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The U.S.-Chinese White House Ceremony Held as the COVID-19 Pandemic Accelerated

U.S. President Donald Trump stands Chinese Vice Premier Liu He after signing “phase one” of the U.S.-China trade agreement in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A fascinating little anecdote about the interaction between the Chinese government and the Trump administration as the pandemic was worsening in mid-January, in Josh Rogin’s Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century:

The U.S. government had been trying to get permission to send CDC personnel to Wuhan for over a week without success. The World Health Organization had been issuing statements about the virus outbreak, but they hadn’t been allowed to visit Wuhan yet either, so they didn’t have any firsthand information.

Throughout all the festivities the next day at the White House surrounding the Phase One trade deal signing ceremony, the Chinese delegation acted as if there was no health crisis in their country that was in the process of spreading around the world; during their visit, the Chinese representatives didn’t say a word about the virus. Nothing. It was never brought up – by either side.

The White House ceremony for the signing of the Phase One trade deal was January 15, 2020.

By that date, Wuhan hospital respiratory wards had begun reaching capacity and patients were starting to be turned away, the first accounts of a “new virus causing pneumonialike illness” had appeared in the New York Times,  the World Health Organization had started to hedge its bets on the Chinese statements that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission, CDC Director Robert Redfield had discussed the outbreak with his Chinese counterparts in conversations that he later said left him “rattled,” the U.S. embassy in Beijing had issued “a travel warning about an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, preliminarily identified to be caused by a novel (new) coronavirus,” and the first case had been diagnosed in Thailand.

The Chinese government’s approach to most serious public health crisis since the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 – at that point, no longer a burgeoning potential crisis, but really a full-on multiplying and exacerbating actual crisis – was to not mention it and hope no one noticed.

And it’s not a particularly flattering portrait of the Trump administration that no one at the White House thought to ask their guests — which included Vice Premier Liu He, Ambassador Cui Tiankai, and other representatives from the People’s Republic of China. Trump spent that day gushing that “President Xi, a very, very good friend of mine…  I want to thank him for his cooperation and partnership throughout this very complex process. Our negotiations were tough, honest, open, and respectful — leading us to this really incredible breakthrough.”

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