As readers of my blog will know, Niall Ferguson’s allegation that the Chinese government allowed regular flights out of Wuhan to cities in the US and Europe after they were cut off to the rest of China has been debunked (see https://www.factcheck.org/2020/05/trumps-flawed-china-travel-conspiracy/ and https://www.thetimes.co.uk/past-six-days/2020-05-31/comment/corrections-and-clarifications-8tvc73g3c).
Unfortunately, the allegation was repeated by President Trump several times, including his May 30th remarks on actions against China (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-actions-china/ . Peter Navarro, Steve Bannon and Sean Hannity repeated the allegation to suggest that the Chinese government deliberately spread the virus to the rest of the world.
It’s worth asking how the initial allegation made in a UK newspaper in early April could become so politically influential in the United States. Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report explains that the allegation was developed into a full blown conspiracy theory by Lewis “Scooter” Libby, ” Cheney’s point man in pressuring the CIA to support the false claims that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction and was linked to the 9/11 attacks.” (please see below for the excerpt from the Nelson Report, which I post here with Chris Nelson’s permission).
I’m not so worried that the false conspiracy theory is being spread to justify a war with China; I’d speculate its main purpose is to help President Trump get reelected. That said, there’s good reason to worry about the long term political effect of such conspiracy theories. If many people come to believe crazy conspiracy theories of this sort, it may well contribute to a poisonous political atmosphere that makes war with China more likely. Hopefully the Western media will begin to pay attention to this worrisome development.
Excerpt from the Nelson Report (June 1st):
“In recent days, Trump and his close advisors have moved beyond their earlier attempts to pin Chinese responsibility on their suppression of information on the infection, or the lab origin theory, to a bolder charge that the Chinese government deliberately spread the disease out into the world.
In a tweet this past week, Trump accused China of “trying desperately to deflect the pain and carnage that their country spread throughout the world.” Trump advisor Navarro, a key figure in the anti-China policy, told ABC News this past week that “China sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York and around the world to seed” the virus.
This theory was first laid out in a little-noted commentary by Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a former senior aide to Dick Cheney and now Senior Vice President at the Hudson Institute, a conservative thinktank that has become the most important influencer of the administration’s China policy.
In the essay, published on April 29 in the conservative National Review, Libby argued that Xi and the Communist Party leadership were under increasing threat from multiple challenges – the protests in Hong Kong, the re-election of the pro-independence Taiwanese government, exposure of the suppression of Chinese Muslims, and most of all, the stumbling of the Chinese economy due to the Trump administration’s tough trade policy. With Trump heading for re-election, party dissent against Xi was mounting, he wrote.
The Covid-19 outbreak in China posed a new challenge for Xi. “As long as the virus raged primarily inside China – derailing only her economy, stigmatizing only her government – his troubles would soar. All the while, the world predictably would have leapt ahead, taking Chinese customers, stealing China’s long-sought glory.”
But the pandemic had a potential upside, Libby argued. Its spread would divert attention from the Chinese regime’s internal woes and “rendered disease-weakened nations more susceptible to China’s goods,” he wrote. Trump’s re-election was no longer certain and a weakened economy would impact U.S. defense spending.
In Libby’s account, Xi went beyond simply taking advantage of an opportunity. The Chinese regime deliberately “let tens of thousands of travelers, infected among them, leave China and enter an unwary world.” All of this, he concludes, is part of the quest for world domination by Xi’s inner circle. “A fever for Chinese primacy burns among them.”
Libby is no stranger to the construction of these kinds of narratives. He was Cheney’s point man in pressuring the CIA to support the false claims that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction and was linked to the 9/11 attacks. He was convicted in 2007 of perjury and obstruction of justice for his attempts to discredit a diplomat who disputed those claims. Surprisingly, Libby was pardoned in April 2018 by Trump, even though former President George W. Bush refused to do so, despite pleas from Cheney.
“Libby’s presentation has the feel and smell of yet another problem in the making,” said the senior intelligence official, comparing this to his role in the Iraq war buildup.
“This is Scooter’s ‘wag the dog’ fantasy,” agreed another former senior intelligence official with long experience in Asia. He dismissed Libby’s belief that the Chinese leadership would have an interest in spreading the pandemic around the world.
“Party legitimacy, Xi’s position, and China’s future depend on sustained growth, even if the rate of growth is much slower,” the former intelligence official told me. “Spreading CV19 could only further depress Chinese growth and accelerate realignment of supply chains in ways that disadvantage China. Chinese leaders understand that.”