‘They couldn’t put out the fire’
Although the Trump administration is now furious with China, it did not become openly hostile towards Beijing until late February.
- From Inquirer
May 9, 2020
- 5 MINUTE READ
This is the final part of our investigation by Cameron Stewart and Will Glasgow on China and the coronavirus
Although the Trump administration is now furious with China for its behaviour in relation to the coronavirus, it did not become openly hostile towards Beijing until late February.
As recently as February 7, Trump tweeted that Xi was “strong, sharp and focused on leading the counter-attack” and that “discipline is taking place in China as President Xi strongly leads”. Yet by late February, when it became clear that the US would be hit hard, the White House turned on China, asking what it knew about the virus, and when.
Pompeo accused China of mishandling the pandemic by employing “censorship” of medical professionals and the media. The White House’s anger about China underplaying the extent of infections and deaths in Wuhan was only heightened by China’s abrupt upward revision in April of the official coronavirus death toll. Beijing lifted the toll by more than one-third, or 1290 deaths, to 3869 — a number Washington believes is still far lower than the reality. By early March, as infections and deaths began to soar across the US, China began to hit back at growing criticism from the Trump administration and elsewhere.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijina sent Trump into a rage by suggesting the virus might have originated in the US. “When did patient zero begin in the US?” Zhao tweeted. “How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data. US owe us an explanation.”
A week later, around mid-March, US intelligence agencies noticed Chinese intelligence agencies pushing disinformation across social media. The messages, purporting to come from the Department of Homeland Security, claimed Trump was going to lock down the country the next day with “troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters”. The White House’s national security council was forced to respond by sending its own tweet to say that the Beijing-backed messages were “FAKE”.
NOV 17, 2019
First identified patient
First identified patient infected with what was later named COVID-19 was found in Hubei on November 17, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
DEC 10, 2019
Prawn seller sick
Wei Guixian, a prawn seller in downtown Wuhan’s South China Seafood Wholesale Market, starts feeling sick.
DEC 30, 2019
Lab test results
Dr Ai Fen, the head of the emergency department at Wuhan Central, receives results from a laboratory test into the mysterious disease. She shares the results with her medical colleagues, including D Li Wenliang.
DEC 31, 2019
“Pneumonia of unknown cause”
World Health Organization’s Beijing office informed of a “pneumonia of unknown cause”, detected in Wuhan. Informed some patients were operating dealers or vendors in the Huanan Seafood market.
DEC 31, 2019
Dr Li Wenliang is summoned to the Wuhan Public Security Bureau and told off for “spreading rumours”.
JAN 1, 2020
Dr Ai reprimanded
Dr Ai is reprimanded by Wuhan Central hospital officials for sharing information about the new virus with medical colleagues
JAN 3, 2020
US informed, samples destroyed
China first tells the US about the new virus and begins giving daily updates on the virus to the WHO; on the same day China's National Health Commission orders institutions in Wuhan not to publish any information related to the unknown disease and to destroy samples of the disease.
JAN 6, 2020
Trump administration offers to send a team of America’s best disease experts to China. Beijing says no.
JAN 14, 2020
“Most severe challenge since SARS”
At a closed meeting, the head of China’s National Health Commission says the situation is “the most severe challenge since SARS”; on the same day the WHO repeats that “the virus does not spread readily between people”.
JAN 20, 2020
President Xi Jinping first publicly addresses the virus in comments published in China’s state media; in an interview on China’s state television station, Chinese doctor Zhong Nanshan confirms the virus can spread between humans.
JAN 21, 2020
Coronavirus first mentioned by Scott Morrison
The PM mentions the virus publicly for the first time in a TV interview, amid reports of people with SARS-like symptoms in Wuhan. “I should stress that (the Chief Medical Officer’s) advice has been that this virus is not at the sort of extreme level of what the SARS virus has,” he said.
JAN 23, 2020
Wuhan in lockdown
Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, is put into a lockdown. It lasts for 72 days.
JAN 24, 2020
China travel bans
Travel bans imposed on almost all of Hubei, population 60 million.
JAN 25, 2020
Australia’s first case
Australia records its first case of coronavirus.
JAN 27, 2020
China travel suspension
China suspends group travel to foreign countries; the same day Wuhan’s mayor says China’s centralised political system did not allow him to reveal the true situation earlier: "As a local government, we need to get authorisation before disclosure”.
JAN 31, 2020
US bans China travellers
Trump bans entry by foreign nationals who had recently visited China; Chinese officials say the ban “neither based in fact nor helpful”.
FEB 1, 2020
Australia bans China travellers
The government bans entry for all travellers from mainland China, except Australians and permanent residents. Official travel advice to Australians for China is raised to Level Four – “Do not travel.”
FEB 7, 2020
Dr Li Wenliang dies
Trump tweets that President Xi is “strong, sharp and focussed on leading the counterattack” on the virus and that “discipline is taking place in China as President Xi strongly leads”; Dr Li Wenliang dies after being infected with COVID-19.
FEB 13, 2020
Australia’s China ban extended
The travel ban is extended. The Chinese Embassy condemns the move with “deep regret and dissatisfaction”.
FEB 24, 2020
Aylward praises China
The WHO’s delayed China joint mission ends with a press conference in Beijing. The mission’s head Bruce Aylward praises China for its transparency.
