WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has held an unequivocal position about China and the coronavirus — several of them.
Trump initially praised China, then excoriated Beijing after it made unsubstantiated claims that the virus originated in the United States. Now, Trump is back to offering niceties.
The diverging messages have generated finger-pointing by both Beijing and Washington that is further destabilizing a critical relationship between countries with the two largest economies and militaries.
There might not be radical shifts in U.S.-China policy during the next several months, but China's cover-up and disinformation campaign will color the relationship going forward, Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Wednesday.
"It's very hard to see progress on trade talks after this," he said. He added that he expects Congress will push to address American dependence on China for medical and other manufacturing supplies.
There are calls in Congress to hold China accountable for initially covering up the outbreak. Anticipating a backlash, China's official Xinhua News Agency last month suggested that Beijing could retaliate against the U.S. by banning the export of medical products that would leave the U.S. stuck in the ”ocean of viruses."
Early in the outbreak, Trump lauded China for its response to COVID-19, tweeting on Jan. 24 that the U.S. appreciated Beijing's efforts and “transparency," even though local Chinese officials initially covered up mounting cases in Wuhan, the city where the virus was first reported. In February, as the virus began to spread in Europe, Trump still refrained from blaming China.
Then Trump started going after Beijing, repeatedly calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus." He said he was upset that some Chinese officials had suggested without evidence that the U.S. military transported the virus to Wuhan or that the virus was released from a U.S. lab.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, tweeted March 12: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
Other U.S. officials chimed in. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” six times in one State Department briefing. He chastised the Chinese Communist Party for not allowing U.S. medical experts into the country, kicking Western journalists out and cracking down on the flow of information.
The National Security Council at the White House also has accused the Communist Party of launching disinformation campaigns around the world and retaliating against Chinese citizens who wanted to tell the public about the coronavirus.
The president has said China was trying to blame the United States to distract the world from the shortcomings of Beijing's own response.
“It could have been stopped in its tracks,” Trump said March 19 at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House. “Unfortunately, they (Chinese officials) didn’t decide to make it public. But the whole world is suffering because of it.”
Trump abruptly stopped calling it the “Chinese virus” shortly after China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, appeared to split with Zhao, calling the theory “crazy” and saying that it was not for diplomats to speculate.
Now the president is praising Chinese President Xi Jinping again.
“We have a great trade deal and we would like to keep it. They would like to keep it and the relationship is good,” Trump said Wednesday. He noted that some of China's numbers on COVID-19 cases seem a bit “low,” but he insisted his relationship with Xi remained “really good.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The coronavirus has infected at least 940,000 people and killed more than 47,000 worldwide, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Ray Yip, an American public health official who founded the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's office in China in 2003, said expert teams the central government sent to Wuhan failed to initially realize that the virus could spread from human to human, which compounded the consequences.
Once the Chinese government understood the scope of the problem, it moved decisively, he said. Chinese health officials informed the World Health Organization about the new virus on Dec. 31. By Jan. 12, Chinese scientists had sequenced the virus’ genetic makeup and shared it with the WHO, drawing praise for their transparency and swift action.
Yip contends the U.S. response was far worse than China's.
“If we started responding forcibly, properly, tracked down the cases and snuffed them out, it didn’t have to spread,” Yip said. "We let an initial small fire spread, and now the fire is too big — we have trouble putting it out. If there is such a thing as suing for malpractice for public health — this has to be it."
Dali Yang, a University of Chicago political science professor who researches Chinese governance and has closely followed the pandemic, also points a finger at local Chinese officials, who, in early January, were preparing for "two sessions," an annual event for local and provincial officials.
They didn't want to upset Beijing or cause panic in the streets ahead of the important Jan. 11-17 meetings so they suppressed information about the outbreak.
Before and during the "two sessions," China’s National Health Commission dispatched three teams of experts to Wuhan. The first two struggled to get information from local health officials, especially about whether the virus was being transmitted from person to person, Yang said. The experts reportedly were closely watched and were not allowed to talk to emergency doctors or visit infectious-disease wards.
Local officials punished Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who shared information about local transmission of the virus, which later claimed his life. When Dr. Ai Fen, head of emergency care at Wuhan Central Hospital, assessed that the virus was being spread from human to human, she was admonished for spreading rumors and causing panic, Yang said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Beijing often blames local authorities for the central government's failings.
“They're still covering up,” Blumenthal said. “All discussion of COVID-19 on social media apps get blocked and censured. ... They are cracking down even more, censoring even more. They are jailing people who are trying to tell the truth."
Associated Press writer Dake Kang in Beijing contributed to this report.