Covid-19 and the reconfigured world only make the message of this book more pressing and urgent—and my past warnings more prescient, if I may say so.
Experts from the book, The End of Democracy?: Russia and China on the Rise, America in Retreat, by the author.
by Douglas Schoen
Empty streets in the world’s great cities. Boarded-up storefronts. “Closed” signs in restaurant windows. Rider-less subway trains. Masked people, where people can be seen.
Grim scenes from Italian hospitals: hallways crowded with sick patients on gurneys, not all of whom will receive treatment. Nurses and doctors, exhausted, some in tears and supporting one another, outnumbered by those who need their care. They must make decisions about which patients can be saved and which can be merely “made comfortable.” Around the world, other countries dread the Italian scenario, in which stress on hospital capacity leads to wartime-like triage operations and—though no one dares quite say it—bodies in the streets.
Fortunately, this scenario does not play out elsewhere, though in New York, hospitals spend anxious weeks with crushes of sick patients, and worries mount that the city will not have the resources needed to treat them all. Eventually, New York succeeds in “flattening the curve,” as the saying goes. Hospitals do not turn away the sick; people do not die in Manhattan streets. But the Manhattan streets are empty of walkers, devoid of commerce, and paralyzed by fear.
The global economy sputters to a near-total halt. The American economy, still the world’s great engine of commerce, essentially shuts itself down. Hundreds of millions of people around the world “shelter in place,” staying home instead of going out to eat or shop or entertain themselves. Workplaces close. Those whose jobs can be done remotely “work from home,” to avoid coming into contact with others. Those whose jobs demand on-site presence—millions of people—lose their jobs, as the business that employ them quickly fold up, unable to sustain a total loss of revenue that stretches from days to weeks to months.
And all along, the lingering questions: how much worse will it get? How many more will die? And how quickly can a treatment be found?
This was the world in March and April 2020: something like a surrealist nightmare, with scenes such as these that would previously have been regarded as the material for dystopian science-fiction novels or disaster films, like Contagion. The novel coronavirus, official name Covid-19, was ravaging people and nations everywhere in the most consequential global pandemic since the 1918 influenza. By early August 2020, the new respiratory illness, originating in China, had spread around the world, causing 18.5 million infections and more than 700,000 deaths. In the United States, the numbers were 4.7 million cases and more than 150,000 deaths. The numbers continue to rise.
Economically, too, the numbers are staggering, especially in the United States, where nearly 50 million people have filed for unemployment benefits. Already, the federal government in Washington has unleashed $1.8 trillion in relief, in the form of the CARES Act—a figure more than double the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (commonly referred to as “the stimulus”), passed in the wake of the financial crisis and the Great Recession—and more than half of total 2019 federal revenues.1 Only time will tell how many businesses have gone under for good, how many millions have joined the permanent ranks of the jobless, and how much in total national wealth has been wiped out by the cessation of activity imposed by lockdowns, shutdowns, and slowdowns all around the United States.
Europe has been hit hard, too. The injunction to “not become another Italy” speaks for itself. Though their total deaths are fewer, Great Britain, France, and most other nations have virus mortality rates considerably worse than that of the U.S. With the grim logic it imposes of isolation and limited contact, the virus might well demolish what remains of the European dream of unity and integration—a dream already threatened by the departure of Britain from the E.U. and years of economic turbulence, amid rising populist and nationalist movements.
Nonetheless, the impact of the coronavirus on the United States has been more transformative than anywhere else. The United States has not faced a public-health challenge like the coronavirus since 1918. America is the disease’s epicenter: New York and New Jersey have recorded the largest number of deaths. The United States accounts for about a quarter of global infections and more than one-fifth of global deaths. Economically, the U.S. has suffered damage that can scarcely be quantified—damage that has crossed the threshold of historical comparisons to the Great Depression, entering an uncharted realm. Even when normal life resumes, whenever that may be, the damage is likely to extend for years. Workplaces, restaurants, public transit, live events such as sports or music, schooling, travel, medical care—all of these areas, and more, will be transformed by the pandemic.
We will not go back to how things were. We will live in a post-Covid-19 era.
So all-encompassing has this experience been for so many Americans, and for citizens around the world, and so challenging, in terms of making the necessary adaptations to living differently, that it is easy to overlook the historical and political nature of what has occurred—and continues to occur. The historical nature is simple: our world will change, cities will change, economies will change, as a result of the virus, as they have in the past in response to other great plagues of contagious disease, from cholera to bubonic plague to influenza.
