politicians to avoid criticism or to redirect attention towards a foreign enemy.
I think…and we’ve seen even the US left and critical voices unwilling to even acknowledge this, that China presents an impediment not just at the level of a conflict between two equal powers, but it presents an impediment to the US international strategy, vis-à-vis a host of enemy countries. China, while an imperfect country, is distinct from the United States in a number of important ways—ways that are incredibly important for other developing countries, for example, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria. For many of these countries which the United States attempts to, in the words of the Nixon administration, strangle or make the economy scream, China presents a source of financing, economic engagement and diplomatic support which is not conditioned upon that government implementing neoliberalism or implementing a change in government, as we’ve seen the United States attempt to condition aid to Venezuela with, with the Guaidó situation. And so, this undermines, really, the foundation of US foreign policy and imperialism. And so, what we’re seeing, I think, the way that we should understand the current situation isn’t [as] some sort of escalation coming out of nowhere, but really the US establishment in both parties seizing on this current crisis in order to advance an already-existing agenda that they have, being a new Cold War or great power confrontation or competition vis-à-vis China.
And I think this is extremely disturbing, regardless of one’s opinion on China, if we can bracket that for a second. It’s incredibly disturbing for a number of reasons. One, it’s revealing the incredibly low standard of evidence required to make pretty much any claim about China as long as it’s useful to US foreign policy and the US agenda. As we’ve seen with this Rogin story, or previous stories citing unnamed social media reports, to claim that China is hiding tens of thousands of coronavirus stats, that’s a standard of evidence we would never accept for allied countries or for the United States itself.
This, first, is disturbing because it’s really ratcheting it up—tensions in the United States towards China, and hostility. A recent poll of Republicans and Democrats from a couple weeks ago found that over seventy-five percent blame China for coronavirus and over fifty percent say China owes reparations. That’s a stronger position that they have than for reparations for African Americans for slavery, let alone even considering reparations for any country the United States has destroyed. And most recently this week, an even more disturbing poll—because it goes beyond just Republican and Democrat[ic] Party members—by Pew Research found that two-thirds of Americans now view China unfavorably. That’s up from 47 percent just two years ago, and nine out of ten adults view China as a threat, and 62 percent view China as a major threat.
So this isn’t just a…this obviously is a concern in terms of peace and international confrontation and all the fallout that that could have, but also it’s very dangerous from a domestic perspective, I think, for ordinary working Americans and for progressive-minded Americans. We’re seeing it’s already empowering the right-wing center-right and far-right to weaponize anti-China sentiment for nefarious ends. We’re already seeing a dangerous rise in racist hate crimes against people of Asian descent across the US. We saw the anti-quarantine protesters telling health care workers to, quote, “Go to China” if they want communism. Just this week, before Trump referred to being attacked…the attack of an invisible enemy in order to justify his anti-immigration politics, and it’s also being weaponized by both parties of the establishment in order to…in the same way that Russiagate in 2016 was used to blunt any self-critique of the Democrats’ neoliberal policy. It’s being used by both parties to blunt any critique of themselves or any systemic critique of US capitalism and holding those entities—the US system or the US government—responsible, instead trying to redirect genuine outrage towards China. It’s obviously emboldening Trump to try to pin the blame for his administration’s catastrophic failures onto a foreign enemy, but it’s also being used by the Biden campaign and the Democratic establishment to blunt any sort of critique or policy concessions required being owed to the Sanders contingent or Sanders campaign, because their apparent focus is to show how Joe Biden is more anti-China than Trump is and how Trump is selling out to China.
And I think this is a very dangerous strategy for those of us, or for those in the United States who seek progressive changes, that will actually address the crises that are going on in the United States in terms of health care, debt, unemployment, inequality. And even for those who are solely concerned with just defeating Trump, as many centrists and establishment Democrats claim they are, this is absolutely, almost certainly a losing strategy. Because it ultimately provides justification for the basis of Trump’s narrative, that he’s not responsible but China is, if the Democrats just pursue a strategy of “it’s all China’s fault.” And so, I think for people in America, I think it’s very important to resist this sort of wholly exaggerated, dishonest representation of China because it will very likely be used against them.
AARON MATÉ: Ajit Singh, attorney and journalist, writes extensively about China. You can find his work at TheGrayzone.com. Ajit, thanks very much.
AJIT SINGH: Thank you.
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. He is also is contributor to The Nation magazine and former host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!. Aaron has also presented and produced for Vice, AJ+, and Al Jazeera.