China is testing President Biden, but his party is still preoccupied with Donald Trump. Chinese authorities refused to provide World Health Organization investigators with raw data on early COVID-19 cases that could help them determine how and when the coronavirus spread in China. The stakes in learning as much as we can from this pandemic couldn’t be higher. But it’s unclear if our new leaders are ready to confront China’s increasingly intransigent leaders, who are keen to promote unlikely theories on the origins of the virus that absolve them of culpability.
The virus has killed nearly 2.5 million people worldwide and the International Monetary Fund has estimated that the global cost of the pandemic is $28 trillion. A paper published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, put the total cost in the U.S. at more than $16 trillion, or nearly $200,000 for a family of four. With case counts declining and vaccines here, we now see a light at the end of the tunnel, but this is no time for complacency. This should be a “never again” moment where we steadfastly resolve to do everything in our power to ensure that we never experience another catastrophic plague like this one again.
President Biden has yet to speak publicly about China’s refusal to hand over raw data on early cases, but Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, issued a statement. “At this critical moment, protecting the WHO’s credibility is a paramount priority,” he said. “We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them.”
The statement was better than nothing, but there was no call to action or mention of potential consequences if China fails to comply, which is exceedingly likely given Beijing’s track record on transparency and COVID-19. Sullivan merely said that “[a]ll countries, including China, should participate in a transparent and robust process for preventing and responding to health emergencies — so that the world learns as much as possible as soon as possible.”
Since the news broke on Feb. 12, other top Democrats have been silent regarding China’s failure to fully cooperate with WHO investigators. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sent multiple tweets about impeachment but none about China. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has also been silent, but has sent a half dozen tweets about the impeachment. There’s also been nary a peep on China’s attempted coverup from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has more Twitter followers than Schumer and Pelosi put together, or Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee who has sent a dozen tweets about impeachment in recent days while remaining silent on China.
Vice President Kamala Harris has made no mention of the WHO team’s China mission, but the day after the news broke, she sent a tweet warning of xenophobia. “Hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants have skyrocketed during the pandemic. That’s why our Administration has taken actions to address these xenophobic attacks.”
Combating xenophobic attacks is a laudable goal, but my fear is that the too-woke, too-cozy-to-China Democratic Party may not act forcefully for fear of stoking xenophobia. Remember, for example, how then candidate Joe Biden called Trump’s China travel ban “xenophobic,” and how Democrats like Pelosi and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio urged Americans to visit Chinatowns at the start of the pandemic.
For years, the Putin-obsessed Democratic Party has acted as though Russia is still our primary geopolitical adversary when China is clearly our biggest threat.
We can demand accountability from China without inflaming anti-Asian sentiment. President Biden must use forceful diplomacy to bring other world leaders around to force China’s hand. Finding consensus will be difficult, but issuing statements of concern is clearly not enough.
The Chinese government should be given a deadline to turn early COVID-19 case data over to the WHO and there must be clear consequences for failure to comply. Any number of sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans for China’s leaders, should be on the table. We should also strongly encourage the WHO to immediately send its team of investigators back to China. They should remain there until China’s leaders fully cooperate, and if they don’t, team members should hold daily press conferences to shame them.
Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a bill, the COVID-19 Accountability Act, last May calling for sanctions on China if it failed to fully cooperate with the U.S. and international organizations conducting investigations. The bill never received a vote but now is the time to reignite talks of how to respond to China’s dangerous lack of transparency.
China doves and free-trade-at-all-costs types will insist that we can’t afford to confront China, which is our third largest trading partner. But when you stack up the economic cost that may arise from rising tensions with China against the potential cost of enduring another pandemic, the choice is clear. It’s time for Joe Biden and other world leaders to send a clear, united message to China that the world will not allow them to persist in what looks like a COVID-19 coverup.