The global political ramifications, however, are more often overlooked. Most Americans, understandably, will focus their political judgments domestically—on the looming 2020 presidential campaign, and on whether, in their judgment, Donald Trump deserves another term in office; or whether Joe Biden and the Democrats, tireless critics of the administration’s Covid-19 preparedness and ongoing response, should take the reins of national leadership. All of that will be adjudicated at the polls in November.
But there is a much bigger matter to be assessed, strange though it may sound to say so, in a presidential election year. And that is the matter of China. It was China, after all, that foisted the coronavirus upon the world, first through its negligence and then through its coverup and suppression of information about Covid-19. The coronavirus added a whole new context to an ongoing trade war between China and the United States and to the two nations’ struggle for supremacy in the South China Sea and, more generally, for global leadership—a struggle made ever-more daunting for the U.S. by rising Chinese adventurism, not only in the South China Sea but also in Hong Kong and North Korea. And this broader context makes the story of Covid-19 even more troubling—for the virus’s impact on the world would almost certainly have been less severe had the Communist government in Beijing not behaved as it did.
The result of it all has almost certainly benefited the Chinese in terms of global influence. The result in America, by contrast, has been mounting polarization and division, distracting us from the need to enhance and strengthen our global alliances for everything from coordinating efforts to fight the virus to standing up for democratic values around the world.
Amid all of the carnage, human and economic, questions swirl about the nature of this crisis, about its ramifications, and about the future of U.S.-China relations and the international order. As important as it is to understand how this happened, and why, it is also vital, from an American perspective, to appreciate how the ordeal of Covid-19 has added yet another dimension to the ongoing, sustained undermining of American political and institutional stability.
The Origins—and the Coverup
From the beginning, suspicion swirled about the origins of the virus, always focusing on two main sources. The first was Wuhan’s notorious “wet markets,” where live animals circulate adjacent to food sold for human consumption. The wet markets have long been regarded as havens for infection, having been identified as the source of the 2003–2004 outbreak of SARS, another acute respiratory disease, this one caused by a different coronavirus strain. The second suspected source is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has long done research on animal-borne viruses, including bat-borne viruses, of the kind that caused Covid-19. Those who favored the lab theory split into two camps. Some felt that the coronavirus had escaped the lab, and that Chinese incompetence in containing the spread led to the outbreak—made worse by Chinese Communist suppression of information, punishing those (including doctors) who sought to get the word out and warn the public (both in China and beyond), and even denying that the virus could be transmitted to humans. Others argued that the virus itself was human-engineered as a bioweapon.
There is no question that the Chinese wet markets are infection breeding grounds: indeed, the experience of SARS, an illness far deadlier but thankfully much less widespread than Covid-19, proves this point. And China’s wet markets have been sources of other awful illnesses over the past generation and more. The Chinese have long resisted reforming unsanitary practices that have sickened so many people around the world, long before the advent of Covid-19. So, surmising that Covid-19, too, was born from the wet markets made intuitive sense. Wuhan was a haven for wet markets.
However, evidence has steadily become available calling this explanation into question—and pointing to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the source of the coronavirus. As early as January 2020, The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, was reporting that many of the early Covid-19 cases in Wuhan did not come from the wet markets, though many scientists continue to see the markets as the likelier explanation. The U.S. government is investigating, and statements from officials indicate that they see the lab explanation as plausible. The Trump administration was “asking the Chinese Communist Party to allow experts to get in to that virology lab so that we can determine precisely where this virus began,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “It’s not political. This is about science and epidemiology.”
Indeed, the U.S. government has grown increasingly confident that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab—but not, as some critics allege, as an attempted bioweapon. In most U.S. official circles, the bioweapon theory is dismissed. “If I could just be clear, there is nothing to that,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff Surgeon, in April. “I am not worried about this as a bioweapon.” Instead, the prevailing government view is that the virus was natural in origin, and that the Chinese were attempting to prove that their “efforts to identify and combat viruses are equal or greater than those of the U.S.,” according to Fox News.
Still, even if the virus was not intended as a weapon, that does not eliminate other questions about its potential genesis in the lab. The secrecy of Chinese officials makes clear that they have something to hide. Their refusal to allow inspections of the lab suggests to many that the wet market explanation is a cover story.
