The debate over the origins of the coronavirus—did it come from a wet market in Wuhan or from the virology lab nearby—has exposed the bias of media and technology companies and the potential danger of so-called gain of function research. But it also has led to something of an intellectual cul-de-sac. Barring a high-level defection from the Chinese Communist Party, we are unlikely ever to learn the answer. And even if we did have conclusive evidence one way or another, we still would have to decide what to do about it. The real question isn’t whether the pandemic is China’s fault. It’s whether China will pay a price for the catastrophic damage it caused the world.
Wherever the virus came from, we know that the Chinese government lied about it for weeks. Dr. Ai Fen shared information about a novel coronavirus with her colleagues on December 30, 2019. The next day, as Lawrence Wright recounts in The Plague Year, China removed social media posts that mentioned “unknown Wuhan pneumonia” or “Wuhan Seafood Market.” Dr. Li Wenliang, who warned the public that the virus could be transmitted from human to human, was arrested and forced to deliver a televised confession. He died of COVID-19 on February 6, 2020.
Beijing prevaricated for a month while the deadly pandemic spread. China did not allow the World Health Organization to visit Wuhan until January 20, 2020. The same day, one of China’s top doctors finally admitted the obvious: COVID-19 is a communicable disease. By the time the Communist leadership took action, it was too late. On January 21, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first case of coronavirus in America. China did not quarantine Wuhan until January 22. “By that time,” according to Wright, “nearly half the population of Wuhan had already left the city for Chinese New Year.”
The dishonesty and incompetence of the Chinese Communist Party turned a national crisis into a global one. A March 2020 study estimated that cases might have been reduced by anywhere from 66 percent to 95 percent if Chinese authorities had acted earlier. Why was Beijing slow to move? Because bureaucratic collectivist societies such as Communist China are especially prone to delays and coverups as underlings attempt to avoid punishment from above. The same powers of draconian coercion that China used to lock down its population inspired fear among the midlevel and regional officials who allowed the virus to leave China in the first place. The problem wasn’t scientific. It was political. And punishment is deserved.
What to do? Writing in the Washington Post, Mike Pompeo and Scooter Libby call on the “leading democracies” to “act together,” leveraging “their great economic power” to “persuade China to curb its dangerous viral research activities, cooperate with the investigation of the coronavirus’s origins, and, over time, pay some measure of the pandemic’s damages to other nations.” It’s a worthy strategy with a potentially fatal flaw: The other democracies might put economics ahead of accountability.
Another proposal in Congress would strip China of its sovereign immunity and make it liable for damages in U.S. courts. That plan would also leave American foreign policy dependent on outside actors—in this case, judges. And millions of potential claimants attempting to seize Chinese assets in the United States could make for a mess.
China never will volunteer to open its labs. Nor will it compensate either nations or individuals for the havoc it unleashed. Costs must be imposed that Beijing cannot avoid.
I have three suggestions. Each is more controversial than the last. But all of them would ensure that China paid some price for its lax hygiene and sanitation standards, loosey-goosey research protocols, and reckless attitude toward human freedom and human life.
Engage Taiwan. To its credit, the Biden administration has continued the stepped-up engagement with Taiwan that began under President Trump. In April, Biden sent an unofficial delegation to the island that included his close friend Chris Dodd. Most recently, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai raised the prospect of new trade talks in a conversation with her Taiwanese counterpart. This pattern of contacts bothers mainland China to no end.
Keep it up. But also do more to train and equip Taiwanese military forces, as my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Gary Schmitt and Michael Mazza suggested last year in The Dispatch. Taiwan is a reminder that Chinese people can be free and that open societies can deal effectively with pandemics. The very existence of Chinese democracy in Taiwan is a threat to the legitimacy of Communist rule in the mainland. It’s an obstacle to Beijing’s ambitions in the Pacific. Taiwan’s defense is imperative.
Boycott the Olympics. One day before he left office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Chinese Communist Party “has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.” Here, too, the Biden administration has not deviated from its predecessor’s course. The United States openly accuses its arch-rival of crimes against humanity. This is a pretty big deal, is it not?
Well, start acting like it. Why the participation of U.S. officials in the Beijing Olympics next year is even up for debate is a mystery. The White House has said that it is not exploring a boycott. That needs to change. On June 7 a bipartisan resolution was introduced in Congress demanding that the International Olympic Committee explore other venues. A declaration that no U.S. government personnel will participate because of China’s actions at home and abroad would embarrass Beijing. It would encourage other democracies to do the same. China deserves neither the honor of nor the revenue from the participation of U.S. officials. Let the athletes compete. But cheer them on from home.
Impose a carbon tariff. President Biden has also maintained the tariffs that President Trump levied against Chinese goods. Economist Irwin Stelzer of the Hudson Institute has a better plan. He would replace these tariffs with a border tax on the carbon content of Chinese exports. The strategy has appeal for environmentalists and China hawks alike. Everyone knows that China is the world’s largest emitter. Everyone knows that China’s promise of greenhouse gas reduction is worthless. Beijing won’t do anything that jeopardizes the economic growth on which it bases its claim to rule.
“In effect,” writes Stelzer, “by selling us ‘dirty’ products, China is adding to the competitive advantage it has from selling us stuff made by slave and other laborers paid wages with which we cannot decently compete, around $2 per hour in Beijing.” The EU already is at work on what it calls a “Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism” on Chinese exports. By pushing for a carbon tariff of its own, the Biden administration would please not only hawks and greens, but also the European allies whose opinion it values so highly.
The problem with a “carbon border adjustment mechanism,” of course, is that the process of calculating a good’s carbon content might turn out to be overly complicated, bureaucratic, and subject to politicization. I’m not in the habit of taking economic advice from Brussels. But these problems must be weighed against the justice and potential benefits of such a tax. And the additional cost could be rebated to low-income U.S. consumers along the lines that Senator Tom Cotton proposed in a slightly different context in 2019.
In the end, whether or not the United States adopts a tax on Chinese carbon is less important than moving the debate from the pandemic’s origins to the pandemic’s endgame. The despotic regime whose malign indifference killed so many and cost so much cannot be allowed to pretend that nothing happened. We can hold China responsible. And we can make China pay.