Could the coronavirus have originated from one of China’s wet markets? Is internal dissent growing in China? Is China using Zoom to spy on Americans? What kind of propaganda is China putting out about COVID-19? Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, addresses all these questions and more. Read the lightly edited interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

We also cover these stories:

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the top advisers to President Donald Trump on COVID-19, said Wednesday there were signs of hope in America’s fight against the coronavirus. 
  • Trump is raising concerns about mail-in-voting  amid the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • Tom Brady—the former New England Patriots football star who just moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—says he is tired of all the criticism Trump is receiving right now. 

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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on The Daily Signal Podcast by Dean Cheng, he’s a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center and Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Dean, it’s great to have you on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Dean Cheng: Thank you for having me.

Del Guidice: Well, it’s a pleasure to have you. Can we start off by talking about what your perspective on China is and how it’s handled COVID-19?

Dean Cheng: I think it’s very important to recognize that China is a very different challenge to the United States, even before COVID-19.

It is a country that is in the Asian continent, which means it’s coming from a region that didn’t have balance of power politics, which had been a foundation of American policy pretty much dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s a country that doesn’t buy into the rule of law, which, again, is pretty different from our European counterparts. And it is, unlike the Soviet Union, an economic powerhouse that has trading relations with pretty much every other country on the planet, including the United States.

This makes it a very different challenge, a much bigger challenge. And like I said, that’s all before we even had the COVID-19 outbreak. Now that we’re dealing with this pandemic, we’re confronted with the realities.

China is integral to the supply chains of many American businesses, of key parts of our economy, including pharmaceuticals and microchips. But it also has an outsized place with many of our European allies with Japan.

And yet, because it doesn’t really believe in rule of law, because it has a very different view of itself, it has engaged in, frankly, suppressing information, if not outright covering it up, in many cases about things that have global impact, and we’re seeing this absolutely in the case of COVID-19.

I think it’s very important to recognize that from the Chinese Communist Party’s perspective, it all comes back to them.

So you can look at COVID-19 as a transnational global threat of a disease that was brand new, novel coronavirus, and we should cooperate to try and keep it from spreading and to keep it from basically effecting globally.

Or, in the case of the CCP, you can view this as a Chinese problem first and foremost, one that maybe justifies even limiting information to the Chinese people, which is what we absolutely saw in the case of Dr. Li Wenliang.

Dr. Li was one of the first people to warn about coronavirus. He was sending messages up the chain of command back in China. He was a Chinese doctor, and he was ordered to not only rescind his messages, but to publicly say, “I’m sorry I have been panic-mongering.”

There’s pretty good evidence that the Chinese government basically was telling even groups like the World Health Organization that it’s not person-to-person transmittable in mid-January, when we think they may well have known better.

And even now the Chinese government is claiming, the Chinese Communist Party is claiming that there are no new coronavirus cases and no deaths in a country of 1.3 billion, the size of a continent. That’s some pretty impressive record keeping, but it’s very hard to believe.

Del Guidice: Well, Dean, that actually leads into my question. I wanted to ask you about your perspective on China’s coronavirus statistics. The New York Times recently reported that “Intelligence officials have told the White House for weeks that China has vastly understated the spread of the coronavirus and the damage the pandemic has done.” 

So where do you stand on how they have reported the statistics that they have said that are happening right now there in their country?

Cheng: I’m afraid that the most realistic answer is we simply don’t know. We don’t really have any kind of independent outside assessment of how many people have gotten infected, and therefore no context replacing any claims of how many people have died.

What we do know is that back in January, the Chinese themselves were publicly recalculating how many people had gotten sick because they kept changing the metric of what counted as somebody who had coronavirus.

Was it somebody who had the genetic marker for when they did a blood test? That was how they started.

Then they said, “Well, but if you have certain symptoms, because we don’t have the ability to do all of these tests just yet, we’re going to count you as a COVID-19 victim.” Then they went back to saying, “Well, maybe we will only count those that have the marker.”

And now we’re finding out that if you are asymptomatic, even if you tested positive, they weren’t counting that.

So with all of this morass of figures, we really don’t have a good sense of how many people got the disease.

And then, of course, in China there’s no free press. There’s no truly nongovernmental organizations. They just booted out reporters from The [New York] Times and Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. So we really don’t have a good sense of how many people might have died.

And there’s all sorts of anecdotal evidence and sort of sideways evidence that suggests that the numbers may be substantially higher, but if they are, we don’t really have a way of guessing how much higher.

