The U.S., China, and COVID-19 By Logan Schiciano

Virus origins: accusations and conspiracies

The Trump administration has openly pushed theories that COVID-19 started in a bio-lab in Wuhan, China, and also blamed initial Chinese responses to the virus for the pandemic spread of the disease. The Chinese government has strongly denied these allegations.

Chinese boarding students at The Masters School were attending class as the virus was first raging in China, and many have since returned home. They have a unique perspective on the current conflict between the Chinese and U.S. governments. This report unpacks the criticisms, accusations and rumors surrounding the origins and handling of COVID-19 by both the U.S. and China and includes reactions and opinions from various constituents.

The widely accepted answer to the question surrounding the virus’ origins is that it stemmed from wildlife, and was then transmitted naturally to humans at The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China where vendors sell live seafood and animals to customers.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has also been a target of speculation. The lab had been conducting coronavirus tests on bats in late October. A private investigation recently revealed that no cellphone data had been tracked in a high security area of the lab between Oct. 7 and Oct. 24, indicating that a “hazardous event” may have occurred in the week prior and forced the lab to shut down.

There is no proof, as of yet, that the virus escaped the Wuhan lab – intelligence among the Five Eyes, an alliance that includes the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has indicated that this is “highly unlikely.” Furthermore, in an interview with National Geographic in early May, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is the director of the U.S. Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the top scientists on the White House coronavirus task force, vehemently denied the theory that the virus was deliberately mutated in the Wuhan lab. However, members of the Trump Administration, including President Donald Trump, are refuting these claims.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with ABC News (below) that there is “enormous evidence” that the virus came from the virology lab. Trump said in early May press briefings that he has also seen evidence that would indicate this is the case, though none has been made public at this point.

Trump initially praised China and President Xi Jinping for his “transparency” in January, yet continues to dub COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” As the situation in the U.S. worsens, the President regularly expresses his disapproval with China's initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chinese state media, as well as many American outlets, have been quick to point out the apparent illegitimacy of the Trump Administration’s beliefs. China Central Television (CCTV) has called Pompeo “evil” and the “common enemy of mankind.”

Xinhua News Agency, the biggest media agency in China, released an extensive report on May 9 that provided relevant articles and information contradicting many of the allegations against China. The opening of the article reads, “Recently, some U.S. politicians and media outlets have been fabricating preposterous allegations and lies of one kind or another in order to shift the blame to China for their inadequate response to COVID-19. However, as Abraham Lincoln said, ‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.’ Lies evaporate in the light of truth. It is time to let facts speak for themselves.”

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian went as far as to say in a March 12 tweet that the American military may have brought the virus to Wuhan.

On December 31, 2019 Chinese health officials informed the World Health Organization about a cluster of 41 patients with a mysterious pneumonia, but the first case of COVID-19 can now be traced back to mid-November, according to data obtained by the South China Morning Post. A new study by Harvard Medical School published on June 9 found more cars in Wuhan hospital parking lots in the late summer and fall of 2019 in comparison to previous years, based on satellite images. Though the study has not been peer-viewed, it suggests that coronavirus could've been spreading as early as August 2019.

China’s delayed response and initial suppression attempts have been well-documented. Officials in Wuhan arrested doctors for spreading “rumors” of a dangerous virus on social media – most notably Dr. Li Wenliang, a whistleblower who later died of COVID-19. There was then a two-week period in early January where the Chinese Center for Disease Control reported no new cases, despite videos surfacing of overwhelmed hospitals across the nation. Chinese officials also realized the pandemic level threat six days before President Xi publicly warned citizens, a period during which hundreds of thousands traveled in and out of China.

The World Health Organization has also been heavily criticized by President Trump – who withdrew funding from the organization in April – for “mismanaging” the initial outbreak when China kept quiet. At the seventy-second World Health Assembly which was held in mid-May, over 100 countries backed a resolution that calls for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive" evaluation of the World Health Organization (WHO) during the pandemic, according to NBC News. It also seeks to identify the origin of the virus.

