China Hawks Are Calling Coronavirus Their Smoking Gun. Don't Buy It | Opinion

Despite all the accusations over the past few years, it's proved hard to truly nail China for evil intent. It has a huge military, that's true, but beyond irritating and involving itself in skirmishes, it hasn't deployed internationally in any meaningful way. It's been accused of having deep state involvement in cyber-espionage—but then, up to an extent, so does everyone else. It's been accused of distorting the global economy. And President Donald Trump has consistently accused it of unfair trade practices. But when you get to details, these involve violation of the spirit of the law, not the letter. Until now, in a metaphorical court with any sense of fairness, the best charge against China was deeply suspicious behavior, not anything that could draw an unequivocal guilty verdict. The evidence fell just a little bit short.

The COVID-19 crisis is a human tragedy, and it is now touching everyone. But for a vocal constituency across the world, those more and more wedded to the vision of China as a kind of existential threat, it has also been the moment that offered them concrete proof that finally, utterly and without mitigation, China is guilty. Hawks on either side of the Atlantic have been brushing off their most indignant, furious language. The origin of the virus, the initial handling of it and then the subsequent messaging by China—all these have supplemented the guilty verdict. The hawks have finally found their crucial piece of evidence.

In the U.K., until now a relatively neutral space as far as China was concerned, the impact has been noticeable. A parliamentary committee of backbench politicians issued a frenetic call to arms last year about the need for the precious liberal institutions of the U.K. to guard against autocracy. The fact that many of them, including the committee's chair, Tom Tugendhat, were vociferous supporters of the chaotic quest to leave the European Union—something that arguably did far more to undermine the U.K.'s global role and security situation—has been brushed aside.

In a series of reports in March and April, the committee pinned blame for the coronavirus pandemic fairly and squarely on China. At a time when public hearings are suspended for public health reasons, this is a novel innovation: preemptively issuing conclusions until they can safely start gathering supportive evidence.

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The Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, took things a step further, demanding hundreds of billions of pounds of reparations for the economic damage the virus is likely to do. This echoes the punitive demands for money made toward China in the imperial era, more than a century ago, which contributed to the country's descent into decades of poverty and war. It's not exactly a successful model. Nor, more importantly, does it have the slightest chance of being implemented.

The Chinese government has not exactly covered itself in glory either. Images of aid being sent to Italy and other hard-hit places may have sprung from good intentions. But just a little advice from some more European-savvy public relations advisers may have alerted China to the dangers of appearing opportunistic. Publicity is fine; propaganda is not. There is a thin line between them. And while the boxes of face masks and other items being sent played well for domestic media in China, they were probably not such a good thing everywhere else. No one likes their suffering to figure as part of someone else's grand campaign for validation.

Young diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing have only exacerbated matters, producing puzzling footage that they claim shows the virus came from the United States. There is a valid scientific debate about the issue of origins. But as Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai wisely noted, now is not the time, and this is not the way, to conduct it. Diplomats are no more qualified to talk about virology than anyone else—except virologists. The scientists will eventually have to settle this one.

As COVID-19 began to spread, Beijing should have said more consistently that this is a human crisis. It was a time to demonstrate human solidarity. To prevent bad blood from building up into what is now threatening to be a new Cold War.

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Xi Jinping Wuhan
A large screen in the street shows Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a protective mask during his visit to Wuhan earlier in the day, on CCTV's evening newscast on March 10 in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty

Through all of this turmoil, on all sides, reckless opportunism and seeking to pin responsibility on anyone only adds to the problem—it doesn't help solve it. Cold warriors in Europe and America may have waited for their moment of vindication after all the years of screaming from the rooftops that China was an enemy. But it is pretty clear that whatever role China may have had, it was more than supplemented by the often panicky, chaotic and inept response of other nations.

This is not surprising. The crisis was of a nature, and a scale, that meant it would have knocked back even the best prepared. A little humility on the part of everyone would be good now. Let's just face it: We have all been exposed and found wanting. Compounding the matter by seeking to pin the blame on others is cowardly and dishonest.

Finally, we have to come back to the big crime that China has committed in the eyes of many of the fiercest critics in the outside world. That, oddly enough, has never really changed, despite the impact of COVID-19. It has remained the same. China's original sin was to practice capitalism, successfully, and not to politically reform. It is also, for some of the more virulent in the Cold War camp, to be an Asian country daring to become the world's largest economy. For all the tumult in the past few weeks, the charge sheet against China has not changed. Nor is it ever likely to—particularly after a crisis like the one we are just facing. That is a great tragedy. We should be coming together, not tearing ourselves apart.

Kerry Brown is director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London and associate fellow on the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

China Hawks Are Calling Coronavirus Their Smoking Gun. Don't Buy It | Opinion | Opinion