FEB 27, 2020
Australia prepares for a pandemic
Morrison effectively declares a pandemic ahead of the WHO. “We believe that the risk of a global pandemic is very much upon us and as a result, as a government, we need to take the steps necessary to prepare for such a pandemic.”
MAR 12, 2020
China suggests US origin
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhoa Lijina suggests that the virus may have originated in the US.
MAR 19, 2020
Australia closes borders
Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne announce Australia will close its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents from 9pm the following day.
MAR 23, 2020
“World should thank” China
The state-run Xinhua news agency claimed that the “world should thank” China for its early response to the virus.
APR 3, 2020
Wet markets a "very real problem"
Morrison tells 2GB’s Alan Jones that Chinese wet markets are “a very real and significant problem”, which “the World Health Organisation should do something about”.
APR 15, 2020
World Health Organisation
Morrison declines to back Trump’s move to suspend funding for the WHO. He says he sympathises with the President’s criticisms of the body, but declares the body “does a lot of important work, including here in our own region in the Pacific”.
APR 17, 2020
Wuhan death toll increased
Chinese authorities retrospectively increase Wuhan’s death toll by 50 per cent.
APR 19, 2020
Call for an independent review
Payne calls on the ABC’s Insiders for an independent review into the pandemic. She calls for “transparency” from China, saying it is “fundamental” to examine the origins of the virus and its development into a pandemic. Morrison later confirms the proposal has “my very, very strong support”.
APR 27, 2020
Inquiry is “dangerous”
China’s Ambassador Cheng Jingye, in the AFR, warns Australia’s push for an inquiry is "dangerous", and could result in Chinese consumer boycotts of Australian goods and services. Payne lashes the comments, branding them “economic coercion”.
MAY 1, 2020
Morrison refutes lab source claims
Morrison pushes back against claims that the virus came from a Wuhan lab. “There's nothing that we have that would indicate that was the likely source,” Morrison says. "The most likely scenario ... relates to wildlife wet markets, but that's a matter that would have to be thoroughly assessed.”+
In the face of growing criticism, China stepped up its efforts to avoid media scrutiny. It revoked press credentials for almost all American citizens working in mainland China at the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post — its biggest expulsion of international press since Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
A week later, on March 23, the state-run Xinhua news agency claimed the “world should thank China” for its early response to the virus.
But far from thanking China, many are questioning its behaviour in this pandemic.
John Lee, former senior adviser to former foreign minister Julie Bishop and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, says that when taken together, China’s actions on the coronavirus amount to “recklessness and even malice”.
“The criticism does not stem from COVID-19 emanating out of China but from the Communist Party’s initial emphasis on prioritising the controlling of messaging and suppression of its own doctors over preventing a national health crisis, playing down the severity and transmissibility of the virus to WHO and the world when it knew otherwise, and allowing its citizens to travel internationally when it was taking measures to protect its own country,” Lee tells The Weekend Australian.
“The CCP’s actions should also lead the world to consider the extent to which we should trust the CCP and place faith in Chinese authoritarian institutions as the country’s power grows and the CCP demands a greater leadership role in global institutions.”
A Pew Research Centre survey released last month found more than two-thirds of Americans now have a negative view of China — the highest level since the centre’s surveys began in 2005.
Trump has sharply stepped up his criticism of Beijing in recent weeks as the US death toll continues to climb, and he is expected to make China a major target during his upcoming election campaign.
This week, Trump and Pompeo have taken their criticism to a new level, with both embracing the idea that the virus emerged from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan. “My opinion is they made a mistake,” Trump says. “They tried to cover it, they tried to put it out. It’s like a fire. You know, it’s really like trying to put out a fire. They couldn’t put out the fire.” Pompeo says a “significant amount of evidence” points to a lab being the source, although he has not revealed what this evidence might be.
Scott Morrison has distanced himself from those claims, believing a wild animals market is the most likely source.
‘There is no question of Chinese malfeasance. The damning facts are indisputable’
US intelligence agencies are looking into the lab theory but have not come to any conclusions. However a Department of Homeland Security Intelligence report written on May 1 concludes Chinese leaders “intentionally concealed the severity” of the pandemic in early January. The report argues Beijing hid details to hoard medical supplies to deal with the outbreak.
Morrison is making a global push for an inquiry into the origins of the virus and has written to G20 leaders seeking their support. So far the US, New Zealand and the EU have supported an inquiry, but discussions continue as to when it would begin and how it would be organised. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne welcomed the growing discussion about an independent COVID-19 review that “Australia helped start nearly three weeks ago”.
Meanwhile, the WHO said this week it had asked China to approve a fact-finding origins review. After escalating rhetoric about the lab theory, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday said Beijing would support the WHO’s origins review “at an appropriate time”.
Pompeo and Trump are pushing for an even broader reckoning, threatening unspecified punishments for Beijing. Says Pompeo: “China behaved like authoritarian regimes do — it attempted to conceal and hide and confuse.”
James Jay Carafano, a vice-president at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says China’s behaviour on coronavirus has been catastrophic and unconscionable. “China significantly delayed, by weeks and perhaps even months, reporting the virus … that catastrophically slowed the world’s response effort and sped the spread,” he says. “Compounding this fatal lack of co-operation is the unconscionable fact that the regime let many tens of thousands leave the country, even though officials knew these travellers could be carrying the virus.
“There is no question of Chinese malfeasance. The damning facts are indisputable.”
Cameron Stewart is The Australian’s Washington correspondent. Will Glasgow is the paper’s China correspondent.