There are many lessons to be learned from the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. But one is already clear: China needs to be isolated from the civilized world until its behavior improves. We are in the current situation, with deaths and economic devastation worldwide, because China handled this outbreak with its trademark mixture of dishonesty, incompetence and thuggery. Were China a more civilized nation, this outbreak would have been stopped early, and with far less harm, inside and outside of China.
As Marion Smith wrote in these pages on Sunday, China’s first response was to clamp down on reports of the then-new disease that had appeared in Wuhan. The brave doctor, Li Wenliang, who first reported the disease to fellow physicians was silenced by police. Chinese media reports of the disease were censored by the government. So were ordinary citizens reporting on social media.
According to U.S. intelligence agencies, China systematically deceived the world about the extent of the outbreak, lulling other nations into a false sense of security that delayed a response by weeks or even months.
As Smith writes: “Beijing denied until Jan. 20 that human to human transmission was occurring. Yet at the same time, Chinese officials and state-owned companies were urgently acquiring bulk medical supplies — especially personal protective equipment like masks and gloves — from Australia, Europe, and around the world. Put simply, Beijing hoarded the world’s life-saving resources while falsely claiming that people’s lives weren’t at risk.”
And this is the most charitable account, based on China failing to deal with what was, at root, a naturally occurring disease outbreak. And it may have been naturally occurring. But people are increasingly entertaining the possibility that the COVID-19 virus was accidentally released by a Chinese virology lab in Wuhan.
That notion was once dismissed as a conspiracy theory, but it has since been discussed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and by uber-establishment Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The talk is of an accidental release, not the deliberate deployment of a biological weapon — which makes sense, since few nations would release a bioweapon in their own heartland — but if it’s true it only makes the Chinese government look worse, though it perhaps explains their unwillingness to be forthcoming.
But wherever the virus came from, China’s response was inept, dishonest and utterly inconsiderate of the rest of the world. A competent, honest response would have placed the world on notice much earlier. A China that cared about the rest of the world would have halted flights abroad while this disease was spreading, instead of allowing its citizens to spread willy-nilly around the globe. (As Brian Kennedy writes: “China seems to have taken the position that if they were to suffer the coronavirus, so too was the United States and the rest of the world. What else is to explain the continuation of flights from China to the United States at the rate of some 20,000 passengers a day, until President Trump wisely shut them down?”)
China needs to show good global citizenship
This calls for a response.
The response needs to be harsh enough to teach the Chinese government a lesson, which means pretty harsh, as they appear to still think they can brazen this out. Among other things, the United States — and ideally the world community at large — need to sharply reduce economic relations with China. In particular, no one should be relying on them for medicines, medical equipment and other vital goods. (China’s state news service threatened to plunge America into a “mighty sea” of coronavirus by withholding critical medications.) Chinese scientists should no longer have easy access to Western laboratories or universities. Chinese political leaders should no longer find it easy to travel the world.
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Congress should pass legislation stripping the Chinese government of sovereign immunity to lawsuits for COVID-19 damage in the United States. China should be stripped of its leadership roles in international organizations. And finally, Taiwan — a nation that has handled the outbreak better than almost any other nation, but has been excluded from the World Health Organization because its membership would offend the Chinese government — deserves membership in WHO, and full diplomatic recognition from the United States, and the rest of the world.
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These are harsh penalties and the Chinese government won’t like them. They will involve much loss of face for the Chinese Communist Party leadership. But they deserve it, and an example needs to be made. The world is a small and interconnected place now. Those who would profit from globalization, as the Chinese ruling class has, need to show good global citizenship. Now is the time to make that lesson stick.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of "The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself," is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Time to put China on lockdown for its dishonesty amid coronavirus crisis