The theory that the pandemic began with a leak from a research laboratory in Wuhan is rapidly gaining currency. Since Matt Ridley’s cover piece for The Spectator last week, Joe Biden has ordered US intelligence agencies to ‘redouble their efforts’ and report to him within 90 days on the origins of COVID. The US administration has made it clear that the various intelligence agencies are split on whether they believe the virus is natural or man-made.
It is doubtful whether the US agencies will be able to come to a conclusion with any great confidence. Definitive evidence is unlikely to emerge. But, as Ridley pointed out, the more time that passes without evidence that the virus jumped from an animal to a human, the more the balance of probabilities tends towards the theory that the virus was man-made and accidentally released. If this is what happened, it would explain Beijing’s furious and disproportionate reaction to Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus in April last year.
For its part, the UK government remains committed to a further World Health Organization study of whether the disease came from animals or not. In recent days, it has been striking how many people in Westminster and Whitehall now think the lab leak theory is the most plausible explanation. But even if evidence was discovered that proved beyond reasonable doubt that the virus did escape, it is not clear what the free world would do about it.
Donald Trump used to claim that China should pay reparations for the damage COVID has done to the world economy. That is not going to happen. No major western country has an interest in getting the reparations debate going. To borrow Ernest Bevin’s mixed metaphor: ‘If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan horses will jump out.’
Sanctions are not realistic either — China has a veto on the UN security council. Instead, the most likely response from the West would be tougher international standards for laboratory security and biological research. If China refused to sign up to these and accept international inspections, then the country would be subject to something like a research blockade, which would mean that the credibility of the academic work coming out of its laboratories would be downgraded.
One irony is that US government money went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. There is often a temptation for western governments and firms to use China for research that would be considered too dangerous to do at home. If COVID did leak from a lab, it would be a reminder of how shortsighted it is to outsource risky research to a place where mistakes are likely to be covered up. Indeed, one of the main problems with authoritarian regimes is that they find it almost impossible to admit errors and, therefore, to correct them.
This is why the democratic world ultimately needs to disentangle itself from the authoritarian world as much as possible. This may be easy to do with countries such as Belarus, where contact is limited to planes flying through its airspace and so on, but China is a very different matter. It is tightly bound to the world economy. The past two decades of globalization are only comprehensible if you understand the role China has played in the process and the deflationary shock that its entry into the world economy has created.
China’s admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001 can best be understood in the context of the West’s confidence that history was coming to an end after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The thinking was that bringing China further into the world economy would lead to greater political liberalization and prevent another Cold War. But under Xi, China has become more autocratic. It has also become more nationalist and more aggressive in its foreign policy. The fact that China is so connected to the world economy has made many people reluctant to see the regime for what it is. It is hard to imagine Leonid Brezhnev receiving the kind of gullible reaction western business leaders gave President Xi Jinping after his Davos address in 2017, when too many of them accepted at face value his claim that he was the defender of globalization and multilateralism.
China’s apparent success last year at stamping out the virus at home — with technological competence and sheer brutality — while cases spiked in the West added to a sense that the future belonged to Beijing. It didn’t help that at the same time big mistakes were being made by western governments, ranging from struggles with contact tracing in the UK to President Trump’s bizarre suggestions about injecting bleach.
But the growing plausibility that the virus leaked from a lab highlights the Achilles’ heel of the Chinese system — the lack of a mechanism for error correction. It is not that a lab leak couldn’t have happened in the democratic world, but it is far harder to imagine it being covered up.
The poor record of the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines, sold to countries such as Chile and Brazil, is also evidence that reports of China’s technological superiority over the West have been exaggerated. Beijing hoped that its willingness to send doses abroad while the US imposed a strict export ban would reap diplomatic advantages. But the efficacy rate of these jabs — lower than Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca — means this vaccine diplomacy is unlikely to have the desired effect.
The truth is that China is not as strong as it appears. As the Stanford scholar Elizabeth Economy points out, the country spent $216 billion on domestic security in 2019 — three times its expenditure of a decade before, and even more than what it spends on the People’s Liberation Army. Yet if Beijing’s internal problems continue to get worse, it will fall back on nationalism as a source of legitimacy. This will not be a comfortable experience for the West. ‘Communist China is bad, Han nationalist China will be worse,’ warns one influential parliamentarian.
How to contain China will be the pre-eminent challenge for this generation of politicians. But any strategy for dealing with Beijing must start with a realistic appreciation of its strengths and weaknesses.