Washington’s Lab Leak Playbook Revealed?

By Stephen Gowans

June 7, 2021

On June 5, Joe Biden wrote an editorial in the Washington Post in which he reiterated what has long been apparent: that Washington regards China as an enemy. [1]

Biden says China’s enemy status is based on Beijing’s rejection of “market democracy” and adoption of what he calls ‘authoritarianism.’ But this can’t be true.

  • The United States counts a number of ‘authoritarian’ governments among its most cherished allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, and so on).
  • Washington was quite willing to pursue amicable relations with China for many years, from the point Beijing opened the country to US trade and investment and became a cornucopia of profits for corporate USA, until Chinese capitalism became a rival to, rather than a prop for, US capitalism. During this period, Washington had no trouble befriending China despite Beijing’s authoritarianism.

What has changed is that China has rejected its place in the global economy as a low-wage manufacturing appendage of the US economy. In pursuit of its goal of building a prosperous, independent, China, the Communist Party has presided over a mixed economy and dirigiste capitalism which has come to challenge Wall Street’s primacy. That’s the source of Washington’s hostility.

There are other reasons for Washington to take an inimical stance to China. Not only does corporate USA face stiff competition from the East Asian giant, but a Communist-led China is challenging Washington in other ways, too.

Beijing has lifted countless millions out of poverty, and Chinese citizens face the future with optimism, expecting their standard of living to continue to rise. Meanwhile, US citizens are pessimistic, as US capitalism leaves millions behind, in low-wage, precarious work, with little hope for a bright future.

What’s more, Washington’s self-proclaimed leadership role in the world has been badly damaged by its failure to deal competently with the Covid-19 pandemic.  While US newspapers hubristically declare that, with the roll out of vaccines, the end of the pandemic is imminent, in terms of Covid-19 deaths per million, the United States has only gone from being a failed state to no better than the rest of the world.

In contrast, China acted swiftly and decisively to eliminate community transmission of the virus, allowing Beijing to reopen its economy quickly. As an article in the medical journal The Lancet concluded, the model pursued by China has been superior to the model of inaction and privileging profits over public health favored by US authorities. The model’s superiority is evident in better health and economic outcomes, and (because the Chinese approach allowed the country to reopen quickly) better civil liberty outcomes. [2] Had Washington emulated China, it would have prevented over 550,000 Covid-19 deaths. [3] A government that caters to business interests before public health hardly has the moral standing to claim world leadership.

Even on the matter of vaccines, on which the United States professes leadership, it has produced fewer doses than China, and exported fewer to other countries. [4]

Clearly, if Washington wants to claim global leadership in the face of its own failures and China’s undeniable successes, it is going to have to turn the tables on China.

Part of the fight back is positive. The Biden administration plans to emulate China through a program of industrial planning and major investments in infrastructure to “deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world.” [5] The program might be called Meeting the China Challenge.

Another part is negative. It involves efforts to undermine China’s economic growth through tariffs, target Chinese companies like Huawei for destruction, block Chinese investors from buying Western economic assets, and prevent Western investors from investing in a number of Chinese firms.

Additionally, Washington seeks to discredit China. One way to do so is to blame Beijing for the pandemic. Trump made early efforts in this direction, referring to Covid-19 as the Wuhan flu, the kung flu, and the China virus. His state department insinuated that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab. Biden—different from Trump in style but largely continuous with the previous administration on foreign policy—has resurrected Trump’s lab leak theory.

Insight into Washington’s playbook on discrediting China may have been provided by Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote an editorial in The Washington Post on June 4. It was titled “China could pay if nations come to believe the virus leaked from a lab.” [6]

The Council on Foreign Relations is a Wall Street funded and directed think tank that provides policy advice to the State Department. It is firmly interlocked with the US foreign policy establishment and the Biden administration. Typically, members of the council fill top cabinet positions. The current secretaries of state, treasury, defense, and commerce are members of the council, as are the UN ambassador, the national security advisor, CIA director, Indo-Pacific czar, and chief of staff, among others.  [7] As A.B. Abrams explained in Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power (Clarity Press, 2020, p. 453)

The CFR’s members were described by the Washington Post as ‘the nearest thing we have to a ruling establishment in the United States’ and includes almost all CIA Directors, National Security Advisors, UN Ambassadors, Federal Reserve Chairs, World Bank Presidents, and Directors of the National Economic Council, several presidents and vice-presidents, the majority of state secretaries … and many high ranking NATO and military commanders. According to the Post, the council members were part of a foreign policy establishment with shared values and world views, whose role was not limited to analyzing foreign policy but also included taking an active hand in shaping it. … Stephen F. Cohen [himself once a member] described the council as ‘America’s single most important non-governmental foreign policy organization,’ with the power to ‘define the accepted, legitimate, orthodox parameters of discussion.’

Huang’s editorial at the very least reflects the kind of thinking that takes place in US foreign policy circles and may in fact reveal a playbook the CFR-interlocked Biden administration is actually following to turn the tables on China.