Many believe that the Trump Administration’s strategy of guilt-tripping other countries and organizations is an attempt to shine the spotlight away from its own failures. Trump initially said that the virus was a hoax and critics argue that his administration never had a comprehensive strategy to combat the virus. State governors across the country complained that they did not have enough personal protective equipment and ventilators to care for coronavirus patients. The Trump Administration delayed the release of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) specific, 60-page reopening guidelines until May 20, after most states made decisions to arbitrarily reopen without seeing a significant decline in COVID-19 cases. Trump has also touted unproven drugs such as hydroxychloroquine – which he said he took for a period last month – and has appeared to prioritize the economy over public health amid a pandemic that has taken the lives of over 100,000 Americans.

Trump remains proud of his efforts. In a tweet on Memorial Day he said, “Great reviews on our handling of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus. Ventilators, testing, medical supply distribution, we made a lot of Governors look very good – and got no credit for doing so. Most importantly, we helped a lot of great people!”

Reactions to criticism and disinformation:

Professor Avery Goldstein (right), the inaugural director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, uses the disparity in these messages to try to get at the truth.

In an interview with Tower, Goldstein said, “When I’m trying to figure out an answer to a question I’m researching, I draw on sources that I know are going to disagree with each other… If there’s a conflict over the facts between Chinese sources and Western sources, I’ll go to independent experts, for example scientists during the pandemic.” He continued, “The bottom line though is that it’s hard. Even after you think you’ve nailed it, you want to be humble about your conclusions because it’s possible you haven’t seen all the evidence.”

Goldstein said that “Trump’s accusation that China is responsible for the pandemic is almost certainly an overstatement.” Goldstein added that the reason for China’s slow response to initial spread, on both local and national levels, is not yet conclusive.

“Part of it, almost certainly, is that they didn’t want people, businesspeople, tourists, to stop traveling to China.... Some people say it was local officials not wanting to report bad news. They were hoping they would be able to contain it without having to report to the central leadership that they had this huge problem,” he said. “There was a system put in place after the SARS epidemic in 2003 that was supposed to prevent local officials from covering these things up. But it didn’t work.”

Zhiyan “Alex” Wang (left), a rising senior who returned to Shanghai in mid-April, believes that the world’s media’s response to the virus has been troubling at times.

“There’s definitely some exaggerations [in the media], but I feel that’s really common both in the U.S. and China.” Wang said, “I think people right now are focusing on one side of the issue. They see the [Chinese] government trying to cover up the virus in the beginning, but they didn’t see that the Chinese officials who did this were replaced. From my perspective, everything was under control and our government responded very quickly. There’s definitely been some misunderstanding.”

Rising senior Yijin “Carr” Li, who is now at his home in Shanghai, acknowledged that the local government in Wuhan faltered initially, though he believes that the Trump Administration’s claims are not an accurate representation of the entire situation.

“They [critics] have a point when they say the Chinese government didn’t react the most efficiently in the beginning stages.” Li continued, “But after that, the government realized its problems and took all the correct measures. I hope people understand that China is only the place where the virus started, but not the place responsible for the global pandemic."

Rising sophomore Jingxuan “Jesse” Xu, currently living in Hong Kong, said that the Chinese media was very positive regarding China’s response.

“They were mostly reporting the good news – like when there was a new discovery, or maybe sharing advice from doctors and researchers,” he said. “People were making a real effort to solve the problem.” China’s highly-technological mitigation strategy has been praised worldwide, though it was not enacted until much later.

Sebastian Sawhney '20, one of the presidents of Next Generation Politics (NGP), believes the Trump Administration’s criticism is justified, but not for the purpose of shifting the blame away from itself.

“There is a large blame to be put on China. I think they’ve lied a lot about the number of cases and the way that they were dealing with things; However, that does not absolve the Trump Administration from failing to recognize the danger of COVID-19,” Sawhney said. “It’s not right to use it [the United States’ blame on China] as an excuse to cover up the [U.S.] federal government’s problems in dealing with this pandemic.”

Xu noted that he has been in close contact with many other Masters students from China, and that they have been a source of comfort amidst the chaos.

“Some [of the Chinese] students are pretty angry about the accusations, but it hasn’t affected our daily lives too much,” he said, adding that he felt supported by the greater Masters community when he was on campus.

Wang and Li expressed similar notions.

“For me, I’ve stayed in the U.S. for a long time, so it doesn’t really affect me. But for those [Chinese] who have never been, they don’t have a first impression. When they come to the U.S., their image of Americans will be different,” Wang said.

Li added, “It’s Donald Trump. He always attacks other countries. I wasn’t that surprised. I don’t like what he said but I know why he said it. It’s his strategy to blame his problems on other countries.”

Matthew Pollack '20 (left), the other co-president of NGP added, “He [Trump] is definitely worried about this election coming up. If I had to guess, he’s trying to distract people, even though he definitely has a lot of questions to answer around his handling of it [the pandemic].”

Pollack and Sawhney noted that the nature of China’s authoritarian regime gives its citizens little room for freedom of expression.

Pollack said, “I’d be very careful to distinguish between Chinese people and their government’s actions, just like I wouldn’t want someone in China to think of Trump and relate him with what everyone’s thinking." He continued, “My view of the Chinese government is definitely negative, but I don’t think that would change my perspective on any individual Chinese person.”

Sawhney added, “The way the Chinese government censors people who disagree with it does lead to people in China not having the option to criticize their government, especially in online forums.”

The future between the United States and China:

As tensions have risen amid the pandemic, many believe that the future of United States and Chinese relations on a national level appear to be grim moving forward.

Goldstein said, “The Chinese government has discouraged Chinese students from going to the United States, because they want to discredit the idea that America is ‘a land of opportunity,’” Goldstein said. He continued, “On the American side, there is a big push by the U.S. government to monitor, investigate and even prosecute possible suspicious or illegal activities between American educational institutions and China.”

Goldstein has recently seen an impact on his own school, the University of Pennsylvania.

“It has made the climate on campus more ‘chilly.’ Some of them [Chinese students] have expressed this kind of anxiety over whether everyone looks at them as a potential spy,” he said.

“This is the worst time for the U.S. and China to be unable to work together because they’re the two countries who have the ability and should have the interest to cooperate and lead the fight against the pandemic,” he added.

Li hopes that the two countries can move past their differences to overcome the pandemic.

He said, “Some people think that the U.S. deserves all the loss from the coronavirus because of its lack of political organization. But for the majority of people, like me, we all hope that the world will recover and that cases will go down… If we keep hating each other it’s bad for both of us. I just want us to coexist peacefully and help each other at all costs. That’s the best situation. ”


Credits: Illustration – Ella Tang/Tower; photo of Wuhan wet market – public domain, no attribution necessary; photo of Trump at rally – courtesy of The Epoch Times, license; photo of Wuhan, China – courtesy of risemeagain/Flickr, license; photo of coronavirus testing – courtesy of Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr, license; photo of Avery Goldstein; courtesy of Avery Goldstein/University of Pennsylvania; photo of Alex Wang – courtesy of Alex Wang; photo of President Xi – courtesy of U.S. Department of State/Flickr; photo of President Trump – courtesy of Senior Airman Ridge Shan/Luke Air Force Base, link to site; photo of Matthew Pollack – courtesy of Matthew Pollack; Meeting between U.S. and China – public domain; graphic by Logan Schiciano – information obtained from The Associated Press, Business Insider, The New York Times, CNN, National Geographic, World Health Organization and the South China Morning Post.


Ella Tang/Tower