Del Guidice: Something that we’re still trying to figure out is what caused the coronavirus. One area of speculation has been that it possibly was transmitted from animals to humans at a wet market in the Wuhan area.

Now there have been calls, including from Dr. Anthony Fauci on President [Donald] Trump’s coronavirus task force, for those markets to be closed.

So, what are the wet markets and do you think China needs to close them? 

Cheng: When Americans go to get meat, they go to the supermarket and it comes nicely wrapped in usually a white Styrofoam container with clear cellophane around it.

Meat doesn’t actually come from that, meat actually comes from an animal, and in places like China—but also Africa and South America, especially where refrigeration is not always available—you have wet markets.

You go to a place where there are live animals basically waiting to be slaughtered, often right in front of you, and that way you can verify several things. One, that it’s fresh; two, you got to pick the chicken, the snake, the dog, the bat, and in some cases the pig that you are going to have for dinner.

The problem is, of course, that if you are going to kill an animal, there’s a whole lot of blood involved and that blood can spray and can spread and it can spread onto people who are by it. It can spread onto other animals. It can spread onto meat or even vegetables that are often sold alongside.

You could wind up with the mixing of animals, both in terms of blood, but also if they are sick and in relatively close proximity to each other, they may spread sickness to each other and that is where a number of flus and viruses have arisen in the past.

There’s a reason why a lot of past incidents of the flu have come out of China, it’s because of this kind of wet market. But again, it’s not just China. Ebola, back in 2014 to 2016, we think came out of wet markets in Africa where primates may have been slaughtered for food.

Del Guidice: Another controversial idea is that the coronavirus could have been created in labs near Wuhan. Do you think there’s any realistic chance this occurred? 

Cheng: I think we need to break this into two pieces. The first initial set of rumors along these lines was that it may have come out of a bioweapons laboratory.

The problem with that is, as a lot of doctors and epidemiologists have noted, first off, there’s some pretty good genetic mapping of the coronavirus, COVID-19 virus, and the indications are that this almost certainly arose out of more natural sources.

This also goes to the wet market issue because they’re seeing bits and pieces of bat coronavirus and pangolin coronavirus. If you were trying to develop this as a weapon, then you probably would have gotten rid of those bits and pieces.

Another part to this is that coronavirus is actually not a great vector. It’s related to the common cold. The fatality rate for coronavirus is estimated to be down in the 1% level, although we’re not sure, so that makes it pretty unlikely that it was a weaponized item that got out.

Now you’re hearing rumors that it may have gotten out of research lab facilities that are also in the Wuhan area. It’s certainly possible. It’s hard to prove it negative. China’s lack of transparency only exacerbates this sort of rumor, but is it possible? Sure. Is that where it came from? I would say that there’s really no way to know until there’s some kind of independent investigation.

Del Guidice: Do you think the coronavirus outbreak in China and the Chinese government’s handling of it has caused unrest within China? Has it changed the politics in the nation? And if so, how?

Cheng: It has certainly exacerbated domestic dissent. Dr. Li has become something of a folk hero, a late folk hero. He died, unfortunately. But his efforts clearly were impactful enough that Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has personally rehabilitated him, has said Li was martyred and Li served the Chinese people.

I think that what we are seeing with regards to Chinese accusations that coronavirus came from abroad—”You can’t know it came from Wuhan, maybe it came from the U.S., maybe it came from the U.S. military”—reflect a broader Chinese effort to deflect criticism away from the Chinese government and away from the Chinese Communist Party, to make the case of “No, no, no. It wasn’t us. We’ve done everything right. It’s they, the foreigners, the outsiders, who did things wrong. Maybe even who introduced it.”

I think that for Xi Jinping, this really is a double whammy of a catastrophe.

It occurs in the wake of the U.S.-China trade war, which saw a slowing down of the economy and some job losses. It also comes in the middle of food problems with pork, due to African swine fever, and growing shortages of vegetables due to an invasive caterpillar species.

So absolutely, Xi Jinping has got to be much more worried now about dissent, about possible unrest.

If this continues globally with these shutdowns, that means China has no export markets for its trade and that means unemployment, which more than anything else will lead to a lot of unrest, demonstrations, and anti-government movements.

Del Guidice: Britain and Spain, among other countries, have accused China of selling them shoddy medical supplies to treat coronavirus. Do you think China is doing this deliberately, or what do you think is going on here? 

Cheng: Given the political sensitivity and the political messaging that China is trying to send with its aid programs, with its medical assistance programs, with the highlighting of the prompt exporting of personal protective equipment and other medical items, I find it very unlikely that this is deliberate. But in some ways that should be even less comforting.

If it was deliberate, it means that the Chinese have a supply of good stuff that they are sending somewhere else. I think what is really disturbing here is that if the stuff they are sending abroad with a political message is shoddy, what does that say about stuff that they’re exporting on a regular basis?

In the past we’ve had stories about the Chinese drywall in Florida emitting noxious fumes, about Chinese baby milk powder in China that was adulterated with plastic beads that destroyed babies’ kidneys. What this ought to be alerting us to is that China, as part of your supply chain, raises fundamental quality control issues.

And it mattered less if you were going to use masks on a fairly normal basis, but now that everyone is demanding them and more scrutiny is underway, we’re finding out that products made in China are often really poor quality, and that should be raising concerns about what’s going into our drugs, into our bridge girders, into airplane parts, etc.

Del Guidice: What is your perspective on the World Health Organization and their handling of coronavirus? President Trump has called the World Health Organization “very China-centric.” Do you think the WHO purposely tried to conceal the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan? 

Cheng: … Do I think that the WHO deliberately tried to suppress information? I’m not sure we have evidence of that. Remember, WHO is reliant on member states, not only for funding but also for data.

If the Chinese government says to WHO, “Look this COVID thing, don’t worry about it. It’s not transmissible to humans,” which is what the WHO said in January, it doesn’t necessarily have the resources to independently go and try and confirm that, especially in the early stages of pandemic.

What I think is really worrisome here is the likelihood, however, that WHO didn’t ask for follow-up access and questions, didn’t announce a global travel ban, because it was worried that China would then restrict WHO access to Wuhan, would prevent any follow-up of any kind of on the ground inspection. And that may well have led WHO to self-censor.

What we do see all the time from China is it really prefers that organizations, individuals, governments self-censor, choose not to ask the question rather than for China to come and say, “Oh, you asked a question, we’re going to punish you.”

If that’s the case, then WHO is definitely being influenced by Beijing in ways that are even more subtle and harder to really sort of put a finger on or identify.

Del Guidice: We’ve seen both TikTok and Zoom, two companies that have been accused of potentially providing information to the Chinese government, gain traction during the coronavirus pandemic. Should we see Americans’ use of these as a possible national security threat? 

Cheng: Well, if you’re using Zoom to have a conversation with your friends about your school assignment or sort of a staff meeting, I’m not sure how dangerous that is. But what we already have indications of is that Zoom apparently, “accidentally,” that’s their term, not mine, routed a huge amount of data to China.

Now, what this does remind us is that China has not stopped all of its broader activities simply because of COVID-19. It was hacking before, it’s hacking now, it’s going to hack after. It was stealing data before, it’s stealing data now, and it’s going to steal data after.

So from a broader perspective, not just national security, but corporate sensitivity, corporate information security.

If you’re using Zoom and you’re using TikTok, you should recognize that your business plans, your marketing plans, your recovery plans for post-COVID-19 are potentially all being channeled to China and from there to your competitors. Whether in the shipbuilding, in the electronics, in the agriculture fields.

Del Guidice: You recently had a piece on addressing that even amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, China’s efforts at political warfare remain in full swing. How is this happening?

Cheng: We are seeing the Chinese trying to influence other countries. For example, what we talked about earlier, with the medical equipment that they are sending out. They are labeling it as aid even though in many cases, such as Italy, it’s actually items that the Italians have purchased. They are describing it as support for countries in medical need.

More worrisome is their effort to, again, deflect criticism on the United States. So it is not an accident that the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson tweeted out the charge that, “Hey, maybe this came from the U.S., and maybe specifically from the U.S. military.”

You should recognize, your listeners should recognize, Twitter’s actually not allowed in China. So the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, by using Twitter to send this message out, was using a platform that the Chinese themselves aren’t able to access.

This was a very deliberate effort to influence global perceptions. And this goes to the larger reality.

China is thinking about what the world should look like post-COVID-19, and it is now already undertaking the actions it thinks will be necessary to achieve the world that it wants to create post-COVID-19. That’s part of what political warfare is about. Shaping and molding perceptions of China and of China’s adversaries and doing so through media, through public opinion, through public statements, through aid, through economic activities.

Del Guidice: Thanks for that perspective, Dean. I know we touched on this earlier briefly but I wanted to ask you further about what kind of propaganda China is putting out right now. …

At one point its officials were suggesting in a tweet that the U.S. could have been behind COVID-19. Is that an idea Chinese communists are promoting still within China?

