China Says We’re a Joke. And, Alas, We Are.

Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

This is a tweet from Xinhua News Service, the official state news service of the People’s Republic of China. Give it a look and then a few thoughts after the jump.

First, and maybe least important, I’m always fascinated at how memes, cultural and visual idioms and more, many of which have their roots in American popular culture have become globalized. It’s also striking how a political culture like the PRC, which is deeply authoritarian and in many ways hidebound, can so nimbly deploy them. Against us.

It is also important to say that China handled the outbreak of COVID19 far from perfectly. As we all now know, during critical weeks in late December and early January, they muzzled their own scientists and doctors who were trying to raise the alarm within the city of Wuhan. They were also at best slow in late December and early January to clearly communicate to the world that there was clear evidence of human to human transmission.

It’s not clear to me how much of this was bureaucratic inertia in a crisis versus an authoritarian political culture resisting coming clean about a terrible situation. At least from a distance the big picture seems like there were early efforts to deny, to control the situation and control the information in ways that slowed the response. But it was clear something pretty bad was going on by the end of December and in early January. Big picture it took about four weeks between no one in the world knowing there was a bad new virus in the human population to decoding it and disseminating the critical information around the globe.

The new virus was decoded and shared. A massive containment effort was mounted. I say this with some confidence about how this information was disseminated. Because I watched it all happen in real time. I didn’t need an intelligence service or a relationship with the WHO. I watched it on CNN.

We haven’t yet talked about this theory that the virus that causes COVID19 was the product of a Chinese virus lab. I want to discuss this in more detail in a separate post. What is relevant to know is that it is not impossible. What virus researchers say pretty definitively is that the virus’s genetic code clearly rules out its being man-made or a genetically-engineered virus. We can’t rule out a different possibility. Chinese researchers have been (in some cases with US financial support) researching the coronaviruses that are commonplace in some bat species because we have known for some time that this is a probable path through which a devastating new illness could break into the human population. It is possible such a pathogen could have jumped from species to species and then escaped the lab.

Again, I’ve talked to a number of virologists and researchers about this and read the views of many others. The upshot is this: It’s not impossible that this could have happened. But there’s no evidence it did happen and a lot of fairly probative evidence it didn’t. More importantly, we have lots of past experience with viruses doing precisely what seems to have happened in this case, which is getting lucky and jumping from species to species. What is most probative to me is that virtually no one who has a deep understanding of virology or lab practices seems to think this is likely or is spending much time focusing on it. Meanwhile, virtually everyone who is pushing it is either someone with preexisting hostility to the Chinese government or a political interest in helping President Trump avoid blame for his catastrophic handling of the crisis. For me this settles the question and it will remain settled unless and until I hear compelling evidence to the contrary.

What is notable is that people like Sen. Tom Cotton originally pushed the bioweapon theory. Science has clearly ruled this out. So he simply switched theories. This tells me what I didn’t need to be told: the push for the lab theory is all political and has little to do with science.

Which brings us back to this video which I find both hilarious and mortifying.

I said all I said above to note that it is certainly self-serving from the Chinese perspective. But big picture, good lord, pretty much completely guilty as charged. China initially bobbled the outbreak, had a major crisis. They mobilized. They shared information with the world. They mounted a massive, historic containment effort, built whole hospitals in a matter of days. The US hung back and did a mix of ignoring it or talking down to the Chinese. Look how they wear masks! Haha. Masks don’t work!

Whether poo-pooing or derision the big message was that this didn’t have anything to do with us. Or it was a hoax. Until we had our own catastrophic outbreak and then suddenly: you didn’t tell us! You hid the truth from us! You will pay the price! Also please send us masks! We really need masks! Please!

There are moments of overplay. I don’t think we said hospitals were concentration camps. If anything this seems like an allusion to quite legitimate criticisms of Chinese policy in Xinjiang where the central government is using reeducation camps to denationalize the region’s ethnic Uyghur population. But that’s a different topic. This is not about China, which is an authoritarian and repressive government. It’s about us.

On COVID19 we are not only suffering horribly. We are also a joke. “We” is doing a lot of work here. “We” is really our national government, the Trump administration. But for the moment it’s the only national government we have and it’s calling the shots. As the closing puts it “Gosh!! Just listen to yourself.” Perhaps most tellingly, with perhaps the greatest longterm repercussions, the Trump administration has failed so badly, so accurately modeled the behavior of five year olds that we’ve gone a decent way toward discrediting the model of civic democracy and the rule of law we should be supporting at home and around the world. We’ve done about as good a job as one could imagine telling the story that maybe the authoritarians just handle things better.

It’s embarrassing. We’re an embarrassment.

Latest Editors' Blog
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: