China faces ‘reckoning’ over virus lies
China hit back hard today at accusations it has lied about the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, rubbishing warnings from foreign politicians that it must face a "reckoning" when the pandemic is over.
The catalyst for the diplomatic sniping was a classified report by US intelligence agencies, first revealed by Bloomberg News, which concluded China was providing the world with inaccurate numbers of confirmed cases and deaths within its borders.
China had already been accused, with plenty of evidence, of trying to cover up the threat of the virus when it first emerged in Wuhan. That allowed the disease to spread for too long, and robbed other countries of precious time they could have used to prepare.
Several high profile politicians, particularly in the United States, reacted to yesterday's report by calling for China to be held accountable.
"As we get through this pandemic, there has to be an accounting and a reckoning for China," US Senator Tom Cotton told The Washington Free Beacon.
"Because China, through its dishonesty and corruption, turned what could have been a manageable local outbreak into a global pandemic that will ultimately cost not only our people, but the world, trillions and trillions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives."
He said he didn't believe the narrative now being promoted by the Chinese government that it has the outbreak under control.
"I don't need the intelligence community to tell me China is lying," Mr Cotton said.
"It's simply what the Chinese Communist Party does. They lie incessantly about all topics, and they've been lying about this virus since early December."
One of Mr Cotton's colleagues, Senator Ben Sasse, dismissed China's official infection figures as "garbage propaganda".
"The claim that the United States has more coronavirus deaths than China is false," said Mr Sasse.
"Without commenting on any classified information, this much is painfully obvious - the Chinese Communist Party has lied, is lying and will continue to lie about coronavirus to protect the regime."
Republican Congressman Michael McCaul struck a similar tone.
"They lied to the world about the human-to-human transmission of the virus, silenced doctors and journalists who tried to report the truth and are now apparently hiding the accurate number of people impacted by this disease," Mr McCaul said.
President Donald Trump, however, was noticeably less harsh.
"The numbers seem to be a little bit on the light side - and I am being nice when I say that - relative to what we witnessed and what was reported," he told reporters at the White House's daily coronavirus briefing.
Elsewhere, The Daily Mail reports that ministers and senior officials in the British government are "furious" with China. They too are warning of a "reckoning", saying the country risks becoming a "pariah state".
"For too long, nations have lamely kowtowed to China in the desperate hope of winning trade deals. But once we get clear of this terrible pandemic, it is imperative that we all rethink that relationship and put it on a much more balanced and honest basis," said Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative Party.
"The only priority now is to deal with the crisis, but everyone knows that there has to be a reckoning when all this is over," said another, albeit anonymous government source.
China itself has bluntly rejected the criticism. Today Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the country's Foreign Ministry, labelled it "repulsive".
"These comments by those US politicians are just shameless and morally repulsive," she said.
"They should abandon such politicising of public health issues. This is just immoral and inhuman, and will be denounced by people all around the world."
She claimed China had been "open" and "transparent" about the pandemic.
"On international public health security, we should listen to the World Health Organisation and experts on epidemiology and disease control, rather than several politicians who are habitual liars," said Ms Hua.
"Can the few US individuals accusing China tell the world, if the outbreak had hit the US first, would it have handled the situation better than the Chinese government?
"As we've repeatedly said, slanders, smears and blame games cannot make up for lost time. More lies will only waste more time and lead to more lives lost."
At the time of writing, China had reported 81,589 coronavirus cases. That figure has barely risen in recent weeks, while three other countries - Italy, Spain and the United States - have seen their totals surge well past 100,000.
The US has now reported 243,970 cases and 5883 deaths.
China's government has a history of deception.
It has previously admitted to reporting false figures during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s - and we already know it initially tried to cover up this outbreak.
The coronavirus, which has now infected more than a million people around the world, started in Wuhan, a city in China's Hubei Province, late last year.
A group of doctors attempted to sound the alarm, sharing posts on social media in December warning of a SARS-like virus spreading in Wuhan. At least one of those doctors, Li Wenliang, was detained and punished for spreading "rumours" and making "false statements". The coronavirus killed him in February.
Another doctor, physician Ai Fen, believed the disease was probably transmissible between humans in late December. Her hospital admonished her, accusing her of causing "trouble" and "social panic".
China did not publicly admit coronavirus could spread from human to human until January 20, the same day President Xi Jinping finally made a public statement outlining a response to the disease.
A week earlier, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was still parroting Chinese authorities' false claims there was "no clear evidence" of such transmission.
We now know the virus is, and always was, extraordinarily contagious.
"The medical community interpreted the Chinese data as: This was serious, but smaller than anyone expected, because I think probably we were missing a significant amount of data, now that what we see happened to Italy and see what happened to Spain," Dr Deborah Birx, the immunologist currently serving as the White House's coronavirus response co-ordinator, said this week.
Put more simply, China's deception led other nations to make false assumptions about the virus, which left them more vulnerable to the pandemic.
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China🇨🇳. pic.twitter.com/Fnl5P877VG— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020
China did eventually take the virus seriously, imposing strict lockdown measures in Wuhan to significant effect.
But the intervention came too late. According to researchers from the University of Southampton, China could have cut the number of cases by an astonishing 95 per cent if it had acted three weeks sooner.
And even now, it seems, the Chinese government's figures cannot be trusted.