On Secrecy, COVID and the PRC

I hope you’ve enjoyed or at least feel you’ve learned more about this lab leak controversy from the emails I’ve published over the last couple days. I very much have. I now see a lot more of the complexity of the topic. But at the end of the day I come away with the conclusion that we really don’t know because we don’t have a lot of data.

And that brings us back to a recurrent point: if the Chinese authorities wanted to they could clear a lot of this up by granting access to the records of the Wuhan laboratory, perhaps the medical records of the staff and interviews with the relevant scientists. To China skeptics this is an obvious sign of guilt, a sign of something to hide. Many people from the sciences have a reaction that is a mix of anger and puzzlement. Science is about transparency, so what’s the problem exactly? Many biologists and virologists have years of experience working collaboratively with Chinese scientists or even some of the very scientists in question. So seeing them all go silent just seems odd or inexplicable.

But of course it’s not the scientists. It’s the Chinese government.

Newsletters
Get TPM in your inbox, twice weekly.
Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

The issue I think neither group really contends with is that the PRC is an unbelievably secretive state. The fact that the Chinese authorities are not sharing more information, even as there’s a slowing growing international demand for it, makes me suspicious. But even with my very layman’s knowledge of the PRC, its secrecy and authoritarianism, and the way that China’s emergence from the humiliation of European colonialism plays into its national mythos it seems almost impossible to imagine what is being asked of them would ever happen.

China will allow western governments to come in and have free access to one of their labs? Or international institutions, often dominated by Western governments, to do the same? That’s really hard for me to imagine. Would the US extend that to China? It is always important to remember what is actually obvious, which is that the premise of such an investigation is that the Chinese government cannot be trusted to tell the truth. No state willingly grants that, certainly not a global power with nuclear weapons and the second largest economy in the world.

They are very different cases. But I can’t not think of Iraq in 2002. One of the biggest arguments by war hawks about weapons of mass destruction was that if Iraq didn’t have them why not just let the inspectors in? Of course, they didn’t have them. There are a few theories about why Saddam Hussein didn’t do so. But states don’t act in logical ways, at least not by logics that outsiders understand.

Newsletters
Get TPM in your inbox, twice weekly.
Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

To be clear, my point isn’t that China can’t be expected to clear this up or isn’t obligated to because of colonialism. And it’s not that we shouldn’t draw an adverse conclusion. It’s that in the absence of any really compelling evidence of a lab leak Chinese refusal to open its doors to some international investigation seems as easily explained by state secrecy and nationalistic pride as it would by having something to hide.

Perhaps most important, both scenarios make it seem highly unlikely we’ll ever get the kind of unfettered investigation that would settle the matter.

The one thing that might change the equation would be if some compelling forensic and genomic evidence of a lab leak were to be discovered. Given the devastation COVID has wrought around the globe, I think that would lead to a groundswell of demands for answers. That said, China’s a nuclear power with herculean economic might. I don’t see their being compelled regardless. But that could clarify things.

Latest Edblog
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Investigations Desk:
Reporters:
Newswriters:
Director of Audience:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Publisher:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: