Nearly two weeks ago, I published my usual column in the London Sunday Times with the headline, “Let’s Zoom Xi Jinping. He has questions to answer about coronavirus” (April 5, 2020).
In it, I posed six questions that I suggested should be put to the Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. In response to widespread interest in this article, I thought I should update the article with new information that has since come to light. I should stress that the Chinese government itself has not answered any of my questions. However, some of the new information is derived partly from official Chinese sources. Wherever possible, I have sought corroboration from other sources, too.
Let’s begin with question 1:
First, what exactly was going in Wuhan that led to the initial emergence of Sars-CoV-2? If the virus originated from a bat at one of the disgusting “wet” markets (where wildlife intended for human consumption is sold alongside chicken and beef) that your regime inexplicably has not shut down, that is bad enough. But if it originated because of sloppy practices at the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, that is worse. It is insanity for research on potentially lethal zoonoses such as coronaviruses to be going on in the heart of a vast metropolis like Wuhan.
Update 1: it seems increasingly likely, though not yet certain, that the virus originated at one of the two research institutes in Wuhan where scientists study zoonoses. As the Washington Post reported on April 14, “The Chinese government’s original story—that the virus emerged from a seafood market in Wuhan—is shaky.” Back in January 2018, according to the Post, U.S. Embassy officials visited a Chinese research facility in the city of Wuhan several times “and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats:
The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable … warn[ed] that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.
“The new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” stated the Jan. 19, 2018, cable.
The U.S. visitors met with Shi Zhengli, the head of the research project, who had been publishing studies related to bat coronaviruses for many years. In November 2017, just before the U.S. officials’ visit, Shi’s team had published research showing that horseshoe bats they had collected from a cave in Yunnan province were very likely from the same bat population that spawned the SARS coronavirus in 2003. [But] even in 2015, other scientists questioned whether Shi’s team was taking unnecessary risks.
Similar concerns have been raised about the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab.
Now to my question 2:
Second, how big a role did the central government play in the cover-up after it became clear in Wuhan that there was human-to-human transmission? We now know there were 104 cases of the new disease, including 15 deaths, between December 12 and the end of that month. Why was the official Chinese line on December 31 that there was “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission? And why did that official line not change until January 20?
Update 2: It is still not clear when exactly the central government knew there was a serious problem in Wuhan. All I have been able to establish is that on December 31 the National Health Commission dispatched a national team of experts to Wuhan to investigate the situation there. That was thirty days after the first known case had symptoms. Is it possible that the central government was still unaware of the true situation in Wuhan nature in late December? Yes. Chinese local and bureaucrats have a long and tragic history of covering up their own mistakes and manipulating data that moves up the chain, as my colleague Frank Dikötter has brilliantly shown. But we don’t know. So that question remains unanswered.
Third, after it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China — on January 23 — but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?
January is always a peak month for travel from China to Europe and America because of the lunar new year holiday. As far as I can tell from the available records, however, regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February. You have lost no time in restricting international travel into China now that Covid-19 has gone global; your approach was conspicuously different when you were exporting it to us.
Update 3: Data from sensors tracking actual flight paths would seem to indicate that no flights left from Wuhan itself to other countries in the world after January 23. However, we now know that by that time thousands of infected citizens had already left Wuhan for other parts of China, so a ban on all flights out of China would have been needed to prevent the epidemic becoming a global pandemic. More importantly, while the government banned group travel and tourism within China on January 24, it continued to allow individual and group travel to all other parts of the world through the Lunar New Year holiday.
The American political scientist Daniel Bell has today publicly challenged this part of my article, claiming that I was “suggest[ing] the Chinese government deliberately allowed, if not encouraged, the spread of the virus to five cities in Western countries after it tried to control it in China.” He goes so far as to accuse me of “worrisome … conspiracy theorizing,” an outrageous and defamatory accusation.
When Professor Bell first wrote to me on this subject, on April 11, I replied to him, firstly, that I would not have written the relevant paragraphs if I had not done my research and, secondly, that I was not hinting at any kind of plot but was merely asking a series of perfectly legitimate questions about the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis. (I also have no shortage of questions about how the U.S. government handled it, as a regular reader of my weekly column would be aware.)
Data I had obtained from Flightstats on March 13 did indeed appear to show, as I wrote, that “regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February.” Based on recorded runway arrival times, China Southern flight 8419 landed at John F. Kennedy airport on January 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 15, 17, 19, and 22. China Southern flight 659 landed at San Francisco airport on January 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 21, and February 1. In other words, a total of 20 flights went directly from Wuhan to U.S. airports in that period. (A recent report in the New York Times, published on April 4, arrived at the same number of flights for January.) There were also direct flights in the same period from Wuhan to London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle, as well as to Moscow Sheremetyevo.
It is true that no flights landed at New York after January 22. But Flightstats showed a flight from Wuhan to San Francisco landing in California at 10:03 on the morning of February 1. And, again according to Flightstat, flights from Wuhan landed at Moscow on January 26, 29, 31, February 2, and February 5.
Professor Bell insisted that “no regular commercial flights left Wuhan for cities in other countries after the Wuhan lockdown was implemented on January 23rd.” But what was his source? Why, “a Chinese language application called Umetrip … provided by CAACNEWS … the website for the Civil Aviation Administration of China.” I suggested to him that it might be better if he found corroboration from a Western source—as he himself acknowledges, he has been “naïve about Chinese politics in the past”—but he did not seem to think that was necessary.
I therefore sought clarification from a U.S. company, Flightspin. They looked into the question of flights from Wuhan and concluded that it was very unlikely indeed that any flights had gone from Wuhan to Western cities after January 23. The Flightstats data I had used had omitted the fact that the flights recorded as having landed in San Francisco and Moscow after January 23 had in fact not departed from Wuhan. It appears that China Southern decided to operate the same flights, with the same flight numbers, but without making their usual stop in Wuhan.
I should stress the word “appears.” The flight paths that the website Flightaware shows for the flights in question don’t actually make it clear where they originated from. (See for example this on January 22 versus this on January 24.) However, it looks as if the flightpaths in question started farther south, so the Guangzhou explanation is probably true. (I say “probably” because the January 24 flightpath certainly looks different from this one, an actual Guangzhou to Moscow flight on April 19.)
I attempted to check the official Russian data on the flights into Sheremyetvo, but it appears that Russia took all official flight data offline after a Russian government plane was caught shipping cocaine to Argentina in 2016.
Even if, as seems on balance likely, no flights left Wuhan for domestic or foreign destinations after January 23, the fact remains that—as a New York Times investigation showed—so many people had already left Wuhan before that date that only a ban on all flights from China to the rest of the world would have been effective in checking the spread of the virus.
By January 2, according to The Lancet, at least 41 people in Wuhan had been identified as having the new coronavirus, of whom six later died. By January 22, there were 131 confirmed cases. Around 7 million people left Wuhan in January, for domestic and foreign destinations, before travel was restricted (New York Times; see also Sanche at al. (2020)). That is how COVID-19 spread so rapidly to the rest of the world. And it was happening long before January 23, because the Chinese authorities, for whatever reason, waited until that late date to place their cordon sanitaire around Hubei.
It is worth adding that the Chinese government did, in one respect at least, prioritize domestic over international measures. As Nikkei pointed out on March 19:
The Chinese government locked down Wuhan on Jan. 23, halting all public transportation going in and out of the city. The following day an order was issued suspending group travel within China. But in a blunder that would have far reaching consequences, China did not issue an order suspending group travel to foreign countries until three days later, on Jan. 27 [my emphasis].
In retrospect, it was a painful mistake. This is what happened in those critical three days:
The weeklong Lunar New Year string of holidays began on Jan. 24, with the outbound traffic peak lasting through Jan. 27.
The Chinese government let the massive exodus of group travelers continue despite the public health crisis. No explanation has been given.
