Share this post
State of origin: old or new China?
Written by Alex Massie
10 June 2021
We have learned many things in the 18 months since Covid-19 first emerged in the then little-known — at least in the west — Chinese city of Wuhan. These have been months of pity and terror and suffocating uncertainty as well as, thanks to the work of the international scientific and pharmaceutical communities, astonishing, world-salvaging ingenuity. But while we have learnt much about the virus and how it may best be contained, it is also striking to ponder some of things we still do not know for certain. And chief of these, perhaps, is the question of where the virus came from.
The standard origin-story for the virus remains that it hopped from bats to humans, possibly via a pangolin, at a “wet market” in Wuhan. That is to say, it was not so very different from previous viruses that have crossed the species barrier. The difference between this pandemic and past emergencies such as SARS lay chiefly in the speed and ease with which this virus transmitted itself.
And yet, almost from the first moment the Chinese authorities belatedly informed the outside world of what was happening in Wuhan, sceptics have wondered if the official version of events is too convenient to be wholly plausible. Or, rather, could it really be a coincidence that of all the Chinese cities in which this kind of outbreak might take place, it just happened to be in a Chinese city in which coronaviruses such as these were stored, researched, and experimented with? Coincidences do happen and in fact happen more frequently than humans, who are deeply attached to reasoning, often think. But this concurrence still seemed remarkable. Thus was born the so-called “Lab Leak” theory, positing that the virus broke out from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and then conquered the world.
Initially this was a notion largely confined to the fever swamps of the American right, first promulgated by the likes of Tom Cotton, the senator from Arkansas, and subsequently taken up by the Trump administration. Consequently, and because the lab leak idea was promoted by figures polite — and elite — society considered disreputable, it was a theory easily dismissed as being the preserve of cranks and racists. Something given credence by Trump could not possibly be true and the proof of that lay less in the evidence itself than in the identity of those suggesting the Chinese might be hiding something disastrous. A classic example, you may think, of focusing on the player at the expense of the ball.
But even Donald Trump can be right, even if for the wrong reasons. I do not claim this was the case here – for, really, nobody can yet be sure of the virus’s origins — but it is worth bearing in mind that the scientific and diplomatic aversion to treating the lab leak theory seriously was not based on anything much connected to the evidence — or even the absence of evidence — pointing towards either the wet-market explanation or the lab leak theory.
A year later, however, and all is changed. President Joe Biden’s instruction that America’s intelligence agencies should at least investigate the plausibility of a lab leak tattooed the theory with respectability. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is something to be interrogated here. An intelligence source quoted by The Sunday Times conceded it might prove impossible to determine the matter one way or the other, the only certainty being that “the Chinese will lie” either way.
Does it even matter? It does and for a number of reasons. First, there is a significant difference between a pandemic that can, in effect, be ascribed to an act of god and one which originated in gross and consequential human error; a difference between “one of those things” and something which should not have been “one of those things”.
Secondly, it matters enormously both for China itself and for China’s relationships with the rest of the world. In essence, if it started in a wet market it began in “Old China” but if the virus escaped from a lab it emerged from “New China”. In the former case, Covid becomes a terrible accident that should be understood as the product of a China that Beijing is determined to leave behind; in the latter, however, it becomes something much more disturbing: a warning from the future.
If the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it also serves as a reminder that “New China” is neither as robust nor as secure as it would like the world to think. Covid would become, as The New York Times’s Ross Douthat observed, a kind of Chinese Chernobyl, with the difference that “their incompetence and cover-up sickened not just one of their own cities but also the entire globe”. That would, at the very least, constitute a significant loss of face — a humiliation in fact — for Beijing. So, you may understand why much effort must be made to establish the “natural” origin of the virus. It is very much in China’s interests to discover the precise moment, and location, of the virus’s species-crossing beginning.
And yet, thus far, that evidence has not been shared with the outside world and this in turn strengthens the case for the lab leak theory. If that were ever proved, China’s already shaky reputation as a trustworthy partner would be further diminished. Domestically, too, a lab leak might risk tarnishing the Communist party’s status. It is one thing to suppress liberty while offering unprecedented prosperity; it is rather another to eliminate dissent while infecting the entire planet. In such circumstances, China’s ability to take swift action within its own borders becomes something less awe-inspiring and, instead, seems something terrifying.
Since the US-China relationship is now the world’s most challenging and most important — being a matter not just of trade and geopolitics but also, unavoidably, the key to meeting climate change targets — it is not difficult to see how the uncertainty surrounding the virus’s origins undermines a relationship that already lacks trust. If the lab leak thesis were ever proved, I suspect it would prompt calls for China to pay compensation. (These would be resisted, but the call would be more significant than any prospect it might be heeded.)
All of which is to say, again, that the virus’s beginning does matter and that, in the absence of proof confirming the wet market origin, it is little surprise that other explanations slowly but surely become more respectable. What it points to, more than anything else, however is this great conundrum of our times: how do we engage with or otherwise manage relations with China? That is a mighty, and as yet, unresolved quandary, the upshot of which will go some way towards defining the rest of this century.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.