In the winter of 2002–2003, the deadly SARS coronavirus exploded out of China’s “wet-blood” wildlife markets. SARS infected over 8,000 people worldwide and killed almost 800. Yet, post-crisis, China laxly enforced bans on the offending markets, only to permit them to flourish soon thereafter. Today’s COVID-19 is the deadly and avoidable legacy of China’s recklessness.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has proclaimed that COVID-19 stems from just such Chinese “wet-blood” markets. While Beijing has praised them as protein sources, their unsanitary practices have long been identified as “perfect viral melting pots” for zoonotic diseases — diseases that jump from animals to man. In COVID-19’s wake, China shut down cities and shuttered the offending Wuhan markets — for now.
Today, the world strains to curtail COVID-19, mourn losses, and salvage livelihoods. Tomorrow it must prevent a recurrence and account for damage done. Tomorrow’s tasks regrettably require forthrightly identifying and addressing Beijing’s wrongful, unnecessary, and repeated misdeeds.
As many, including Dr. Bill Karesh of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, have shown, readily affordable measures, including refrigeration and culturally sensitive regulation, could replace China’s lax and dangerous wet-market practices. Yet Beijing persisted, even after SARS illustrated the international risks. That disturbing record proved a breeding ground for COVID-19 and may recur.
Despite a vast treasury and a world-leading economy, the Chinese Communist leadership has neglected necessary reforms, spending lavishly instead to further hegemonic ambitions in Asia and beyond, as well as its hold on China.
To expand her geo-political reach, China’s Belt and Road Initiative throws money at infrastructure projects from South Asia to the North Atlantic and from the South China Sea to Palau. The National Bureau of Asian Research currently estimates BRI to cost around $1-1.3 trillion USD. Over the past decades, China’s defense spending increased on average roughly 10% per year, a rate vastly exceeding any competitor. For a pittance of such expenditures, China could have avoided today’s pandemic and helped prevent future ones.
Internally, the CCP has spent millions viciously repressing multi-child families, internet use, Muslim Uighurs, Hong Kong democrats, and the Dalai Lama’s Tibet, to name a few. Food stalls would be child play.
Who suffers from CCP leaders prioritizing international hegemony and party supremacy? The world.
Sadly, after COVID-19 began to spread, China exacerbated its wrongful conduct: first covering it up; then hindering others’ abilities to understand, halt, and mitigate the disease; and finally blaming its victims.
In a recent interview, National Security adviser Robert O’Brien suggested that China’s cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak delayed the global response by two months. Chinese authorities, he noted, actively suppressed doctors’ warnings.
Once word got out, China then barred the entry of health experts who had hoped to study the disease and its spread.
These lost months were costly. All the while, unwitting travelers spread the virus. Lost weeks delayed gathering medical supplies, readying facilities, and developing countermeasures.
Having unnecessarily caused and exacerbated a worldwide pandemic, untouchable Chinese officials added their next outrage: blaming America. Beijing shamelessly poses as both victim and savior, seeking disproportionate praise for sharing genome information, casualty data, and, relative to the harm, limited supplies.
In any just and lawful setting, actors who recklessly pursue hazardous activities would be held accountable for foreseeable harm caused to others. It would not matter if the wrongdoers did not intend such harm; it would be enough that they knowingly persisted. Exacerbating harm by concealing it and retarding mitigation only increases such liability.
Prevention and simple justice require that Beijing accept consequences facing any other wrongdoer — including an end to dangerous practices and extending at least partial compensation to those so grievously harmed outside China. International diplomacy, legislation, executive action, or legal proceedings here and abroad should seek to ensure Beijing acts responsibly.
Yes, China, too, has suffered from its irresponsible practices. Many Chinese have tragically died, and Beijing’s guided economy has stumbled from Beijing’s misguided choices.
However, the free world groans under horrendous losses of Beijing’s making. The unnecessary deaths will be staggering and financial losses crippling. According to assessments by the United Nations and others, this outbreak could cost the world between $1 trillion to $2.7 trillion USD.
As of mid-March, the U.S. stock market had dropped almost 30% from its mid-February high, wiping out nearly $3.7 trillion USD from the U.S. market alone. As families cower amid Lysol wipes, businesses reel from disrupted supply chains and operations. Recession looms, forcing states worldwide to introduce stimulus packages, with the U.S. debating a $1 trillion plan.
Over the years, the self-appointed rulers of China have escaped not just domestic but international liability for their wrongdoing. Over the years, their thefts of intellectual property, wrongful trade practices, ruthless domestic oppression, support of rogue regimes, proliferation of nuclear technology, and unlawful conduct in the South China Sea have been excused or effectively ignored. Certainly, China has never suffered setbacks commensurate with what it sought to gain.
Why do Chinese leaders think they can get away with such wrongs? As President Donald Trump warned Americans years ago, because they have. He added:” shame on us for letting them do so.
To his enormous credit, President Trump has said, “Enough.” His administration has made great strides reversing the world’s complacency toward Beijing’s misdeeds. As the President and leaders like Senators Cotton and Rubio turn to bolstering U.S. defenses and preventing future devastation, American and world leaders alike should find ways to ensure that, this time, China does more than temporarily close a market. Otherwise, the next “wet-blood” pandemic awaits.
(This article was first published in National Review on March 21, 2020, under the title, "To Protect The Future, Hold China to Account." It is republished here with permission.)
Author: Lewis Libby and Logan A. Rank