Furthermore, while suspending group travel, China did nothing to limit individuals traveling overseas.
Groups account for less than half of all Chinese tourists heading abroad.
Chinese travelers journeyed to Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, France, the U.K., Australia, North America and South America, one planeload after another.
Fourth, what possessed your foreign ministry spokesman to start peddling an obviously false conspiracy theory on social media and why has he not been fired? Even your ambassador to America disowned this fake news. We’ll watch with interest to see which of these diplomats gets your backing.
Update 4: Lijian Zhao is still in his job as spokesman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has not been visibly reprimanded. He has changed his Twitter profile background, but that’s about it.
Fifth, where exactly are the tycoon Ren Zhiqiang and Wuhan doctor Ai Fen, to name just two of the Chinese citizens who seem to have vanished since they expressed criticism of your government’s handling of Covid-19?
Update 5: The South China Morning Post reported on April 7 that Ren Zhiqiang is “being investigated for alleged “serious violations of law and discipline,” according to a statement by the Commission for Discipline Inspection. I have no further news about Ai Fen.
I should add that they are by no means the only people to have suffered at the hands of the Chinese authorities for speaking their minds. I could also have mentioned Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua. They are still missing, according to the most recent reports. (Oddly, Daniel Bell seemed not so interested in this question.) Meanwhile, more than a dozen leading pro-democracy activists and former lawmakers in Hong Kong were arrested on Saturday, including the lawyers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, the media tycoon Jimmy Lai and the former opposition legislators Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan and Leung Kwok-hung.
Finally, question 6:
Finally, how many of your people has this disease really killed?
Update 6: Amazingly, there has been an update from the Chinese government on this question. As the BBC reported, “The Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated last year, has raised its official Covid-19 death toll by 50%, adding 1,290 fatalities. … In a statement released on Friday, officials in Wuhan said the revised figures were the result of new data received from multiple sources, including records kept by funeral homes and prisons.” The BBC could not resist expressing skepticism that the “increase of almost exactly 50%” was “a bit too neat.”
Quite so. Somehow or other, a virus that originated in China, the spread of which was covered up by the Chinese authorities for at least a month, has killed 38 times fewer people per million than the same disease in the United States.
As I wrote two weeks ago, China has a problem. It is not The Three-Body Problem, that wonderful work of science fiction in which a Chinese scientist invites aliens to invade Earth, only for another Chinese scientist to save humanity. China’s problem is the “One Party Problem.” And as long as a fifth of humanity is subject to the will of an unaccountable, corrupt and power-hungry organization with a long history of crimes against its own people, the rest of humanity will not be safe.
Daniel Bell concludes his attack on me with a pious wish for “collaboration between China and the rest of the world to deal with an urgent global pandemic.” That would indeed be welcome. It would have been even more welcome in December and January, when tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved if the Chinese authorities had come clean about the novel coronavirus in Wuhan.
In his most recent book, The China Model, Bell has sought to make the case for China’s system of governance. “The assumption that oppressive authoritarian rule is the key political characteristic of the China model,” he writes, is “misleading.” We should not, he goes on, “label China a ‘bad’ authoritarian regime similar in its nature to, say, dictatorships in North Korea and the Middle East,” because in reality the China model combines “democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top.” This, he says, “is both a reality and an ideal.” “Each plank of the China model,” he argues, is “morally desirable.” Moreover, “the different planks of the model can be selectively adopted” by other countries. Indeed, “China can assist other countries seeking to build up meritocratic rule.” Bell even goes so far as to claim that the Chinese Communist Party is “neither Communist nor a party,” but rather a “pluralistic organization composed of meritocratically selected members of different groups and classes [that] aims to represent the whole country. A more accurate name might be the Chinese Meritocratic Union … [or] the Union of Democratic Meritocrats.”
Professor Bell has the poor judgment to portray me as a conspiracy theorist. It is not only his recent scholarship, but also his apparent lack of interest in the five other questions I posed in my article, that makes me wonder what the correct term for him might be.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford