In Liu Cixin’s extraordinary science- fiction novel The Three-Body Problem, China recklessly creates, then ingeniously solves, an existential threat to humanity. I remember thinking it was an odd plot when I read it last year. It is a Chinese scientist who reveals Earth’s location to the hostile planet Trisolaris, but it is another one who thwarts the Trisolaran invasion and saves the world.
This is not how sci-fi plots work in western literature. The bad guys (the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese or just the aliens) do bad stuff and then the good guys (they speak English) save the world. One of the many things I learnt from reading The Three-Body Problem is that, in this respect as in so many others, China is different. It’s OK for China to screw the world in order to save it.
The non-fictional threat to humanity we face today is not, of course, an alien invasion. The coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 does not come from outer space, though it shares with the Trisolarans an impulse to colonise us. The fact, however, is that the first case of Covid-19 was in China, just as the first messages to Trisolaris were sent from China.
You may, if you are gripped by our current decadent obsession with cultural inclusivity and sensitivity, not like the fact that Donald Trump called it “the Chinese virus”. But he is as entitled to call it that as people in 1968 were entitled to refer to the influenza A (H3N2) pandemic of that year as the “Hong Kong flu”, because Hong Kong was where the first case was recorded.
As in The Three-Body Problem, China caused this disaster, but now wants to claim the credit for saving us from it. Liberally exporting testing kits (some of which don’t work) and face masks (most of which probably do, but I still got ours from Taiwan, thank you very much), the Chinese government is intent on snatching victory from the jaws of a defeat it inflicted.
Not only that, but the deputy director of the Chinese foreign ministry’s information department had the gall to endorse a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in America. On March 12, Zhao Lijian tweeted: “It might be [the] US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” Zhao also retweeted an article claiming that an American team might have brought the virus with it when it participated in the World Military Games in Wuhan in October.
The worst of it is that some people in the western world are so unhinged by Trump derangement syndrome, or so corrupted by Chinese money, or, in the case of Italy, so disillusioned by the less than altruistic responses of their fellow Europeans to their exceptionally severe Covid-19 outbreak, that they actually swallow this toxic stream of hypocrisy and mendacity. Was anything this year dumber than the mayor of Florence’s “Hug a Chinese” campaign in February?
For a flavour of the Chinese Communist Party’s line, just take a look at the headlines in last Friday’s China Daily: “Fighting Covid-19 the Chinese way”; “Chinese high-tech helps world combat pandemic”; “Nation uses tech prowess to help world fight virus”; “Stigmatising Beijing will not help Washington”; “US shirks responsibility with wild finger-pointing”. And my favourite: “Xi plants trees in Beijing, urging respect for nature.”
Respect for nature? Let us try to restore sanity with six questions that we should ask Xi Jinping the next time we Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangout or WeChat him.
First, what exactly was going in Wuhan that led to the initial emergence of Sars-CoV-2? If the virus originated from a bat at one of the disgusting “wet” markets (where wildlife intended for human consumption is sold alongside chicken and beef) that your regime inexplicably has not shut down, that is bad enough. But if it originated because of sloppy practices at the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, that is worse. It is insanity for research on potentially lethal zoonoses such as coronaviruses to be going on in the heart of a vast metropolis like Wuhan.
Second, how big a role did the central government play in the cover-up after it became clear in Wuhan that there was human-to-human transmission? We now know there were 104 cases of the new disease, including 15 deaths, between December 12 and the end of that month. Why was the official Chinese line on December 31 that there was “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission? And why did that official line not change until January 20?
Third, after it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China — on January 23 — but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?
January is always a peak month for travel from China to Europe and America because of the lunar new year holiday. As far as I can tell from the available records, however, regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February. You have lost no time in restricting international travel into China now that Covid-19 has gone global; your approach was conspicuously different when you were exporting it to us.
Fourth, what possessed your foreign ministry spokesman to start peddling an obviously false conspiracy theory on social media and why has he not been fired? Even your ambassador to America disowned this fake news. We’ll watch with interest to see which of these diplomats gets your backing.
Fifth, where exactly are the tycoon Ren Zhiqiang and Wuhan doctor Ai Fen, to name just two of the Chinese citizens who seem to have vanished since they expressed criticism of your government’s handling of Covid-19?
Finally, how many of your people has this disease really killed?
Now, I don’t expect straight answers to these questions, any more than we got straight answers from the Soviet Communist Party after Chernobyl. But I do think we need to keep asking them, if only to vaccinate ourselves against the other kind of virus currently emanating from China — the disinformation that Xi has learnt, from his Russian pal Vladimir Putin, how to spread through the internet.
China has a problem. It is not The Three-Body Problem, a brilliant book that reminds us that the Chinese people are capable of great literature, just as Chinese researchers are capable of great science. The same was true of the Russian people under communism.
China’s problem, like Russia’s before 1991, is the “One Party Problem”. And as long as a fifth of humanity is subject to the will of an unaccountable, corrupt and power-hungry organisation with a long history of crimes against its own people, the rest of humanity will not be safe.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford