A large portion of Washington media have decided the big story of the day is President Trump telling CBS White House correspondent Weijia Jiang “Ask China,” after she asked, “Why does [the rate of U.S. testing to other countries] matter? Why is this a global competition to you if every day Americans are still losing their lives and we’re still seeing more cases every day?” The general argument is that Trump’s response to Jiang was racist.
Rather than the ten-millionth “can you believe President Trump said that?” story, let’s take a look at what’s actually going on in China.
Despite Their Claims, China Has Not Beaten the Coronavirus
There is widespread consensus outside of China that whatever the actual tally of coronavirus deaths in that country was, the sum was significantly higher than the officially released numbers. The Washington Post felt sufficient confidence to write on April 3 that evidence such as the number of hours that crematoriums were working and the number of urns returned by funeral homes added up to a death toll around 42,000 to 47,000.
Back in mid-April, Wuhan health officials revised their local death toll from 2,579 to 3,869. One-half of the previous total is 1,289.5; the increase was 1,290 — almost as if someone arbitrarily decided to raise the existing death toll by fifty percent.
(If you’re wondering about those 21 million cell phone subscriptions that disappeared, Chinese cell phone companies stated that they were cancelations driven by economic and lifestyle changes during the outbreak. While I think the Chinese government’s capacity for dishonestly, coverups, and propaganda is considerable, hiding 21 million deaths would be a real logistical challenge.)
China also contends that it has had only a handful of new cases in a country of more than a billion people in March, April, and so far in May, and only one death since April 17. As far as the Chinese government is telling the world, they have the coronavirus beaten once and for all.
Or maybe not: “Authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic coronavirus was first detected, have ordered fresh Covid-19 tests for all of its 14 million residents after a cluster of new community cases. The unprecedented move came after reports on the weekend of six new coronavirus cases from the same residential compound, known as Sanmin.”
And it’s not just Wuhan again: “On Sunday, Chinese authorities reclassified Shulan, a city near the Russian and North Korean borders, as high risk, after a cluster of cases connected to a woman with no known history of travel or exposure to the virus.”
We know the Chinese national and Wuhan local authorities never like admitting bad news unless they have to, and when they do admit bad news, it is likely drastically understated.
For a long time in the Soviet Union, understanding what was really going on required “reading between the lines” — noticing changes in standard phrases, the absence of certain expected points, or other ways to hint at or allude to arguments that ran counter to the official Communist Party line.
Notice this article that originally appeared in the Chinese business publication Caixin:
As of Friday, the national drug regulator approved 30 testing kits for the virus, including 19 nucleic acid tests and 11 antibody tests. The combined manufacturing capacity of testing kits surpassed 9 million a day, according to the National Medical Products Administration.
Statistics from Dongxing Securities showed that in normal operation, medical institutions in China could test a total of 1.66 million people a day, matching the basic needs of massive testing as social activities resume.
But access to testing has been uneven. While big cities including Beijing, Guangdong and the epicenter Wuhan have greatly expanded capacity and allowed residents to take tests as they wish, people in remote areas such as Heilongjiang still face difficulties.
There is “no chance” that the coronavirus pandemic will end soon, and countries must prepare for a “new normal” amid plans to reopen, said Zhang Wenhong, head of the infectious diseases department of Huashan Hospital of Fudan University in Shanghai and director of the city’s COVID-19 clinical expert team.
Does this sound like a country that has had only a handful of cases in the past ten weeks?
Nobody Wants to Be Dependent upon Chinese Imports Anymore
Meanwhile, the United States isn’t the only country that suddenly finds the thought of being dependent upon Chinese exports of medical equipment and supplies unacceptable:
Japan’s cabinet in April earmarked 248.6 billion yen ($2.33 billion) for subsidies to businesses that move production back to Japan, covering up to two-thirds of relocation costs.
Though the amount made up less than 1% of the 108 trillion yen coronavirus stimulus package, it clearly put China on guard. Beijing not only pressed Japanese authorities to explain the meaning of the measure, but also polled Japanese businesses in China on whether they planned to leave.
Yet, the argument gained new life again when Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, in an interview with Nikkei, stressed the need for greater self-reliance.
“Looking at masks, for example, 70% to 80% are produced in China,” he said. “We must avoid depending excessively on particular countries for products or materials and bring home production facilities for goods needed for daily life.”
Suga has been Abe’s right-hand man and a key player in his government since Abe returned as prime minister in 2012. Suga’s remarks reflect something much broader than a temporary policy response to the current crisis.
Does the Chinese government look and sound like a group of leaders that are confident that they are winning the battle of world opinion? They’re banning Australian beef imports after Australia called for an inquiry into the origin of the outbreak. A Chinese coast-guard ship intentionally rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel last month. Chinese coast-guard ships are straying into Japanese territorial waters. Chinese and Indian soldiers are throwing rocks at each other and getting into fistfights at their border. The Chinese economy is probably in for the same long, painful climb out of recession that we and the rest of the world are likely to experience in the coming year.
Does this county look stable to you? Or does China look like a powder keg, with a lot of angry people who have a whole lot of good reasons to be angry? And does the government in Beijing look like a bunch of strategic masterminds, or do they look like they have only one play in their playbook: attempting to steer public anger into angry nationalism, over and over and over again?
Trust Only Those Who Get Arrested
Finally, elsewhere in China, a new study out of the Shandong First Medical University concludes, “Our paper shows very clearly that these events occur naturally in wildlife. This provides strong evidence against SARS-CoV-2 being a laboratory escape.”
Notice that the Chinese authorities want to blur the line between “occurred naturally in wildlife” and “laboratory escape.” You can take naturally occurring viruses into a lab, either as part of a sample or as part of a research animal, and then that virus can get out of that lab — either through the accidental infection of a lab worker, or through the improper disposal of biological material. This literally happened twice separately with SARS in a laboratory in Beijing in 2004.
I can understand why a Chinese scientist would insist a laboratory mistake is impossible. Zhang Xuezhong, a prominent Chinese legal scholar, argued on social media that restrictions on freedom of expression had made it more difficult for the country to contain the outbreak, and criticized the Chinese government’s arrest and suppression of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang. He promptly got detained by police for a day and later released.
With consequences as fast and dire as that, do you think any Chinese scientist is going to admit, “yes, mistakes happen, and this virus could have been one of ours”?
My guess is that unless you’re making a deliberate effort to keep up with news out of China, you haven’t heard much about any of these developments.
You’ve probably heard about that restaurant in Colorado that was open and crowded on Mother’s Day. You’ve probably heard about the president and vice president not wearing masks. You may have heard about Twitter establishing new rules to fight disinformation about the coronavirus — but you probably haven’t heard that those rules won’t apply to the January World Health Organization tweets declaring that the virus could not be spread from one human to another.
We have a national media — news pages, editorial pages, radio, television, web, and cable news — that is just clogged with people who know how to tell one story and who only want to tell one story: “Democrats are the good guys, Republicans are the bad guys.” Even if you agreed with that — I obviously don’t — the world is way more complicated than that. When a story like this virus and China come along, they can only perceive the events through that preexisting lens.
ADDENDUM: Because you’re probably looking for things to look forward to: Baseball will probably be back sometime around July 4; the film version of Hamilton is coming to Disney+ this July 3; Disney still intends to release the live-action “Mulan” in theaters in July; and the second season of “The Mandalorian” will arrive as scheduled in October.