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“Debate” with Professor Ferguson: Another Update


Thanks to Professor Ferguson for correcting his error-filled initial response to my blog (http://www.niallferguson.com/blog/six-questions-for-xi-jinping-another-update). He now correctly notes my nationality (Canadian, not American) and has deleted the wrong information about my latest book and field of expertise.

I also thank Professor Ferguson for conceding that his allegation that the Chinese government allowed regular international flights out of Wuhan to cities in North America and Europe after flights were cut off to the rest of China has no basis in fact. But I’m a bit surprised by the ugly tone of his latest “update.” This whole blow up could easily have been avoided if he had responded in a civil way to my informal email asking if he had evidence to support his allegation. He could have said, as he says in his latest posting, “Journalism is harder than it looks. There are deadlines to meet.” He could have added, “Sorry, Dan, I was rushed, I was a bit sloppy, I didn’t look at the records closely, and I will ask the Sunday Times of London to print a correction.” I would have dropped the matter. No doubt I’ve made similar mistakes in my academic career. We would have met again at Schwarzman College, had a couple of drinks, and talked about other things. But Ferguson chose to go on the attack, vehemently defending his allegation and sending me records that did not support his allegation. He even asked me to apologize. I knew then that our personal relation was probably poisoned beyond repair. And I worried about his inflammatory allegation because it had already entered the public domain and was being used to further poison US-China relations. So I went public on my blog. Then Ferguson was forced to publicly concede he was wrong. I thought that was the end of the story. But President Trump twice repeated the false allegation. I was then contacted by FactCheck.org, a political fact-checking site run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. They supported my argument that Ferguson’s allegation has no basis in fact (https://www.factcheck.org/2020/05/trumps-flawed-china-travel-conspiracy/). I also asked the Sunday Times (of London) to write a correction. They did not respond to my request. So I asked the UK-based “Independent Press Standards Organisation” to ask the Sunday Times to publish a correction. They intervened and then I was finally contacted by the Sunday Times. They agreed to publish the following correction: “Our column ‘Let’s Zoom Xi. He has questions to answer’ (Comment, April 5) stated that available records suggested direct flights continued to leave from Wuhan to destinations in Europe and the US after the city went into lockdown on January 23. Further investigation, and other records that have come to light since the column was written, show that flights to these destinations due to depart from Wuhan after that date were either cancelled or departed from Guangzhou. We are happy to make this clear.” I assume they will publish it soon. I am grateful to independent truth-seeking organizations such as Factcheck.org and the Independent Press Standards Organisation. I’m saddened to report that there are no such organizations in China and I look forward to the day that the Chinese government allows such organizations to operate in the country.

Professor Ferguson’s latest response once again tries to deflect the argument from his false allegation. I do admire Ferguson’s tenacity chasing leads to nowhere. Now he asks if some flights left from Wuhan after January 23rd for international destinations other than the cities in North America mentioned in his column. My question to Professor Ferguson was whether regular international flights left from Wuhan to the rest of the world after they were cut off to the rest of China. But the records he posts for January 24-25 show that flights left for some destinations in Asia and China. Even if true, the fact that flights left for destinations in China would show that there was not a problematic double-standard as alleged in his column. But it’s not true. He does not show that the flights to international destinations were regular flights (in my initial email to Ferguson, I specifically asked about regular flights, as opposed to humanitarian flights). He concludes “only crew members appear to have been aboard these flights—albeit with one known exception, the mysterious South Korean passport-holder—confirms that the authorities did prevent Chinese citizens from flying from Wuhan to foreign destinations after January 23.”

In short, Ferguson provides no evidence to support his initial allegation. So why is he still pursuing this “debate”? As far as I can tell, he wants to defend himself from the implication that he was engaged in “conspiracy theorizing.” On the face of it, the accusation is not implausible. He put forward a fake fact and then asks an inflammatory question, addressed to President Xi: “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?” If the Chinese government indeed let regular flights out of Wuhan to the rest of the world after they knew that such flights were likely to spread the virus abroad (how could they not have known, given that they cut off flights to the rest of China to stop the spread of the virus to the rest of China), it is reasonable to surmise that the Chinese government made a deliberate effort to spread the virus abroad, or at least a deliberate decision not to stop the spread of the virus abroad.  So it’s not surprising that the fake news has been picked up by conspiracy theorists, including President Trump himself. Still, as I wrote in my blog, “Given that [Ferguson] has changed his mind in response to the evidence (only in response to a public challenge and without openly admitting that he has changed his mind), I am happy to retract the implication that he is a conspiracy theorist. It seems he was guilty of sloppy scholarship.” What’s surprising, however, is that Ferguson has nothing to say about President Trump’s (mis) use of his allegation. Nor does he seem to worry about (mis) uses by former government officials such as Joseph Bosco who continue to spread the fake news that “Air travel between Wuhan and the rest of China was abruptly terminated to contain the virus, but flights between Wuhan and the rest of the world were allowed to continue and spread the contagion abroad.” (https://thehill.com/opinion/international/493679-china-must-pay-for-the-calamity-it-has-unleashed-on-the-world). Perhaps I’m naïve, but I would have thought that a truth-seeking academic who made an “innocent” mistake might want to go on the record to distance himself from such conspiracy theorizing, to criticize misuses of his ideas, and to separate fact from fiction. But Ferguson stays silent.

