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China Has COVID-19 Well-Contained, But Has Resisted Collaborating To End The Pandemic

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The pandemic continues to worsen in some parts of the world. China is not one of them. It's largely been able to keep the virus at bay. But China is being criticized for a lack of transparency about the disease and its failure to cooperate with international partners seeking a better understanding of the virus's origins. Here with more on this is NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. And John, let's just start with the president. President Biden's seeking a redoubled effort, using intelligence agencies to understand the origins of COVID-19. Based on what we've seen in the past few months, what can they expect by way of cooperation from China?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Very little, Audie. During normal times, there isn't a whole lot of cooperation between China and the U.S. on intelligence matters. Now, there's just not much cooperation between the two on anything. But beyond that, you know, President Biden's given the intelligence agencies three months. With or without Chinese help, that's a tight deadline. And some think there are legitimate questions about whether or not there's even a satisfactory answer to be found by intel agencies out there. I talked to James Green. He's a former U.S. official with a couple of decades of experience dealing with China, and here's what he said.

JAMES GREEN: This 90 days probably won't do much. But as I said, I think it's because the information is not knowable in an intelligence-gathering sort of way.

RUWITCH: Yeah. So in other words, maybe nobody, not even China or other targets of intelligence gathering, has answers.

CORNISH: Relations between the U.S. and China are, of course, at its worst - right? - in decades. I mean, how is that affecting the ability of investigators to get to the truth on this?

RUWITCH: Yeah, it's probably making things much more complicated. You know, some experts think that at the beginning of the pandemic, there was probably a window of opportunity for early cooperation. But in early spring of 2020, a year ago, you know, former President Trump turned from praising China and how it handled the pandemic or the virus at that time to blaming it, calling it the China virus, the Wuhan virus. That angered Beijing. And so far, you know, the Biden administration has changed tone on China, but the tough-on-China policies of the Trump era mostly remain in place. And in some areas, the Biden team is extending them. You know, just today, the Customs and Border Protection Agency accused a Chinese fishing company of forced labor and is blocking imports.

CORNISH: What part has China played in pushing alternative narratives when it comes to the origins of the virus?

RUWITCH: China's pushed back quite consistently against the idea that the virus escaped from a lab by some accident. It even says there's no proof that it came from China to begin with. Of course, the first cases were in China. That's where it seems to have started. But it's pushed theories that - you know, one is that U.S. soldier athletes who were in Wuhan in the fall of 2019 for a competition may have brought the virus in or that it came in on frozen food imports. And they say that it's - you know, it's now time to start to look outside of China for clues about the origins of this pandemic, right? Yanzhong Huang, who's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says as far as Beijing is concerned, the story of the pandemic is an open and shut book. You know, China, under the Chinese Communist Party, has defeated the virus.

YANZHONG HUANG: The political stakes for China become (ph) so high, and it was impossible for them to backtrack from its official narrative now.

CORNISH: And can we look to any history for, I guess, a sense of what could happen next?

RUWITCH: Well, the closest example for something like this having happened was SARS in 2003. I mean, there was a similar initial cover-up in China, initial information blackout. But then, the government took it in a very different direction. They had a very different response. The leadership came clean. They accommodated to external pressure to a certain extent. And it worked domestically and on the international stage for them. I mean, it's safe to say the political landscape at home and abroad for China is just very different now, so where it goes is unclear.

CORNISH: That's NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. Thank you.

RUWITCH: Have a great weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.