However, the question of the virus’s origin is also, in an important sense, merely a detail to a final verdict on China’s culpability. For, whether the virus was manmade or natural, there is the undeniable record of how China handled the virus once it was out of the lab—suppressing and covering up information in an attempt to obscure the truth about Covid-19.
Deception, from the beginning
From the outset, Beijing did not tell the truth about the coronavirus. It misled about the virus’s existence; about its prevalence in the population; about its virulence; about its transmissibility; about the timeline of events of the virus’s appearance and discovery—about everything. Put simply, the regime implemented a crude but massive coverup of what was going on in Wuhan. Chinese officials silenced doctors and destroyed lab samples; shut down or suppressed social media commentators; and assured the world, through their collaboration with the World Health Organization, that there was nothing to worry about. And all the while, as China did this, it was buying massive quantities of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the world market, the better to keep it for its own medical workers—thus creating the shortage of these same goods that would soon bedevil other countries, especially the United States, in dire need of securing their own supplies. The Chinese also refused to provide disease samples to doctors working on vaccines.
|Douglas Schoen, author of the book.|
Any apologetics for Beijing’s coverup can be dismissed after the release of the “Five Eyes” intelligence dossier on the matter in early May 2020. The research, compiled by the intelligence agencies of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, finds strong grounds for concluding that China engineered a coverup of all facets of the coronavirus crisis, deliberately concealing or destroying information crucial for the global community to be able to plan a response. The Chinese Communists’ actions represented, in the words of the Five Eyes report, “an assault on international transparency.”
The Chinese began censoring news near the end of 2019, eliminating news of the virus on social media and Internet search engines, removing search terms including “SARS variation,” “Wuhan Seafood market” and “Wuhan Unknown Pneumonia.” A few days later, the country’s National Health Commission issued an order prohibiting all publication about the disease. Soon after, Wuhan’s Municipal Health Commission stopped releasing daily case updates, and did not restart this practice for nearly two weeks. Peking University First Hospital respiratory specialist Wang Guanga announced that the virus was “under control” and caused only a “mild condition,” neglecting to mention that he himself had been infected. Professors’ labs were shut down, and Beijing refused to share samples with a University of Texas lab.
Most egregiously, Chinese authorities denied that the virus could even be transmitted to humans until January 20, 2020. The World Health Organization disseminated this false information, until the Chinese corrected it.
The Chinese deliberately undercounted the number of cases, too. This was pointed out by Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus Task Force coordinator, who, along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, became a household name and familiar face during the crisis in the United States. Dr. Birx is a diplomatic public-health professional, but her words contained a veiled condemnation of China: “I think when you looked at the China data originally, and you said, ‘Oh, well there’s 80 million people,’ or 20 million people in Wuhan and 80 million people in Hubei, and they come up with a number of 50,000, you start thinking of this more like SARS than you do this kind of global pandemic,” she said at a press briefing on March 31. “So I think the medical community made—interpreted the Chinese data as, that this was serious but smaller than anyone expected, because I think probably we were missing a significant amount of the data, now that when we see what happened to Italy and we see what happened to Spain.”
We were missing a significant amount of data. A polite way to put it.
Were these errors the result of honest misunderstanding? No. Experts in Hong Kong and in Taiwan had been raising concerns about human transmission for weeks beforehand.
And all along, international travel continued, with the Chinese assuring their neighbors and other countries, like the United States, that there was no reason to restrict it. In fact, Beijing’s urgings continued throughout February—though by then President Trump, in a move at first condemned but later adopted around the world, had shut down U.S. airline travel to China. And, of course, during this period international travel proceeded, with millions going into and out of China. Millions left Wuhan itself, taking flights from the afflicted Chinese city to cities around the world—until January 23, when Beijing locked the city down. It is no great mystery, then, that the virus spread globally.
United States intelligence officials are convinced that the Chinese knew about the contagiousness of the virus in December, and transcripts have revealed officials in the Communist Party discussing it in internal communications in January—reflecting their understanding of the dangers, even as they continued to mislead the world.
These deceptions have proved devastating. Until truth was brought to the matter, Western health officials did not understand the seriousness of the illness (especially to certain groups), its highly contagious nature, or the fact that, by listening to Chinese assurances and permitting travel to continue, they were unwittingly importing the virus into their countries at soon-to-be disabling levels. As late as early March, it was still not clear to major Western health officials how serious things were. Even the much-celebrated Dr. Fauci was assuring younger Americans as late as early March that it was safe for them to travel on cruise ships.
WHO: a dupe, or a willing co-conspirator?
The failure of the World Health Organization throughout this matter cannot be overstated. The organization, nominally charged with global health coordination and information, failed to protect the international community from what has become an epochal public-health and economic catastrophe. Some see WHO as China’s dupe, for parroting Beijing’s denial that the virus posed no danger of human transmission; others see the organization as an active co-conspirator of disinformation. As with the debate about the origin of the virus itself, either conclusion is damning enough.
Though evidence suggests that Wuhan doctors knew by mid-December that human-to-human transmission was occurring, Beijing told WHO that this was not the case. On January 14, the organization issued a tweet that would become notorious: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” The damage this did is incalculable.
The co-conspirator allegation, though scoffed at by determined globalist supporters of the organization, seems increasingly plausible after a report in Germany’s Der Spiegel claiming that Chinese president Xi Jinping directly intervened with WHO on January 21, asking director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to delay making a public warning about human-to-human transmission of the virus and declaring a global pandemic. The allegations come from an investigation by Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, which “estimates that China’s information policy lost four to six weeks to fight the virus worldwide.”
Gordon Chang, a withering critic of Beijing, also sees WHO as an active collaborator in the Chinese suppression of information. “It’s very clear now that the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organization didn’t put that information out into the international space as they’re required to do in a timely fashion.”9 The actions were intentional, he concludes. It’s hard to disagree, especially considering the close relationship between the WHO and Beijing; how Beijing played a leading role in Tedros’s selection to head up the organization; and the fact that Tedros himself is a consummate practitioner of cronyism with Third World dictators, such as China, which he demonstrated when, stung by criticism of his performance, he complained about racist attacks—and blamed Taiwan for them.
It’s also important to recognize Tedros’s role in the coronavirus crisis in a broader context: he represents the free rein that Beijing has to influence an organization of global reach, in the absence of any United States role. Beijing likely wouldn’t have been able to install someone like Tedros if the Trump administration had shown any interest in the matter, or any recognition of WHO’s importance globally. But beyond throwing lots of Washington dollars at WHO, the administration showed little interest in its existence. And in late May, Trump announced that the United States would terminate its relationship with WHO.
And amid all this, to add insult to injury, Beijing claimed credit for its performance on stopping the virus’s spread in China; for keeping its caseloads remarkably low (though everyone knew that their numbers were doctored); and for helping the world prepare, even becoming a supplier to other nations of medical supplies, tests, and protective gear—much of which proved to be defective and unusable. It’s a catalogue of revisionism breathtaking in scope.
Deception Plus Propaganda
Beijing’s manipulations did not stop with medical and public-health information. The Chinese also orchestrated an intense campaign of propaganda and deception, looking to confuse and divide public opinion in the West, especially in the United States. The most egregious of their efforts involve repeated claims that the coronavirus was brought into China by the United States military. The claim was touted by Zhao Lijian, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, who first circulated it in a tweet: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” Chinese embassies and consulates then echoed the accusations in their own tweets. The claims, patently absurd, have been repeated elsewhere, and, in the manner of conspiracy theories, have even gained some traction among respectable people.
Even those who rightly reject China’s ludicrous claims about American responsibility for the virus have been vulnerable to other Chinese manipulations, sometimes without even knowing it. In March 2020, when dread began descending on the United States as the nation braced for a massive virus outbreak and prepared to begin self-quarantining, millions of Americans were bombarded with cellphone, social media, and computer messages warning of an imminent national lockdown initiated by the Trump administration. One of the messages claimed that the government would “announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” and cited a source in the Department of Homeland Security, who had supposedly said that “he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.” The messages continued at such volume and intensity that the administration finally had to address them. The National Security Council issued a tweet declaring that all such messages were fakes.
Of course, the United States did essentially lock itself down, beginning in March, though this “lockdown,” severe as it has been, was never ordered in the form of a federal emergency or declaration of martial law. It was implemented and managed at the state and local level. The Trump administration did call, in mid-March, for two weeks of social distancing and essential isolation, an instruction that was then repeatedly renewed afterward. Only in May did some states begin initiating their own partial re-openings. But the United States was never ordered to shut down by the federal government; President Trump consistently declared that state governors should decide for their own states.
Still, many readers will remember hearing such rumors in early March, when anxiety began spreading around the United States like a virus of its own. As it turns out, the broad dissemination of these messages—which were already circulating from other sources—was the work of Beijing, as United States intelligence officials have since determined. The officials were particularly struck by Chinese ability to push these messages to American cellphones, a capability they had not seen before, and accomplished, in part, by using encrypted messaging apps. Another striking aspect: the Chinese implementers used techniques more associated with Russian trolls, especially the creation of fake social media accounts. It’s likely, too, that the messages were not spread merely by Chinese trolls or hackers, but also by Chinese spies at diplomatic missions here, a possibility that the U.S. is investigating further.
The tactics were effective for reasons particular to both social media and to the specifics of the virus crisis. Social media “memes” are, by their nature, viral—and the Chinese knew that these messages, once in the hands of a sufficient number of American social media users, would be shared and spread widely, as indeed they were. Second, because anxiety about the virus was already growing rapidly, and because institutional trust has broken down in the United States, amid deepening political polarization, the climate was perfect for viral conspiracy theories and panic-inducing warnings to gain great traction—and they did. The tactic shows that Beijing wanted to deepen political divisions in the United States and spread fear and dissension.
In this goal, too, one sees a Russian influence.
Indeed, the Russian tie to what China did with the “lockdown” warnings represents a chilling reminder of how, even when Moscow and Beijing aren’t working directly together, they are increasingly running operations from the same playbook. Those efforts are made even easier when, on one side, the political Right in America sees much of the lockdown efforts as authoritarianism run amok, even questioning whether individuals like Fauci can be trusted, and, in some cases, even echoing some conspiratorial theories about the virus’s origins; and when the Left sees everything that the Trump administration does as destructive, whether it’s too authoritarian or not authoritarian enough (the Left has often seemed unable to make up its mind, during the crisis, in this regard). And it’s made worse, too, when the president himself exhibits such erratic leadership, even dismissing such external efforts by America’s leading adversary to demoralize our people. “They do it and we do it and we call them different things,” Trump said of the Chinese messages. “Every country does it.”
With that kind of nihilistic attitude—one that Trump has shown before, in seeming to echo critiques by authoritarian countries of American policies—China will not find it hard to expand its efforts to shape American public opinion. And, in Trump, Xi has found an adversary only intermittently serious. In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Trump touted Xi’s handling of the virus, and China’s, with a tweet in which he exuded, “Much respect!” Not long afterward, he was talking about the “Chinese virus.” By May, he was saying things like, “We could cut off the whole relationship.” Having an unpredictable, mercurial (some would say unstable) president has surely made America’s battle against the virus even harder.
Still, whatever one wants to say about the Trump administration and its record on the coronavirus—it will surely lead all assessments of his presidency—it is a remarkable testament to the skill of Chinese propaganda and China’s deep penetration into U.S. institutional life that American media have unleashed many more words lambasting the Trump administration’s failures than they have calling out Beijing for causing the virus and inflicting it on the world.
It is also a remarkable testament to the depths of political polarization in the United States that the Democrats, the party out of power in the White House at the moment, are so consumed by their animus for Trump that they cannot seem to bring themselves to condemn China. “The reason that we’re in the crisis that we are today is not because of anything China did,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, instead blaming Trump for his administration’s slow response. Others in the party have said similar things.
Trump’s leadership during the crisis has unquestionably left much to be desired. Yet his failures do not change the fact that China has essentially declared a new cold war on the United States.
A New Cold War
It seems clear now that Covid-19 will take a place in world history, a seismic event of the twenty-first century whose effects will only be fully understood over many years, even decades. What also seems clear is that the United States-China relationship will change—indeed, must change. The question is how, and along what lines.
Among Americans, anger at China runs high. American voters may, in the short term, choose to blame the Trump administration at the polls in November 2020; in the long term, whomever they vote for, most Americans understand that China is responsible for a global catastrophe that could have been greatly minimized or even averted entirely had Beijing simply told the truth about it from the beginning. No number of missteps, from often-bungling Western governments, can disguise Beijing’s fundamental culpability. Recent polls in the United States suggest that Americans understand this—overwhelming majorities blame China for causing this disaster. Moreover, the coronavirus has darkened Americans’ views of China more broadly. A Pew poll showed two-thirds of American respondents now view China negatively.
American policymakers—regardless of whether they are part of a Trump or Joe Biden administration in 2021—will have to respond to the American people’s darkening view of China. Even the most devout China apologists—and their numbers are legion in the federal government, in the private sector, and in the American media—will have to recognize that the coronavirus has ripped the curtain down on Beijing’s masquerade as a responsible member of the global community. China’s refusal to take responsibility for the virus has revealed the true character of the Communist regime even for those who had not been willing to acknowledge the obvious before. If U.S. officials, of either party, hope genuinely to serve the American national interest, then we’re going to see changes in the years ahead.
Some of those changes are already afoot. The Trump administration has cut investment ties, for example, between U.S. federal retirement funds and Chinese equities. The move affects about $4 billion in assets.
Meantime, U.S. lawmakers, in tandem with Canadian counterparts and Indian attorneys, are pursuing various legal actions, including reparations, against China for inflicting the coronavirus on the world, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and hundreds of billions, if not trillions, in economic damage. Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has sponsored a Senate resolution calling on Beijing to forgive some of its holdings of American debt. Private American citizens have filed lawsuits against China seeking damages, including a $20 trillion class-action suit in Texas. Beijing will pay no heed to Blackburn’s gesture, and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act will almost surely protect it against citizen claims, but these actions indicate the resentment against China felt by large portions of the American public.
Some China observers, such as Gordon Chang, argue that the United States should retaliate by seizing China’s holdings of U.S. Treasury obligations—but only in tandem with our allies and issuers of other major currencies. “If we act alone,” Chang argues, “China is going to say that we repudiated our debt. We’re going to take a reputational hit, which is going to be a big one… they’re going to say that we are an irresponsible member of the global financial system, and that the dollar shouldn’t be the reserve currency of the world.” But if the U.S. acts in concert with allies, then “we can take away that argument from China.”
The anger extends far beyond Washington’s shores. India’s bar association, in tandem with the International Council of Jurists (ICJ), is appealing to the United Nations Human Rights Council for compensation from China for “surreptitiously developing a biological weapon capable of mass destruction.” The ICJ’s president called Covid-19 a “crime against humanity,” caused by China, which has “deliberately concealed crucial information about coronavirus.” He asked the UN to “enquire and direct China and to adequately compensate international community and member states, particularly India, for surreptitiously developing a biological weapon capable of mass destruction of mankind.” He further alleged that China had exploited the virus with the intention of controlling the global economy and taking advantage of countries weakened by the virus and facing economic collapse.
Beijing’s shameful actions in regard to medical equipment and supplies, as well as testing materials—buying up these materials on the global market, thus causing shortages, and then selling everything from defective equipment to bad tests to countries facing virus outbreaks—has caused anger and resentment in capitals around the world. Several countries in Asia and Europe, including Great Britain and Spain, have sent these useless materials back to Beijing.
And more recent steps in Washington reflect a broader awareness developing of the scope and range of the response needed.
In June, President Trump signed legislation imposing sanctions on the Chinese officials responsible for the forced labor camps that Beijing has set up for Uighur Muslims. Trump said that the new law “holds accountable perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses such as the systematic use of indoctrination camps, forced labor, and intrusive surveillance to eradicate the ethnic identity and religious beliefs of Uyghurs and other minorities in China.”
Another hopeful sign: in July, the House of Representatives passed a bill imposing sanctions on banks that do business with Chinese officials involved in Beijing’s ongoing crackdown against the Hong Kong democracy movement—specifically, those officials who helped implement the new national security law, which is designed to suppress dissent. Further, in August, President Trump imposed the first US sanctions against officials from China and Hong Kong over suppression of pro-democracy protests and dissent in the territory, seeking to punish China for its repression in Hong Kong.
We should hope that these steps, which suggest a clear-eyed recognition of the Chinese regime’s systematic and wide-ranging abuses, will mark a new focus and determination on the part of American policymakers—whether in the incumbent administration or a successor one—in dealing with Beijing. We should hope, that is, that such measures reflect a dawning recognition of what we need to do and why we need to do it—and not just in the short term, but as an adaptation of American foreign policy for the foreseeable future.
Raising the stakes further, our foreign policy as it relates to China must confront the threat they pose in other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East, where there are American intelligence reports in August that China is helping Saudi Arabia build up its ability to produce and refine the nuclear fuel necessary to the development of nuclear weapons.
The bottom line is this: the American relationship with China is about to change, just as the world’s relationship with China is about to change. All the momentum must point to reduced dependency on China, and to a more realistic definition of our relationship with Beijing. Going forward, the U.S. must seek a workable but toughminded relationship, one that recognizes China as an explicit adversary, yet one too large and consequential in the world today to avoid dealings with altogether. We must reject both an unrealistic “decoupling” and the gullible, uncritical, and self-dealing relationship that American elites fostered with China over the last several decades. Politically, economically, militarily, the United States is challenged today to define its approach to China—a more formidable nation-state adversary than any we have faced since the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We face a new Cold War.
But not just with China.
The new Cold War is also with the former Soviet Union—with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That’s a sobering reality that the pandemic has tended to obscure, though even amid the ongoing struggle against Covid-19, the Russian presence can be seen. In June 2020, for example, came the stunning news that Russian operatives had offered “bounties” to Taliban militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan. It appears that at least some of these attacks did result in American deaths. The news dramatized again how willingly Putin’s Russia violates norms of international relations to achieve its goals, and it was all made worse by President Trump’s appalling refusal to acknowledge the veracity of the reports, much less take any retaliatory action. The Taliban bounty story served as another harrowing reminder that the United States has more than one determined authoritarian adversary on the global stage—and no reliable leadership, at present, with which to confront them.
Further, as David Sanger and Eric Schmitt reported in the New York Times, “it doesn’t require a top-secret clearance and access to the government’s most classified information” to understand that the alleged bounties to the Taliban were only one facet of Russian aggression against the United States in the first half of 2020. Indeed, Americans working from home have experienced cyberattacks against their private US companies’ computer systems, Russian internet trolls continue to exploit American voters on social media, and Russian jets have been testing US and allies’ air defenses from the Mediterranean Sea to the Alaskan coast. Without question, these latest aggressions, particularly in the era of COVID-19, represent some of the most brazen actions directly against the United States since I first began analyzing Putin’s authoritarian ascendency in-depth in my 2014 book, The Russia-China Axis: The New Cold War and America’s Crisis of Leadership. And these are to say nothing of other Russian incursions, these into nations where America once held strong influence, such as Syria and Venezuela, which have occurred without any real American response, much less pushback.
Before the coronavirus crisis, I had written about the twin challenge that these two nations posed to the United States and to Western democracies, especially as they deepened a strategic, military, and economic partnership—becoming, as I called them in a previous book, a “new Axis.” I was engaged in writing this new book, which I intended both as a summary of how closely my warnings have been borne out by events over the past decade and as a warning of what’s to come, when Covid-19 broke out.
Covid-19 and the reconfigured world only make the message of this book more pressing and urgent—and my past warnings more prescient, if I may say so. Few would dispute now that the United States faces grim challenges ahead, in everything from economic recovery to economic reorganization—we need to get back our pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity, for example—to our military posture to our capabilities in cyber-intelligence.
During the worst of the infection period, some were heard to say that viruses don’t play favorites: they strike down the wealthy and the poor, the prominent and the anonymous, in this country or in that one. Indeed: illness and disease have always had a kind of ruthless honesty. They afflict wherever they can. It is this same kind of ruthless honesty that the United States now needs to apply to itself and its relations with China—and with China’s partner, Russia.
The coronavirus blew up an unsustainable world order. The damage it has done should not be minimized or denied. But it may yet prove a grim blessing, if it serves, at last, as a wakeup call to the United States—a deadly but valuable reminder of truths both timeless and specific.
The timeless truth: the world is ever dangerous, and no great nation has ever existed that did not face persistent opposition from mortal foes.
The specific truth: those mortal foes, today, are in Beijing and in Moscow.
The virus can be cured with a vaccine when one is available. Decades of American self-destructiveness and self-delusion can be cured, too—but only by a painful recognition of the daunting realities we face and a determined resolve to address them.
Douglas Schoen is an American lawyer, political analyst, author, lobbyist, and commentator. hen has been one of the most influential Democratic campaign consultants for over thirty years. A founding partner and principal strategist for Penn, Schoen and Berland, he is widely recognized as one of the co-inventors of overnight polling.