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Weaponizing Viruses

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

The Family, Egon Schiele, 1918

Belvedere Museum, Vienna

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(Six months after this picture was painted,

Egon and his entire family had died of the Spanish Flu.)

There are two mainstream interpretations of the origins of the Coronavirus. One is that the virus spread naturally from a bat or another wild animal, the version loudly championed by Beijing. A second is that the virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China where experiments had long been carried out on viruses also derived from wild animals. The latter interpretation has recently been subject to increasing scrutiny outside China.

The Middle Kingdom is adamant about the virus’s natural spread. But it has also argued, in a curious turn of logic, that the virus may have not originated in China at all but on a US army base and/or spread on the surfaces of frozen food products.

There is, however, another trajectory that warrants examination, namely, that China weaponized the virus in the pursuit of domestic and foreign policy goals. This could have happened after Chinese authorities realized that the virus had escaped from a lab – an apparently not infrequent phenomenon. Or, what is more likely, weaponization could have been part of an ongoing Chinese effort to use the virus for strategic ends. I hasten to add that there is no proof of this one way or the other.

That said, there are several arguments in favour of the thesis that Beijing may have tried to weaponize the virus.

One is Beijing’s ongoing efforts to deny access to medical records that could shed light on the situation as it evolved in China in late 2019 and early 2020. This in itself does not say much: authoritarian regimes typically try to control the narrative whatever it is about. But in view of the growing international outcry about the need for transparency over what was going on in and around Wuhan around the period in question, Beijing would seem to have an interest in coming clean- unless of course it could not risk an in-depth probe of its own behaviour.

Secondly, there is evidence that suggests that Beijing was trying to support the virus’s spread outside China early on. After the virus broke in China, in January 2020 while domestic flights from Wuhan were cancelled, international flights out of China were allowed to continue. This may have been decisive in the virus’s initial spread to Western Europe and North America.

That said, there are important counterarguments that need to be addressed.

One is that in weaponizing the virus Beijing put itself medically at risk. Apparently not: the PRC was ready for the virus - the number of infections and deaths has been way below the equivalent Western numbers.

A second counterargument is that weaponizing the virus could have had an adverse effect on its economy. But no, after a slump in the first quarter of 2020, the Chinese economy had bounced back a year later to more than pre-pandemic levels.

A third argument is that the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) would have been morally averse to weaponizing the virus and being responsible for millions of CORONA deaths worldwide.

The history of the CPP says otherwise. It presided over policies that ended up killing over 50 million Chinese during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61 and roughly as many during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Moreover, it pursued these programmes despite having had behind it the murderous experience of similar campaigns carried out by the Soviet Communist Party.

And for the PRC, Mao is not dead. In China, there has not even been any sort of destalinization process on the (highly imperfect) Russian model. The Great Helmsman figured center-stage in the recent celebrations of the one-hundredth anniversary of the CCP.

As for possible motives, the obvious one Is that Beijing was searching for a grand distraction that would allow it to proceed with its takeover of Hong Kong in defiance of the 1997 agreement with the UK. If this was its game, it got it right. The PRC’s move to stifle civil and political liberties in the former British colony transpired without any meaningful countermeasures on the part of Western democracies, so preoccupied they were with the Coronavirus.

But there is also the larger question of what has been driving this. The short answer is the ambitions of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. He has held the top three positions in China since 2012-2013: President, Chairman of its Central Military Commission (CMC) and Party First Secretary. In 2018, the two-term limit on the Presidency was removed, de facto allowing Xi to remain in this job for life. In 2022, he would normally relinquish the top party job. He clearly wants to keep it as well as that of CMC Secretary.

This flies in the face of decisions taken by various communist parties to limit the top man to a decade in the job, a decision inspired by the abuses that occurred in the USSR with Stalin’s thirty years in power.

To break through this barrier, Xi needs to do something special. The takeover of Hong Kong is the first part of his equation, that of Taiwan is likely the second.

For the international community, achieving transparency about the virus’s progression in China is crucial if it is to be prepared for the next iteration.

This includes being able to use knowledge of the Chinese experience in anticipation of the possibility that China but also other state- and non -state actors may attempt to weaponize a virus of the likes of COVID in future. If we do not know what really happened in the case of COVID, we face a risk that looms seriously larger than it needs to.

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