In a 1957 speech, China’s revolutionary leader Mao Zedong made an announcement that shocked the world: “I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left.” Three years earlier, he told India’s prime minister: “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.”
Why is this startling bit of history relevant today? For starters, Mao remains a hero to many Chinese, especially to Xi Jinping who has called for a revival of Mao Thought.
Second, today’s Chinese Communist Party retains the same domestic and world outlook espoused by Mao and his successors during the Korean War, which killed a million Chinese soldiers; the invasions and occupations of Tibet and East Turkestan; the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward that cost 50 million Chinese lives; “wars of national liberation” in Asia, Africa and Latin America; and Tiananmen Square where thousands of young Chinese were massacred under Deng Xiaoping.
Respect for human life and compassion for human suffering never have been hallmarks of international communism, whether of the Soviet or Chinese variety. Today’s moral outrages include cultural genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang, Uighur concentration camps, industrial-scale organ harvesting, provocative militarization of the South China Sea; aggression in the East China Sea; and threats to destroy U.S. cities over Taiwan.
China scholars and national security experts now debate whether the current global pandemic is “merely” the result of an accidental release of the virus — from either a Wuhan exotic animal “wet market” or a Wuhan experimental biomedical laboratory. Even beyond the laboratory vs. animal transmission question, however, a more extreme concern has emerged: Was either the initial release of the virus or China’s subsequent handling of the outbreak an intentional act of aggression against the United States and the West? Did China deliberately allow the virus to spread within a controlled segment of its own population and then to the entire global community, under the Maoist view that the developed West would suffer infinitely greater damage than China?
Or, only slightly less malevolently, was the Chinese government just egregiously negligent in the beginning, but then discovered there were geopolitical advantages to be had when the plague struck the West just as the worst ostensibly was over in China? Whether purposely or accidentally, did Xi see the possibility of accomplishing with the virus what his ideological hero Mao only fantasized about through a nuclear exchange — bringing the West to its knees, and at the cost of only one Chinese city, rather than half of China’s population?
On the question of motive, there is certainly a plausible explanation for why Beijing would launch such a diabolical scheme. The United States has been decisively winning the trade war President Trump declared on China last year. Its once-vaunted economy declined while Trump boasted of positive records in all economic areas. And, with the stronger economic hand, the president demanded for the next phase even more fundamental changes in China’s economic system, which would have potentially momentous internal political implications.
Xi cannot have been a happy man under this unprecedented pressure from a U.S. administration that Beijing clearly underestimated. He had to have hoped for a way to upset the dynamic that was moving very unfavorably against the interests of China’s communist regime (but potentially favorably for the Chinese people). By chance or by design, the pandemic has shaken the dynamic to its core and stopped the pro-U.S. momentum in its tracks.
Critics characterize such speculation on Chinese motivation as extremist, over-the-top, even paranoid. They demand evidence of Chinese intentionality in any of the tragic events that have befallen the world over the past several months. They need to consider a few ominous and incontrovertible facts:
- While the virus was spreading in Wuhan in January, Chinese authorities encouraged 100,000 residents and visitors to gather for a massive Lunar New Year banquet. Within two weeks, they were confronted with a veritable pathogenic inferno;
- To contain it, they harshly sealed off the entire city of Wuhan, even welding doors shut to trap residents inside their houses;
- Air travel between Wuhan and the rest of China was abruptly terminated to contain the virus, but flights between Wuhan and the rest of the world were allowed to continue and spread the contagion abroad — as Beijing and the World Health Organization opposed Trump’s travel restrictions on China.
The harsh reality is that Beijing’s actions enabled the epidemic in Wuhan, mostly contained it there and in Hubei Province, but then facilitated its spread internationally. As a result, more than a 150,000 lives have been lost worldwide, Western economies have been devastated, governments paralyzed and militaries degraded. Meanwhile, Beijing points fingers elsewhere and claims the superiority of its system.
Chairman Mao would be proud of the virus’s fortuitous outcome for China, all without the use of atomic weapons. Xi, his ideological heir, may believe he has created for himself a get-out-of-jail-free card on potential non-compliance with the trade agreement and aggressive moves on Taiwan, Hong Kong and in the South and East China Seas.
President Trump will have to disabuse Xi of that notion but it will not be easy, given his own propensity to conflate cordial leader-to-leader relations with America’s national security interests. He needs to recall that he made more progress with China — and with North Korea — when he exerted maximum pressure. Now China has added to its earlier offenses the incalculable human and economic costs of the pandemic. The instruments of diplomacy and finance, as well as potential remedies under U.S. and international law, offer a range of options to hold China to account.
The Chinese people, the primary victims of the regime’s incompetence or malevolence, can be enlisted in the effort effectively if they are armed with the instrument of truth from the West. The painful circumstances the world faces present a unique strategic opportunity and a moral imperative to moderate China’s course and change it for the better. The president should seize the main chance. Reelected or not, he will have earned a heroic and honorable place in history, just as Ronald Reagan forever will be hailed for the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union.
By Joseph Bpsco
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.