How China Keeps Getting Away with It

The People’s Republic of China flag and the U.S. flag fly on a lamp post along Pennsylvania Avenue near the U.S. Capitol. (Hyungwon Kang/Reuters)

On the menu today: A new book compares the New York Times’ appalling Walter Duranty-era coverage of the Holocaust and the Soviet Union to that newspaper’s current coverage of China and the genocide of the Uyghurs; a scientist contends that I missed the point of his research, while I think he missed the point of my argument; and the Washington Post offers a report indicating that John Kerry is an outlier in the Biden administration.

How Honest Can Most U.S. Media Be about China?

Over on the home page, I wrote a pitch for our webathon focusing on how over the past two years, NR has not been afraid to question the prevailing narratives about COVID-19. It turns out that a lot of what you were told by most of the mainstream media during this pandemic turned out to be a load of bull. Development of a vaccine was not going to take years. New York governor Andrew Cuomo was not the wise, benevolent, and careful public servant that the media insisted he was. Reopening schools did not lead to mass deaths of teachers and students.

I suspect that one factor in the way this pandemic was and is covered is the fact that the virus first emerged in China, and understanding where this virus came from and how it spread inevitably requires a critical look at that country’s government. The circumstantial evidence pointing to a lab leak keeps piling up higher, and the Chinese government spent the first crucial weeks of this pandemic lying about the virus’s contagiousness. China claimed it got the pandemic under control with draconian lockdowns, including locking people in their homes and welding the doors shut — sending a signal to governments around the world that this virus and human freedom were incompatible, and that only the populace’s absolute and total submission to a government’s orders could save lives.

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Most major U.S. news organizations are part of corporate conglomerates, and those conglomerates have considerable business interests in China and desperately want to avoid antagonizing the government in Beijing. In some situations leadership of these companies makes this motivation explicit. In other cases you just wonder how much a reporter at, say, an institution such as ABC News wants to create headaches for the parent company, Disney. (By 2017 Disneyland Shanghai was “propelling a good chunk” of the company’s global earnings and was “on pace to be the most profitable Disney park globally.”)

The most fascinating thing I’ve read in the past day comes from an Indian publication, the Sunday Guardian, which conducted an interview with American author Ashley Rindsberg about his book, The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions & Fabrications Radically Alter History, published earlier this year. The whole interview is worth reading, but this section jumps out:

Q: What do you think of New York Times’s coverage of China and Xi Jinping?

A: I think it’s the same way you look at the facts, you know, you look at the reporting, let’s say in the case of the Uyghurs. If you just go into the New York Times archive, and type in Uyghur, you’re gonna see, 10 or 12 articles over the last year, and almost none of them are actual reporting on the Uyghurs themselves, on the situation, on what they’re enduring, on the mechanism of the genocide. Who are the people involved? Who are the high ranking government officials that are perpetrating this? We have reporting about the effect that it has on H&M and Zara and China. We have reporting that is very indirect, very fluffy, like what it is doing to diplomatic relations with Japan. And that’s exactly what happened during the Holocaust. The New York Times did not cover the Holocaust. They would bury tiny little stories about the murder of 600,000 Jews in Poland or Russia. They would keep it off the front page. They published six front page articles in six years, about history’s most horrendous and heinous mechanized genocide—the first mechanized genocide. That’s insane. So when we think about the Uyghurs, you are saying where is the front page coverage? Where’s the actual reporting?

We are seeing the same effect with lab leak. Why was the New York Times so invested in discrediting the lab leak from the very beginning? From February of 2020, when we barely knew there was a pandemic circulating around the world, they were already discrediting the lab leak as a conspiracy theory and they were calling it racist. For the next year and a half they pursued that one (the racist theory). Why would they prefer this? Why not explore the possibility of this other theory, which really important scientists, really credible people were saying it’s a possibility?

And again, there you look at the difference. You look at the New York Times’ business relationship with China, that they have been trying to get access to the Chinese news market for the last 10 years. And when they’ve run afoul of CCP, either policies or preferences, they’ve been blocked. And the Times is well aware that if they ever want to get that (access) back, they need to toe the party line quite literally. I think that is the calculus with the lab leak, the calculus with the Times running a huge op-ed a few months ago, arguing against US recognition of Taiwan as a country. How can a liberal newspaper allow such a thing to be printed in its pages—that it’s not worth recognizing Taiwan? It’s the same culture. Those assumptions have become so ingrained about China, that it’s become a culture.

Lest you think this is a problem limited to the Times, Rindsberg continues:

The core problem is that you have so much power and so much influence in the hands of so few people. And when you’re asking about the Washington Post, as an example, it’s now a cultural institution, a newspaper owned by effectively one man. And that man, Jeff Bezos has extremely deep interest in China. We’re talking about half of all the top 10,000 sellers across Amazon are Chinese. We’re talking about the most important market for their biggest division, which is Amazon Web Services, that accounts for half of their profit annually, that market will be made or broken by their ability to compete in China. And China has the ability to just say no to them.

(It is worth noting that at the link above, you can buy Rindsberg’s book at Amazon, so that company is not completely devoted to toeing the Chinese Communist Party’s line. Then again, perhaps push hasn’t yet come to shove on the issue of Amazon selling books critical of the Chinese government. How many sales in China is Amazon willing to sacrifice to ensure freedom of expression on his e-commerce site?)

Rindsberg also spotlights a contrast that I suspect few American readers of the Times even considered — how the newspaper portrays China vs. how the newspaper portrays India:

I have a list of headlines here from the New York Times. One is “why India’s farmers fight to save a broken system”. Another is “under Modi, a Hindu nationalist surge has further divided India”. “What the rape and murder of a child reveals about Modi’s India”. “Death is the only truth (that’s a quote) watching India’s funeral pyres burn”. “India’s battered free press” — on and on and on and on and on. And you go back to China and you look at the China reporting for example, on the pandemic. In August of 2020, there the New York Times is celebrating China’s victory over Covid and taking the CCP’s statistics of Covid deaths at face value. The statistics the CCP provides are absurd, but the New York Times prints them, gives them that credibility. So you think to yourself, why is there this division in how they cover China and how they cover India? Why is one being shown as this sort of progressive place that has managed to conquer a pandemic and the other this backward place characterized by funeral pyres and rape — and that’s what I’m trying to understand. I haven’t gotten my hands completely around it.

You wonder how many U.S. news institutions have their coverage of China shaped by these kinds of overt censorship or subtle self-censorship. We know that if the New York Times ran a giant, above-the-fold, ten-part series about the genocide of the Uyghurs, that would kill off the company’s access to the Chinese market for a long time. If the Washington Post ran a comparable seven-part series about China’s military buildup and the danger of an invasion of Taiwan, that might blow up, or at least temporarily complicate, Amazon’s relationship with Chinese companies.

There are days when our job at NR is tougher because we have no corporate parent, no Uncle Rupert with deep pockets to throw money around when we need it, and thus we have to ask readers such as you for help. But it also means that we never have some corporate suit telling us to lay off the criticism of the Chinese government because we’re risking merchandise sales in Shanghai.

What Does It Mean If Patient Zero Was Likely Infected in the City of Wuhan?

Michael Worobey contends that I have “spectacularly missed the point” in my reference to his study which estimated that “Human-to-human transmission began in mid-October to mid-November of 2019 in Hubei Province, China, with a likely short interval before epidemic transmission was initiated.”

The study concluded that, “Our results suggest that if the virus first emerged in a rural community, it would have needed to migrate to an urban setting to avoid extinction. The lack of reports of COVID-19 elsewhere in China in November and early December suggests that Hubei province is the location where human-to-human transmission chains were first established.”

“So our simulations actually showed that finding the virus first in one of China’s largest cities is what would be expected,” Worobey contends. “Our study thus provided scientific evidence *against* the idea that the pandemic’s emergence in Wuhan is an inexplicable coincidence.”

I’m sorry that what I wrote irked Worobey so much, but I think he’s missing my point. If the virus was unlikely to have first emerged in a rural community because it would have died off before it got into the city, then it means that Patient Zero is more likely to have been infected in the city or very close to the city. So how did a Wuhan resident encounter a horseshoe bat whose natural habitat is hundreds of miles away? How did this novel coronavirus jump from a bat into a human being within the city of Wuhan?

No one has found evidence of bats being sold at the Huanan Seafood Market. No one has found evidence of bats being sold in other Wuhan wet markets. If you subscribe to the notion that the virus had to pass through a mammal such as a pangolin, it raises the question of why no one can find pangolins or other suspected animals infected with the virus.

At this point I think the strongest argument against the lab-leak theory is that the Chinese government is no more eager to confirm the pandemic starting in a wet market than it is eager to confirm the pandemic starting from a lab accident. (The geopolitical consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic starting because of a poorly monitored, unsanitary wet market are only slightly better than the geopolitical consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic starting because of a lab leak.) I will concede it is conceivable that there is evidence out there pointing to a natural spillover from an animal to a human that is embarrassing to Beijing and that the Chinese government is covering it up. Right now, the Chinese government wants the origin of COVID-19 to be an eternal unsolvable mystery, but it is also blaming Maine lobsters shipped to Wuhan. As Dave Barry used to write, I am not making this up.

But nearly two years after this pandemic started, no one has found evidence of bats in nature infected with SARS-CoV-2. Yes, in September, researchers “found viruses that are each more than 95 percent identical to SARS-CoV-2, which they named BANAL-52, BANAL-103 and BANAL-236.” That makes the BANAL viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 sound extremely similar, but some really consequential differences can reside in that small percentage of dissimilar genes. As you’ve probably heard, humans and chimpanzees and bonobos share 99 percent of their DNA; human beings and cows share about 80 percent of their DNA. No one is arguing that other dangerous, genetically similar viruses aren’t lurking in the lungs and bloodstreams of other bats around the world. We’re asking why this particular virus cannot be found in any bats around the world while it spreads like wildfire among human beings.

Two places in the city of Wuhan were doing research on novel coronaviruses found in bats and accumulating massive storehouses of samples of bat viruses: the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The WIV was conducting gain-of-function research designed to make bat viruses more contagious among human beings. The fact that the virus could not have been circulating long before the first reports of sickness in December 2019 suggests that Patient Zero was probably close by where those first cases were reported, somewhere near the center of the city and somewhere not far from the Huanan Seafood Market.

Because two-thirds of the first 41 patients had “direct exposure” to the market, it is unlikely that the virus first emerged in the market, but either Patient Zero or one of the other early infected individuals probably entered the market and spread it there. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is 13 miles away from the market — roughly the distance from Yankee Stadium to the Barclays Center basketball arena in Brooklyn — and the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is just 2.3 miles away from the market.

ADDENDUM: The Washington Post reports that there’s an internal division within the Biden administration about what issues should be prioritized in discussions with China. Apparently White House aides, including national-security adviser Jake Sullivan, want to prioritize “human rights, Hong Kong, Taiwan, trade and a range of other issues.” John Kerry wants to prioritize climate change, the issue that is his duty as a special presidential envoy.

But the very last paragraph of the Post’s story offers the most surprising news:

In meetings on Capitol Hill, Kerry’s deputy, Jonathan Pershing, has told lawmakers that the U.S. government will need more time, five to 10 years, to move the global supply chain for solar panels away from Xinjiang, according to notes taken from a meeting with him and provided to The Washington Post. Pershing said the administration wants flexibility in the legislation to manage a transition.

The world is going to be dependent upon Uyghur slave labor for solar panels for the next five to ten years?

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