Cheng: Absolutely. So we see in China discussions about the American military going to China for world military games, which did occur, and the U.S. team won, I think, something like seven metals, none gold. So the Chinese spin on this is not, “Wow, the Americans didn’t do well,” it’s, “The Americans didn’t do well because they came here to spread disease.”

Remember, China has one of the most censored internets around. So when messages like this keep cropping up in Chinese bulletin boards and Chinese discussion groups and aren’t yanked and pulled and suppressed, then they’re being given a tacit “OK.”

What’s also disturbing is the extent to which Chinese propaganda has been picked up by Western press. Not reporting it as propaganda, but repeating it, parroting it. So on the pages of The New York Times op-ed section was a column fairly early on, “China bought us time, the West squandered it.”

I mean, that is literally word-for-word from the Chinese themselves and yet here is The New York Times repeating that kind of accusation and client.

The New York Times also published a letter from Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States. I have to wonder, given that the Chinese have booted New York Times reporters from China, is this somehow some weird form of equal time, and as important, do we think the People’s Daily is going to publish any kind of letter from U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad?

Del Guidice: In the midst of all this there has been notable tension between China and Taiwan over COVID-19. Does this have long-term implications for Taiwan’s place on the world stage?

Cheng: Absolutely. Taiwan has demonstrated an excellent ability to try and limit COVID-19 without going down a totalitarian path.

They and the South Koreans implemented a lot of measures—ranging from widespread testing to social distancing to quarantining early on—and both seem to have been able to get their arms around the problem.

Taiwan is not a member of the WHO because of China, because China refuses to allow Taiwan to even sit in often as an observer. It has opposed that.

In the wake of COVID-19, especially insofar as it’s traced back to China, you should expect to see a lot of countries probably ask the question, “Why is Taiwan not part of the World Health Organization even as an observer? Why is it that they can only receive information or provide feedback secondhand by way of a foreign embassy, usually the United States?”

This sort of thing is going to raise questions and that in turn is going to arouse Beijing’s ire.

Beijing already is extremely angry that Taiwan is trying to provide aid and assistance to countries trying to cope with COVID-19. So I think that this is only going to get worse as we all wade our way through this pandemic.

Del Guidice: China has made no secret of its desire to be a world power. Do you think COVID-19 has accelerated or halted China’s progress toward that end, and how? 

Cheng: I think that it’s going to have both effects. I think for countries that are poor, China’s absolutely going to be a place that has provided aid and assistance when any masks, any doctors, any ventilators are going to be appreciated.

I think places like Europe, which is tearing itself apart over COVID-19, I think you’re going to see some really major divides emerge. Countries that want to work more with China because it’s going to be a wonderful business partner, the marketplace. Countries are going to look at China and say, “Yeah, and the stuff they provide doesn’t work.” Countries that are going to look at China as a cybersecurity threat.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the Chinese sent a high delegation team to Poland, especially given that Poland said no to Huawei in their 5G networks. I think that the ultimate balance sheet won’t be known for a number of years, but I think it will absolutely complicate assessments.

Del Guidice: Dean, as we finish our discussion, how do you think the Chinese Communist Party should be held accountable for what has happened with coronavirus?

Cheng: I think that the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, we need to recognize that they have a long-term plan, that COVID-19 is a hiccup at most along the way, that their reactions in response to it are not being driven by some kind of shared global sense of responsibility that … we’re all working together to try and overcome this virus, despite Ambassador Tiankai’s letter to that effect.

What can we do about it? I think that as companies assess their future—where should they invest money, where should they open their next plant?—that’s the kind of thing that should probably be factored in.

Do you want to be reliant, do you want to be dependent on what is essentially a potential single point of failure, and a massive point of failure, at that?

We also need to be more realistic in … our dealings with China, whether it’s on the South China Sea, whether it’s space, whether it’s cyber.

And finally, where does China sit in international organizations? The U.N. Human Rights Commission just seated China on its body. … You can’t make this sort of thing up. China being a country that is going to review what constitutes human rights violations.

That should probably be a consideration, again, about WHO, the international telecommunications unit. What should China’s role really be in such international rule-setting and emergency response organizations?

Del Guidice: Well, Dean, it’s been a pleasure to have you on The Daily Signal Podcast. Thank you so much for your insight here, we do appreciate it.

Cheng: Thank you for having me and I hope you and all of our listeners stay safe.