Covid-19: An independent investigation is good for China

May 04, 2020 11:13
Photo: Xinhua

Voices increasingly are being raised calling for China to be held accountable for the coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging the world with three and a half million people infected so far and close to a quarter million deaths. Economic losses will amount to trillions of U.S. dollars.

But is China responsible? After all, as China tells it, while the country was the first victim of the coronavirus, it was not its source and not responsible for its spread around the world. In fact, China argues that through its effective containment methods China bought time for the rest of the world to make preparations but some countries, most notably the United States, frittered the time away for domestic political reasons.

Thus, on March 12, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “The origin of the virus can only be determined by science. We need to rely on scientific and professional views. We don’t hope to see anyone making an issue out of this to stigmatize other countries. With Covid-19 developing into a pandemic, the world should come together to fight it instead of leveling accusations and attacks against each other, which is not constructive at all.”

Confusingly, it turns out that that same day Geng’s fellow foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian was busy leveling accusations and stigmatizing others, telling the world that it “might be the U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan” in a message on his Twitter account.

Today, there are multiple theories about the origin of the virus, including one that the virus was created in a Chinese lab and then somehow escaped to infect first Wuhan and then other parts of China and the world.

In fact, the American president, Donald Trump, said last Thursday that he had seen evidence that the virus that causes Covid-19 was created in a Wuhan lab. China labels such claims “unfounded and fabricated.”

Scientists generally concur that the virus was not manmade or genetically modified but emerged naturally. That, however, doesn’t preclude its being studied in a lab and then somehow slipping into the community, perhaps as a result of a lab mishap.

Even though the coronavirus outbreak occurred first in Wuhan, China insists that that doesn’t mean that Wuhan – or even China for that matter – was where the virus originated. Instead, China has suggested that the virus may have originated in Italy, or the United States, or indeed anywhere else. Beijing has reported how the virus had mysteriously appeared in different parts of the world, even among people who had no direct contact with China.

Given such a confusing situation, including theories that the virus could have been circulating for years in various places, there is little doubt that the puzzle can only be solved by scientists, just as China has said.

In fact, China is conducting its own investigation into the origin of the virus. But, according to the World Health Organization, it has rejected suggestions of cooperation with the world body and insists on its own investigation.

Unfortunately, this means that whenever China releases the result of its research, it will lack the credibility of an independent study done jointly by scientists from various countries.

This is what Australia proposed on April 19 – an independent investigation into the origins and spread of the coronavirus. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she wanted to ensure transparency and that “we are able to engage openly and clearly in a review process so that we can get to the bottom of this.”

For some reason, China immediately rejected this proposal. China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, accused Australia of acting on behalf of the United States and said that a push for an inquiry was “dangerous.”

Last week, the European Union also called on China to cooperate with an independent investigation. So far, it seems, more and more countries are backing an independent investigation, with China apparently the only country opposed.

Just why China should be opposed to an independent investigation is unclear. Since it had said this matter can only be solved by scientists, it should welcome an international inquiry in which its own scientists can take part.

Given the multiplicity of conspiracy theories, an international inquiry is the best way to end all speculation. Otherwise, the blame game between China and the United States will continue and escalate with no end in sight.

China can have its input into the scope and method of the investigation while agreeing in principle to hold one. Vehement opposition to any inquiry will, inevitably, lead people to wonder why China is opposed, and whether it has anything to hide.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.