In late December, a Chinese doctor warned former classmates about a new severe respiratory disease he had treated. Later, he realized it was a new coronavirus, the same kind of pathogen that caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in the early 2000s.
With that, Dr. Li Wenliang, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, China, became the first to sound the alarm on what would become the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of heeding his call, Chinese Communist Party officials and hospital managers interrogated Li. They accused him of spreading rumors and forced him to retract his statements.
“This is a classic play out of the Chinese playbook,” said Olivia Enos, a China analyst with the Heritage Foundation, who noted the Communist Party also suppressed the SARS whistleblower in 2003.
Despite pressure to remain silent, Li continued to dispute government statements denying the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the disease. Soon, he came down with it himself. Li died from COVID-19, sparking widespread mourning among Chinese citizens who hailed him as a hero.
The suppression of information about the new coronavirus delayed the world’s readiness for the eventual pandemic—leading some to lay blame for every worldwide death at the feet of the Chinese government. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill and human rights advocates increasingly demand that the United States use its economic policy to hold the Chinese government accountable.
“We’re dealing with disinformation that means dead or wounded people, job loss, and terrible dislocation,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a member of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China. “So much suffering because [the Chinese government] lied aggressively, by design, about this terrible pandemic.”
On Tuesday, Smith sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for an investigation into the Chinese government’s early handling of the outbreak. He also advised the United States to use sanctions to punish any officials who violated human rights during the crisis.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., also called for an international investigation into the matter, while Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., is leading a similar effort in the House.
Meanwhile, Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., introduced legislation to lessen U.S. dependence on Chinese pharmaceuticals. The United States manufactures less than 30 percent of active pharmaceutical ingredients domestically.
So far, President Donald Trump has not threatened retaliatory measures against China, but his administration knows not to rely on the news coming from Beijing officials. Last week, the U.S. intelligence community reported to the White House that China vastly and systematically underreported its coronavirus infections and deaths.
This week, Trump said he wants to defund the World Health Organization, which he accused of being “China-centric.” (Japanese deputy prime minister and finance minister, Taro Aso, said some have started calling the WHO the “Chinese Health Organization.”)
Bob Fu, president of the international religious liberty group ChinaAid, said defunding WHO is the right step: “The global community has become a victim as a result of WHO’s complacency and [bad] advice because the Chinese Communist Party placed pressure.”
Activists like Fu have long argued that U.S. policy toward China needs an overhaul. Since the Clinton administration promoted China to “most favored nation” trade partner status, the United States has operated with the belief that more prosperity in China would lead to more democracy and freedom, Fu noted, adding, “But really, that whole proposition turned out to be totally wrong.”
Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation, which promotes human rights, and a former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the United States should continue its existing effort to breach China’s internet firewall and promote the free spread of information.
“Nobody doubts at this point that if China had been transparent and honest and open at very early stages of this virus, the world might have been spared this health and economic catastrophe we’re all grappling with,” she said. “This is going to be a very instructive moment for Western policymakers vis-à-vis China.”