Hoover Institution Fellow Condoleezza Rice speaks with Hoover’s Tom Gilligan about the “reckoning” the Chinese Communist Party is likely to face over its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and both the public and private conversations U.S. officials should have with them.
Rice primarily accuses China of a coverup of the early outbreak of the virus, which cost the world time that could have been used to prepare. It is “very hard to get answers from China,” she said.
“The Chinese did what authoritarians do,” she said. “They silenced those who were trying to sound the alarm, they wanted time to create the narrative that would be blessed by the Communist Party of China, which means it probably had to go to Beijing before you could say anything. It is just the nature of the system. It is a real problem.”
“Can you imagine those people being silenced in the United States or Germany or Brazil?” she asked. “No… it would have been known that there was a problem.”
“The Chinese and trying to create a counter-narrative… to shift the narrative from their initial responsibility for not fessing up to what was happening, to ‘We got on top of it and this is how we helped the world.’ That’s how they’re going to shift the narrative. Don’t let it happen.”
She concluded: “If you keep the focus on how this started, and China’s role in that, they will be embarrassed by that. If you let them shift the narrative to all they’ve done sending out PPE, you’re probably not going to make progress.”
TOM GILLIGAN: You were the National Security Advisor during the SARS outbreak, what are the important similarities and differences between then and now?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: One of the unfortunate similarities is it is hard to get information out of China. With the SARS outbreak, we knew something had happened. it was very hard to get answers from China about what had happened, and that is, unfortunately, a recurring pattern this time around. It is probably the most troubling aspect of this crisis.
It is kind of in the nature of the Chinese system — an authoritarian system where control of information is power, control of the narrative is power, so we shouldn’t be surprised that when this outbreak happened in Wuhan, they silenced the young physicians and medical students who were trying to sound the alarm. Can you imagine those people being silenced in the United States or Germany or Brazil? No. Somebody in the press would have picked up the story, it would have been known that there was a problem.
But, the Chinese did what authoritarians do, they silenced those who were trying to sound the alarm, and they wanted time to create the narrative that would be blessed by the Communist Party of China, which means it probably had to go to Beijing before you could say anything. It is just the nature of the system. It is a real problem, and there is going to be a reckoning for China on this — with its own population, which was angered by the lack of information — and certainly, the international community should raise this with the Chinese very strongly, why we always get this response.
QUESTIONS: “What sanctions, and how should China be held to account for this?”
“What is the proper measured response to China and the CCP leadership, who clearly withheld information about the Wuhan virus in light of the hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of cost to the world?”
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There is a public part of this and a private part.
This is the public part, over the next months is to let it be known that China responded in the way that it did. Or, didn’t respond, I should say.
The Chinese and trying to create a counter-narrative. “Well, when we found out about it, we got on top of it. Look at how quickly trough social distancing and quarantine, how quickly we recovered. And by the way, we’ve been helping the rest of the world by sending PPE and help and aid to all of the world.” They’re going to try to shift the narrative from their initial responsibility for not fessing up to what was happening, to we got on top of it and this is how we helped the world. That’s how they’re going to shift the narrative. Don’t let it happen.
We have to have a really honest assessment about where this started, how it started, when it started, when the Communist Party knew, and why they didn’t get on it, that’s the public part.
The private part is: You have to go to the Chinese and say, “You can’t keep doing this.”
You have to be a more responsible partner, a more responsible power, given your weight now in the international system. You’re not just some little developing country that when something happens it doesn’t have an impact. Your people travel, your people work in other countries. There are, apparently, a lot of Chinese workers in Italy at the time. Was that the transmission belt? We don’t know for sure.
But if we’re going to get a handle on how this thing spread, China is such a big player and its people travel, work elsewhere, is a big part of the story…
QUESTION: Is jawboning enough to get them to have a more correct attitude towards the World Health Organization, toward sharing scientific data that has an impact on the rest of the world? Or do you have to couple it with sanctions or tariffs or limiting trade. How would you, as former Secretary of State, think about something like that?
I would certainly try the persuasion route first because I think if you keep the focus on how this started, and China’s role in that, they will be embarrassed by that. If you let them shift the narrative to all they’ve done sending out PPE, you’re probably not going to make progress.
I would go to the U.N. Security Council and I would call a meeting. They’ll try to veto anything that comes out of it. But I’d call a meeting and say the U.S. is going to share the information, maybe this is where we can bring the Europeans and others along, we’re going to share the information on how this started.
I would try that campaign first because I don’t really think the U.S. economy and everyone is going to be trying to recover, I don’t think we want to shock the system more with more sanctions and more trade wars while the system is trying to recover. So I’d certainly try that method first, let’s call it “Calling Names” and send a message that what they did is unacceptable.