Tension between the US and China is nothing new, but it was an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that set off the most recent tit for tat. Freedom of the press is at the center of the conflict, but what exactly does China want to hide? With the recent arrest of an American scientist who was taking bribes and helping establish a research facility in Wuhan, China, many people are wondering what’s really going on behind the scenes.
Was it the title of the opinion piece, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia”, that caused offense? Or Trump’s continued insistence on calling it the “Chinese virus”? Likely it was a combination of optics and the actual substance of the article that made them angry. Besides pointing out the extreme fragility of China’s economy, the author suggested other countries “‘de-Sinicize’ their supply chains”.
The article was published February 3rd, and by the middle of the month China had expelled three journalists from the Wall Street Journal’s news division, revoking their press passes indefinitely. At a daily news briefing that day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, “The Chinese people do not welcome those media that speak racially discriminatory language and maliciously slander and attack China.”
The next move came from the US. On March 2nd, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a cap on the number of journalists for Chinese government controlled media outlets that could be in the US. There had been 160, now only 100 could remain.
The Chinese ministry said these actions had “seriously tarnished the reputation and image of Chinese media organizations.” A day after the US announced the cap, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, wrote on Twitter, “Now the U.S. has kicked off the game, let’s play.” Less than two weeks later China announced that it would expel American journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
Both sides are now accusing each other of curtailing the freedom of the press, and during the current global pandemic, the stakes are higher than ever. All research points to Wuhan being the point of origin for the virus now sweeping the planet. Now that an American scientist has been arrested for taking bribes and helping to set up a research facility in none other than Wuhan, the public wants answers.
On Tuesday, January 28th, in the midst of the outbreak, US Federal Agents arrested Dr. Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. He had lied to the Department of Defense about secret monthly payments of $50,000 and the receipt of millions more from China in exchange for being part of their “Thousand Talents Plan” and for helping them establish and direct a chemical and biological “research” laboratory in Wuhan.
According to prosecutors, the purpose of the Thousand Talents Plan is to “lure Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.” The entire program has now come under scrutiny as the Senate Homeland Security’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report alleging that it encourages scientists in the United States to transmit their knowledge and research to China, which “unfairly uses the American research and expertise it obtains for its own economic and military gain.”
It’s not clear if there’s any direct connection between the research lab in Wuhan and the “Wuflu”, but what is clear is that China has a special interest in nanotechnology and bio-engineering, and Dr. Lieber was far from the only scientist secretly on China’s payroll. Two Chinese nationals were recently discovered and arrested for aiding the Chinese government; one was a cancer researcher who allegedly stole specimens and tried to smuggle them back to China in his suitcase.
What China is planning to do with this research is a mystery, but what’s not a mystery is that China is intent on keeping it a mystery. Now that the coronavirus has spread across the globe and everyone knows where it started, China is more concerned than ever with protecting its national image and national secrets. Expelling a large swath of journalists from the country has allowed them to tighten control on what information is revealed and when. It’s easy to say that this move is only in retaliation to American discrimination, but China has a long history of censoring the media completely. Total transparency is vital as the world is forced to cooperate to fight this highly contagious infection. If China is insistent on secrecy and espionage, the United States must dedicate itself to full information disclosure.