Column: The White House plays dumb on the pandemic’s China connection

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at a State Department news conference April 29, 2020.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at a State Department news conference April 29, 2020.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press )

The future is particularly murky these days. It’s anybody’s guess how the pandemic, the presidential election and the economy are going to play out. Just about the only thing that’s assured is that U.S. relations with China will never be the same.

Businesses are radically rethinking their supply chains and whether you call the rest of us voters or consumers, attitudes toward China are souring. A recent Harris poll found that two-thirds of Democrats and 9 out of 10 Republicans hold China responsible for the spread of the coronavirus. Already, a slew of lawsuits have been leveled against the Chinese government. The West’s political orientation toward China is shifting too, as countries around the world increasingly point fingers at Beijing.

In short, the issue isn’t whether a China-U.S. reckoning is coming, only whether we’re smart or dumb about it.

Early on, the knee-jerk response from Democrats, the World Health Organization, much of the media and the Chinese government itself, was to claim that any criticism of the Chinese government’s actions was bigoted or xenophobic.


On the merits, this is ridiculous. The Chinese government is a cruel and oppressive regime. Its refusal to be transparent and cooperative with the international community has been outrageous, and it’s not bigoted to say so. But the CCP, the Communist Party of China, is not “the Chinese” or even “China,” and blanket-blaming a whole nation and its people for a pandemic makes no sense. It’s as dumb, in other words, as stipulating that any negative word about Beijing is xenophobic.

The current debate over the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is another excellent example of how dumb we can be about criticizing China. The claim that the virus originated in a Chinese lab is not synonymous with the deranged conspiracy theory that the Chinese created the virus and purposefully unleashed it.

There is no evidence that the virus is man-made; scientists would be able to tell with genetic sequencing. Nor is it plausible that China’s interests would be served by the deliberate release on its own soil. A more credible — but unproven — theory is that the Chinese were studying the virus and it could have been accidentally released. Or it may also have emerged “naturally,” as the Chinese government contends, from a Wuhan meat market.

As the question of where the virus came from has heated up, Republican China hawks, in and out of the administration, rarely volunteer that they don’t mean “man-made” when they say “originated.” And much of the media coverage similarly ignores or downplays this distinction. Some pro-Trump media personalities seem eager to fuel anti-Chinese sentiments while the anti-Trump crowd seem to prefer to see a more mockable conspiracy theory.


This mutually beneficial ambiguity gets a boost from the Trump administration’s vacillation over how much blame it wants to assign to China and how it wants to direct it, all with an eye toward riling up its base and distracting from its early missteps in combating the pandemic.

On the one hand, President Trump values his personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and covets a major trade deal with him. Trump is on the record praising Xi’s coronavirus leadership and he remains reluctant to criticize Xi directly. On the other hand, the president and many of his advisors and surrogates relish having a new evil empire to galvanize support around.

(The schizophrenic nature of all this is ironically analogous to conservative criticism of the Trump administration. A slew of pro-Trump politicians and media figures are sharply critical of the administration’s response to the pandemic while simultaneously refusing to criticize Trump. The result is heated talk of states needing to be “liberated” from governors following the president’s guidelines and presidential advisors being scapegoated for presidential decisions.)

The ambiguity about China’s misdeeds was on display during the Sunday talk shows.


When Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo told ABC’s Martha Raddatz that “China has a history of infecting the world,” Raddatz admirably asked, “Do you believe it was man-made or genetically modified?” Pompeo replied, “Look, the best experts so far seem to think it was man-made. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point.” After Raddatz, again admirably, pointed out that the exact opposite is the case, that experts including the U.S. intelligence community believe it is not man-made, Pompeo said, “That’s right, I agree with that.” Then he went on to make a defensible case against the Chinese government, never mentioning Xi by name.

It’s surely possible he merely misspoke. But his dancing back and forth between dumb and smart was at minimum symbolic of an administration that wants to have it both ways.

Anger at Xi’s government is warranted, as is a recalibration of our relationship with China in the long aftermath of the pandemic. But treating a nuclear and economic superpower as an existential enemy primarily to satisfy domestic political needs — during an economic and public health crisis — strikes me as the dumbest way to go.