Trade feud mutates to virus row

Editorial | Mary Ma 5 Feb 2020

Beijing is reportedly seeking Washington's consent to be flexible in enforcing the Phase 1 trade deal that comes into force in the middle of this month.

And - surprise, surprise - conspiracy theories immediately surfaced insinuating that the coronavirus epidemic is really a cunning communist plot to create a crisis to derail a deal they never wanted.

The most scurrilous theory claims the virus was deliberately created at a top-level P4 biological laboratory located dozens of kilometers from Wuhan city and deliberately released to create a pandemic.

That's total garbage. Are they really vile enough to accuse the government of inflicting such great harm on its own people to delay trade talks?

Hearsay easily goes viral when accurate information becomes scarce. But it is most unfortunate that the numerous spokespeople in Beijing have not yet used their meet-the-media sessions to provide greater clarity on the P4 laboratory that has now become so controversial.

The Bloomberg report that Beijing is seeking Phase 1 flexibility from the United States appears credible as it would make sense for Beijing put forward such a request.

But the unanswered part of the question is how China and the United States will move forward with the agreed deal now that the epidemic has ground nearly all mainland economic activity to a halt.

In Tianjin, for example, all companies have been ordered to remain closed until further notice unless they are "essential."

Could the trade war be mutating like a virus to put on a different code of existence? Beijing, or at least some communists in the regime, probably think so.

Otherwise, Foreign Ministry's articulate spokeswoman Hua Chunying would not have lashed out accusing the United States of "rushing in the opposite direction" just as the World Health Organization recommended against imposing travel restrictions.

She said the US restriction was not a gesture of goodwill.

Hua was infuriated because, first, America was the first country to impose travel restrictions on China and, second, of all the countries that have since restricted travel, the US is the most stringent. After evacuating its nationals from Wuhan, Washington has now warned those choosing to stay behind to stock up on food supplies. America's lead has encouraged others to isolate Chinese travelers.

Despite all that, I find it naive of Hua to complain about a lack of goodwill by the United States. Has she ever really believed US president Donald Trump has had goodwill towards President Xi Jinping, despite him repeatedly calling Xi a friend?

If they were true buddies, would Trump have started a trade war against his friend?

There is also the curious development that, while some countries - including China's "little brother" North Korea - are offering assistance in the form of materials, the United States has limited its aid to expertise in disease control.

As soon as the seriousness of the epidemic became clear, the United States said its scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can go to Wuhan to help investigate and advise how to contain the outbreak.

Americans say Beijing has been lukewarm to the offer.

Perhaps Beijing is concerned the US experts would be going there with a hidden motive. Although both sides have signed a deal to conclude the Phase 1 negotiations, they remain highly suspicious of each other.

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