U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the “Chinese virus” when talking about the pandemic. Many of his critics insist the term is racist, echoing official Chinese talking points. Others, such as U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, say that we should not politicize the crisis by assigning blame, but focus on pulling together in the common fight against a global disease that makes no distinction between people and recognizes no borders.
This is nonsense. The crisis is inherently political because it was caused in part by incompetent, malicious, and corrupt politicians. To ignore the political dimension of the coronavirus pandemic is an excellent way to ensure it happens again. If we do not want another global pandemic, we have to hold accountable the politicians responsible for making it worse, chief among them Chinese President Xi Jinping. He did not create the novel coronavirus, but his government’s missteps are directly responsible for its global transmission and uncontrolled spread, with all its terrible consequences to populations and economies around the world.
A global pandemic is not a blind force of nature independent of human agency. It is a failure of governance. An analogy with famines is useful. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has explained in his excellent book, Development as Freedom, that famines are not primarily an absence of food, but an absence of information about food, coupled with a problem of transportation. There is, physically speaking, enough food on the planet for everyone. If you know where food is and where hungry people are, and you can get the one to the other, people do not starve. That is why established free-market democracies, which allow the free flow of information and markets, have no famines.
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Similarly, a global pandemic does not happen every time a novel infectious pathogen emerges. It happens when there is an absence of accurate information about the pathogen and a failure of basic public services—in this case, the failure to regulate food and marketplaces to prevent the transmission of pathogens, and the failure to shut down transportation and control movement once it spreads. When authorities regulate public health, share information about a pathogen, and cooperate to control its movement, diseases are contained and pandemics are unlikely.
These are problems of governance, not science. Governments have to act like they are responsible for public health. They have to welcome transparency, willingly share information (even about their failures and ignorance), and order their bureaucracies to cooperate with one another, with international health organizations, and with foreign governments. Good governance responds to public demand, rewards the free flow of information, including bad news, and rewards cooperation in the public interest, even when it goes against parochial bureaucratic self-interest. Bad governance does the opposite.
Unsurprisingly, authoritarian governments, such as China’s, do not like sharing news about their ignorance and do not like cooperating with other governments. As Danielle Pletka recently argued, Xi’s “prime concern was not lives at risk, or containment of the virus, but rather the nation’s and his reputation, place in the global supply chain and his grip on power.” By contrast, “democratic leaders are not afraid of information, and as a result, can judge the efficacy of their efforts, can fine tune and adjust, and can respond to the flow of news in a way that optimizes life saving.” Pletka and others have accurately cataloged how Chinese leaders lied and tried to cover up the emergence of the coronavirus in December and January to save face.
But the problem goes deeper. Because the Chinese government is not accountable to its people, it has never bothered to police the safety and cleanliness of food and food markets effectively, which the United States and other developed democracies started doing in response to public and media pressure a century ago. Chinese policymakers never have to face the voters, which is why, for example, there was little lasting reform or meaningful accountability after a scandal in 2008 in which tens of thousands of Chinese infants fell ill and required hospitalization after drinking contaminated milk.
Simply put, the Chinese government does not give a damn about the Chinese people, which is why it ignores markets where the food is filthy and carries disease (not, despite what U.S. Sen. John Cornyn believes, because of problems with Chinese culture). Those markets have now killed thousands of Chinese citizens—and they also turn out to be the greatest threat to the national security and economy of the United States and other countries in 2020. That the Chinese government, beginning in late 2019, lied and directly contributed to the creation of a global pandemic, the deaths of thousands of people, and a global economic collapse, is evidently true, and they deserve blame and accountability for it.
But the Chinese government’s record in the recent crisis is only the tip of an iceberg. The same government is responsible for genocide against the Uighur people, violating international law in the South China Sea, wholesale intellectual property theft from and cyber-espionage against the United States and its allies, one of the worst records of environmental pollution in the world, the invention of a new type of technology-powered totalitarian surveillance state, and more.
The Chinese government, not the wet markets, is the most thoroughly diseased and decaying institution in the world. It is the most powerful institution on the planet that daily opposes human freedom, human flourishing, and human dignity. Was it surprising that, by its very nature, it would aid and abet a global crisis that will kill thousands, sicken millions, and impoverish billions?
Regardless of what we call the virus (I’m partial to naming it after the Chinese Communist Party and calling it the “CCP virus”), blaming China is not the thing that “politicizes” the COVID-19 pandemic, because the pandemic is already political. The political dimension of this crisis means we must seek accountability to prevent its recurrence—and accountability begins with casting blame where it is due.
While U.S. policymakers bungled their response and exacerbated the crisis as a result—particularly through Trump’s repeated false statements and lack of urgency— the Chinese government is most directly responsible for the governance failures that have now unleashed untold suffering and economic collapse on the world. Its mendacity and incompetence should cause politicians, policymakers, and business leaders across the world to reconsider their willingness to engage and do business with China until it proves itself a responsible actor on the world stage.