Will we ever know what role, if any, the Wuhan lab had in the emergence of COVID-19? That’s hard to say. But in the absence of certainty, there’s great demand to gin up suspicion in the direction. There are information politics around this, I argue in a piece for Molly McKew’s Great Power newsletter.
There is the vivid example of the online chatter around the Syrian Civil War in President Barack Obama’s time.
“Attention absorbed by the Mideast helped prevent the US from carrying out its long-promised Pivot to Asia in earnest, which then gave China more time and room to move in the region. I watched this play out in news cycle after news cycle from my vantage in Australian news.”
It’s also worth acknowledging that some of the loudest proponents of Wuhan lab leak theory are also oblivious doves on Russian meddling in the West. Chief among them: the GOP and associated rightwing commentators. This raises the question of how much pro-Kremlin propaganda blends in with this China-phobic content. That brings the unanswered question: why?
They believed that it was their duty literally to attend to the public good because they understood they couldn’t beggar the commons endlessly but their fortunes and the fortunes of society were ultimately linked and therefore they had a responsibility to make sure that everybody thrived ultimately — because they kind of knew that they couldn’t unless everyone did.
That then extends to the world at large after World War II.
The whole point of the Marshall Plan and creating this post-war architecture…was to fight communism. But it was to fight communism because the belief that capitalism and an open market was a better system to achieve human freedoms and affluence.
And that if you didn’t help [these things] develop they were going to collapse and therefore you were going to be a peril.
Serving and self-serving, serving and self-serving were so intimately and ineluctably interwoven.
And today, where are the tech elites in talking about the public good? And talking about public service?
It seems to be their version of public services is massive private philanthropy on the one hand and some belief in the utopian potential of what they’re doing to break the cycle of human suffering and need.
And maybe that utopian vision will prove to be true, but right now it does seem like that they’re sort of absent.
I think particularly of Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Peter Thiel.
There seems to be a communitarian notion of – ‘Can we engineer this new reality? If so, how cool would it be?’ But notions of public good fade away in the glow of their particular imagined, and often unaligned and contradictory, utopias.
In the communitarianism impulse of millennial Silicon Valley, I’m not sure a conception of a public good beyond the notion of user/customer is even present.
A man might have bitten a dog. We’re not sure. But if the man had bitten a dog, (e.g. the COVID-19 virus escaped from a bio-weapons lab in Wuhan), it would be an incredible, earth-shaking story. But we’re far from certain. We are sure, however, that even if we can’t prove the man has bitten a dog, the interest in this scenario is so high, we really can’t help writing about it. Because, the internet and because of great power politics.
Media doesn’t generally report on the ramifications for murders that did or didn’t happen, or wars that did or didn’t start. Generally, something has to happen to be news. One exception could be the early reporting of the suspected death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was reported dead numerous times.
With the Wuhan lab leak story, it’s hard to recall another tale that is so frequently trotted out despite the lack of verification.
A criterion for a fact in news is that it is verifiable, or at least mostly verifiable, or at least has the possibility for verification.
The Wuhan lab leak story – because it’s action is located behind the Great Firewall, in a country controlled by a government both authoritarian and evasive – really has none of that. On a good day, the Wuhan lab leak story has a less than 50 per cent chance of being a plausible explanation. The odds never seem to change.
No matter how many virologists have a change of heart, or Trumpian partisans have a brain wave about this, the facts just aren’t firm enough. The details are not known. The origins of COVID-19 remain murky. The facts remain obscured because of the Chinese government’s actions. But adding one fact (an outbreak occurred) to another fact (China is hiding something) does not equal the third fact that “China created COVID-19 in a weapons lab.”
Yet, there is tremendous appetite in the weaponized virus scenarios being proven true. There is genuine anger at China for their mishandling of the pandemic, which it helped unleash on the world. The anger and uncertainty helps drive interest in endless articles, debates, and even books about what may or may not have happened.
At the end of the day, this news is written from the grassy knoll.
Because it’s not driven by facts, but suspicions, it smacks of “post-journalism” rather than reporting.
Pursuing a story in the hopes of holding a government to account is legitimate. But it’s not clear the CCP is feeling the pressure. Instead, a non-disprovable conspiracy theory is reventilated and recast over and over. Online, it begins to rate higher in searches and go viral on social media. The Wuhan lab leaks story begins to generate its own momentum.
If democracy relies on the possibility and power of truthful discourse, tolerating the media amplifying speculation for profit is a sorry substitute.
Geopolitically, hyping an uncertain conclusion runs the risk of becoming the flawed basis for future action.
An almost predictable, fully avoidable political tragedy ensued.
What surprises me in the Wuhan lab leak saga is how it diverts Western attention from facts we know to be true about China’s mishandling of the outbreak. China did deceive the world in the critical early days of the pandemic outbreak in Wuhan.
To what degree we don’t know.
But some basic facts and dates are verifiable.
The World Health Organization’s own review of what happened in the initial stage of the pandemic concluded:
Author J.D. Vance – yes, of Hillbilly Elegy fame – made a comment in an interview that neatly laid out the issue with China and technology, one that has ramifications for Australia.
“One of the really worrying things that I think about from a macro perspective is, if you invest in a real technology enterprise, one of the things you have to be worried about is that, when that company hopefully goes global and scales, it may have the very thing that makes it a good investment just stolen by the Chinese.”
“And in that world where we’re worried about investing in real technology companies because we’re terrified that the Chinese are just going to steal it, we’re not going to have as much technology innovation.”
“That means we’re not going to have as much productivity growth.”
“And ultimately, that means we’re not going to have as many people with good American jobs who are building and creating those new technologies. So I think that China is the threat.”
Vance, who works in venture capital, hits on a point that really illuminates the nature of long term techno-competition with China. As it stands China’s technology policy can dissuade companies and investors from expanding into new areas or moving up the food-chain of innovation. Why do it, if it’s just going to be stolen by China?
One feature of the Cold War was the considerable ignorance of the rival bloc’s technology. Today, the arc of China’s modern rise is to use the internet to hack and download things that aren’t available through the open market or through forced-technology transfers. So the technology a Western company makes is likely to be stolen and sold right back to Western countries – partially or in full.
Of course, this effect alone doesn’t account for the lull in innovation the US and West has experienced. There has also been a laziness and lack of adventure, not to mention the effects of the seductive lure of free trade ideology in recent decades. But one of those effects in a globalized, free-trade market, is what Vance describes so well.
The comment from Vance points to the long-term landscape of competition between free democracies and China. How do you plan and invest if at any time, you’re precious IP is swiped and copied? Western inventions, governments and investors must prepare for innovation in a world, where this thievery is the new normal. How can they be successful?
For Australia, the more it diversifies its economy away from commodities and education and into technology, the more this problem will emerge. In fact, the higher the food chain of tech development Australia’s goes, the more it will come into conflict with China’s privateering industrial policy.