Huang notes that “China has, until now, enjoyed prestige on the world stage for its containment of the pandemic, especially compared with many Western countries” but adds that “if missteps by Chinese scientists” were seen to be “the cause of that pandemic, such praise would quickly fade.”

“Even a belief in a coverup without firm evidence of wrongdoing would be damaging”, he says. Moreover, if US intelligence were seen as exposing a coverup, it could re-establish “America’s reputation for competence.”

Huang believes that fostering a belief in a Chinese coverup, even without firm evidence, would:

  • “Precipitate a free fall in China’s relationship with the outside world”;
  • Provide a pretext for the United States to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics;
  • Raise questions in China about whether the Communist Party is fit to rule;
  • Force China to close in on itself in a fit of angry isolation as it is shunned by the rest of the world.

In other words, there are strong reasons for Washington, which makes no secret about viewing China as an enemy to be contained and countered, to manufacture a belief in a coverup.

However, US intelligence is of the view that it is unlikely that firm evidence of a lab leak can be obtained [8]. Accordingly, the pursuit of these policy benefits will depend on innuendo. Western journalists are working diligently to provide it, and, writing dozens of features in which, claiming powers of ratiocination equivalent to those of a Sherlock Holmes, they claim to have deduced Chinese culpability (see, for example, Nicholas Wade in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist.)  Of course, all of this is nonsense. There is no evidence for a lab leak, and no matter how brilliant some journalists believe their powers of deduction are, their exercises in ratiocination remain pure speculation. Speculation is not evidence. Speculative arguments can also be constructed on the other side, and have been. [9]

The Wuhan lab leak theory has, within the context of US foreign policy, become the equivalent of the magician’s misdirection; it draws attention from the deception that the Western model works. The model, as it relates to the pandemic, has clearly failed.

It is clarifying to consider that in the rush to create a misdirection, two separate questions are being conflated:

  • Where did the virus come from?
  • How did the pandemic start?

We don’t know where the virus came from, and may never know. We still don’t know where the virus came from that killed tens of millions of people worldwide in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 to 1920 .

But we do know how the Covid-19 pandemic started, which is the more consequential question. The pandemic started when “Chinese doctors and scientists working in international collaborations,” provided information “showing a deadly virus had emerged that had no treatment and could be passed between people”, and the United States, Canada, and Europe did precious little with this information, failing to act, unwilling to disrupt business activity and the continued tranquil digestion of profits, as the Lancet’s editor Richard Horton has pointed out. [10][11] Had these countries acted as swiftly and decisively to eliminate community transmission as China did, not only would they have been able to safely open their own economies long ago, they would have spared the world a deadly pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of more than 3.7 million people, and will carry off many more.

Much as Washington professes to disdain conspiracy theories, it is one the world’s principal creators of them, and vehicles for their propagation, amply aided by the Western mass media. The paragon case is the Washington-manufactured conspiracy theory about Saddam Hussein covering up weapons of mass destruction. As the Council on Foreign Relation’s Yanzhong Huang makes clear, a lab leak conspiracy theory has the potential to pay substantial dividends to the US position in the world, one badly bruised by China’s successes and Washington’s abject failures.

[1] Joe Biden, “Joe Biden: My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world’s democracies,” The Washington Post,  June 5, 2021

[2]  Miquel Oliu-Barton et al., “SARS-CoV-2 elimination, not mitigation, creates best outcomes for health, the economy, and civil liberties,” The Lancet, April 28, 2021, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)00978-8

[3] With (a) a US population of 328.2 million and (b) 1,796.26 deaths per million to May 31, there were (a)/1,000,00 x (b) = 589,533 covid-19 deaths in the United States. If the fatality rate had been as low as that of China, there would have been  (a)/1,000,00 x 3.221 = 1,057 covid-19 deaths, or 588,475 fewer.

[4] Yuka Hayashi, Sabrina Siddiqui, and Andrew Restuccia, “U.S. to Increase Covid-19 Vaccine Exports Amid Global Pressure,” The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2021

[5] Biden.

[6] Yanzhong Huang, “The origin of the virus is a scientific question — but one with huge political implications.” The Washington Post, June 4, 2021.

[7]  See Laurence H. Shoup, “The Council on Foreign Relations, the Biden Team, and Key Policy Outcomes,” Monthly Review, May 2021.

[8] Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Is Said to Have Unexamined Intelligence to Pore Over on Virus Origins,” New York Tines,  May 27, 2021.

[9] See for example Angela L. Rasmussen and Stephen A. Goldstein, “Labs like the one in Wuhan are essential to preparing for future pandemics,” The New York Times,  June 4, 2021.

[10] “Lancet editor Richard Horton quoted in “West suffering because it failed to listen to China on COVID-19, says Lancet editor,” CGTN, May 3, 2020

[11] “COVID-19 in the USA: a question of time,” The Lancet, April 18, 2020