Instead, he resorts to McCarthy-like tactics. He attacks me as an “apologist” for the Chinese government. If “apologist” means that I defend whatever the Chinese government does, then it’s more fake news. As mentioned in my initial blog about Ferguson’s fake news, “The Chinese government did make terrible mistakes at the start of the coronavirus crisis and Ferguson asks some legitimate questions. I’ve made similar points in two  comments that harshly criticized Chinese authorities (https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3051402/coronavirus-holds-mirror-chinas-problems-and-nation-will-be-betterhttps://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3074850/chinas-coronavirus-response-and-italys-struggles-show-benefits). More recently, I wrote a longer essay in the periodical American Affairs that is even more critical of the Chinese government’s initial response and tries to explain some of the political background: https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2020/05/chinas-anti-corruption-campaign-and-the-challenges-of-political-meritocracy/. And I wrote about the terrible mistakes in an interview with the Center on National Security at Fordham Law (https://www.centeronnationalsecurity.org/vital-interests-issue-32-daniel-bell). Like Ferguson, I would also like to learn what exactly wrong at the start. But I totally reject his concluding accusation that I am helping the Chinese Communist Party to keep honest answers buried. What I do hope is that we can bury false allegations and conspiracy theories and focus on real problems.

Perhaps Professor Ferguson thinks I’m an apologist because I wrote for the Global Times, which is controlled and censored by the Chinese Communist Party.  For the record, I did try to publish my refutation of Ferguson’s allegation in Western media outlets, but I had no luck. In these times, it seems almost impossible to publish anything about contemporary Chinese politics in leading Western media outlets that is not entirely negative about the Chinese government. Off-the-record, however, some friends in the Western media recognized the importance of the story and helped in informal ways. Meanwhile, I was contacted by the Global Times asking if they could republish my blog. I said OK, so long as they do not make changes. They agreed to that condition. Later on, I was contacted by the Global Times for an interview, and again, I agreed on the condition that they it would not be censored. They agreed, and the interview was published, including a critical comment about the mistakes in Wuhan (http://enapp.globaltimes.cn/?from=groupmessage&isappinstalled=0#/article/1187304). In principle, I will talk to, and write for, any media outlet that offers the opportunity to accurately communicate what I say if I think I have something important to say that’s not being said by others. Like other writers, I’m sometimes frustrated by lack of space to express my views. In China, it’s an extra challenge because of the censorship regime. More than once, I’ve withdrawn consent for publishing my articles in Chinese media outlets after they were censored. But sometimes I have good luck. For example, Phoenix News invited me to write a long critical essay on the Chinese government’s response to Covid-19 that was not censored (https://ishare.ifeng.com/c/s/7wSk8K3cbzc?from=singlemessage).

Perhaps Ferguson means “apologist” in the sense that I am not entirely negative about the Chinese political system. I’d rather use the word “balanced.” My recent academic works develop normative standards that help us to think systematically and critically about what’s good and what’s bad about the Chinese political system. I try to expose the large gap between the ideal and the reality and to propose ways of reducing that gap. In the case of the fight against Covid-19, terrible mistakes were made at the start but I do think the government did a relatively good job fighting the virus once the central authorities became involved. Today, to be frank, it feels lucky to be in China. We can lead our ordinary lives as in pre-Covid days, except for blocks on international travel. Some countries like Vietnam and New Zealand also did relatively well combating the virus. Others, like the United States, did a terrible job, and the blame lies mainly with misguided policies and lack of preparation in those countries rather than what happened in China. I regret to report that Canada has not done so well. My home town– Montreal – has been especially hard hit.

My dear professor Ferguson, this “debate” is over. You lost, I won. In the future, let’s stick to facts and try to draw lessons from what went wrong – and what went right — in different countries so we can get Covid-19 under control globally.

Update (May 31st):

The concluding paragraph, of course, is not meant to be completely serious. From my point of view, there was no “debate.” It was a matter of checking a fact with the potential to further poison US-China relations. But Ferguson seems to view our exchanges as a debate with a winner and loser. So I half-jokingly wrote that he lost the debate on the assumption that the debate was about seeking the truth. If the debate is about political influence, however, Ferguson clearly won. His (false) allegation that the Chinese government allowed regular flights out of Wuhan to cities in the United States and Europe after they were cut off the rest of China continues to make the rounds among conspiracy theorists.  In yesterday’s “remarks on actions against China,” President Trump repeated the fake news:


“The world needs answers from China on the virus. We must have transparency. Why is it that China shut off infected people from Wuhan to all other parts of China? It went nowhere else. It didn’t go to Beijing; it went nowhere else. But allowed them to freely travel throughout the world, including Europe and the United States.

The death and destruction caused by this is incalculable. We must have answers not only for us but for the rest of the world.”


Yet another update (June 1st):

The Sunday Times of London, presumably in response to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, has finally published a correction: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/past-six-days/2020-05-31/comment/corrections-and-clarifications-8tvc73g3c








3 thoughts on ““Debate” with Professor Ferguson: Another Update

  1. A rare gem in a delusional world! Thank you so much for seeking and speaking up truth. A true scholar.

    Posted by Ken Guo | June 1, 2020, 11:47 AM
  2. This should put the fake news to rest but Trump and Co. continue to spread them anyway. The most astonishing part is that such balanced, facts-based opinion cannot get published in Western mainstream media! Thanks Daniel for doing this!

    Posted by Wenran Jiang | July 7, 2020, 5:53 AM
  3. I enjjoyed reading your post

    Posted by Olivia Henson | November 17, 2022, 6:50 AM

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