David Mike Lampton is an Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow and Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center. He was the former president of the National Committee on US-China Relations, and former director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins—SAIS.

Background from Professor David Mike Lampton:

Dr. Lampton: One of the most jarring and damaging aspects of the current U.S.-China discord and insufficient cooperation over the COVID-19 virus pandemic has been its racist and hyper-nationalistic overtones in both countries. These developments ignore the long history of critical and productive U.S.-China medical cooperation dating back to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In June 1979, I was part of the US Government delegation that went to China to sign the United States and China “Protocol for Cooperation in Science and Technology of Medicine and Public Health.” During the internal Washington deliberations preceding that trip, the draft Protocol had to be cleared by the National Security Council. President Carter and his Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Joseph Califano, correctly viewed Sino-American medical and public health cooperation as a national security issue and the keystone of growing U.S.-China cooperation. These views were shared by senior leader Deng Xiaoping and by China’s Minister of Public Health, Qian Xinzhong, an admirable official who had been tortured during the Cultural Revolution for his belief in scientifically grounded medicine and public health.

Subsequently, in 2005, Washington and Beijing inaugurated a Collaborative Program on Emerging and Reemerging Infectious Diseases and thereafter a CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) China Center was established. In 2009, the H1N1 Swine flu erupted with its epicenter in the United States and Mexico.  Sino-American cooperation on this outbreak “proved useful when a new strain of avian flu, H7N9, emerged in China in March 2013,” a virus strain that had a 30 percent mortality rate, according to a Georgetown University report. China helped dramatically reduce the virus’ spread and shared its vaccine with the world. In short, the United States and China have had a long and mutually (indeed globally) beneficial history of cooperating on medicine and public health in the post-1979 period—indeed long before that.

Now, the barbarians are, once again, at the gates of medical science and public health cooperation in both countries, while storming the gates of the U.S.-China relationship more broadly. These forces in both societies express mutual hostility that ignores all the positive and strategically significant cooperation since the late-1970s. Today, cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic is being hampered by hyper-nationalists in both countries feeding on fear, trying to stampede citizens in both countries onto the path of growing across the board social, political, military, and economic hostility.

We hear absolutely groundless charges coming from both societies suggesting the current pandemic had its origins in our respective militaries and intentional pernicious actions. Though he has not leveled such charges, we have a president in Washington that initially was more interested in assigning blame to foreigners, notably China and Europe, than taking the advice of his science advisors. For its part, China was slow in affording transparency and in responding to CDC requests for access and information. Some PRC military and Foreign Ministry voices have suggested intentional spread by American forces. At least one member of the U.S. Congress has suggested purposeful Chinese action, as have more extreme voices in civil society.  Elements of both national leaderships appear more interested in blaming each other than cooperating to the benefit of both peoples and the world.

USCNPM: Can you comment on China’s handling of this crisis from the beginning of this crisis to this date?

Dr. Lampton: At the start of the disease spread in China, the local and national responses were delayed and counterproductive. After initial lack of transparency and excessive early delay in taking effective measures, drastic quarantine measures were adopted, and the rate of disease spread apparently was slowed greatly. Time will tell whether these positive trends continue or there is a subsequent resurgence.

More specifically, we know the following: A dangerous pathogen struck the first known patient (in Wuhan) December 1, 2019; medical Dr. Li Wenliang in Wuhan on December 30, 2019, announced on social media that a dangerous SARS-like pathogen was spreading in the Wuhan area; Dr. Li was subsequently reprimanded for “spreading rumors” (he died of the disease in the first part of February 2020); and we know that China’s national leaders did not make public announcements on the gathering storm in Wuhan until January 20 (Premier Li Keqiang) and January 25, 2020 (President Xi Jinping).

Evaluating the system’s response a Chinese judge said the following on the Supreme Court’s own social media account on January 28: “If the public listened to this ‘rumor’ [Dr. Li] at that time [December 30,2019], and adopted measures such as wearing a mask, strict disinfection, and avoiding going to the wildlife market based on panic about SARS, this may have been a better way to prevent and control the new pneumonia … As long as the information is basically true, the publishers and disseminators are not intentionally malicious, and the behavior objectively has not caused serious harm, we should maintain a tolerant attitude towards such ‘false information.’” This statement speaks for itself. Had Chinese authorities been more honest with themselves and their citizens, even though everyone had less than perfect knowledge, they would have been more transparent with the world and thereby have allowed other localities in China and around the world to get a head start on dealing with what now is a global public health emergency.

However, even once at least imperfect knowledge was globally available by late-January, many other political authorities around the world were slow to act and were not entirely honest with their own citizens, an example being President Trump who on March 10 argued that: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away….[B]e calm. It’s really working out.”

USNCPM: What impact does the coronavirus have on US-China relations? Is it a problem or an opportunity?

Dr. Lampton: One could just as easily ask, “What impact has a deteriorating U.S.-China relationship had on mutual cooperation concerning this global public health menace?” Ask either question and the answer is the same. The current insufficiency of essential U.S.-China cooperation reflects deteriorating bilateral ties and, in turn, deteriorating bilateral ties further hamper bilateral (and multilateral) public health and other cooperation. Nonetheless, looking ahead, opportunities remain for bilateral U.S.-China and multilateral public health cooperation. As we drive forward to develop and disseminate vaccines and strive to overcome global equipment, professional, and other shortfalls, there is plenty of room for reinvigorated Sino-American public heath cooperation. Such cooperation might positively spill over into broader bilateral ties.

Beijing’s initial lack of transparency, in part reflected the reluctance of lower-level officials to truthfully pass early warnings up the system and there also appears to have been a reluctance at the Center to publicly act on worrisome news bubbling up from below. The reluctance to be forthcoming also stemmed from Beijing’s expectation that in the current setting of US-China friction Washington would use any PRC transparency to embarrass the regime. The combination of lower-level reluctance to tell superiors the full extent of the problem, the reluctance of the top to act on it, the upcoming New Year and other holidays and economic fears, and the expectation of unhelpful foreign reactions all conspired to slow responses. The initial cooperation between China’s national health authorities and the United States CDC was not what it should have been, in part reflecting the general deterioration in US-China cooperation.

At the same time, Americans need to recognize their own Administration’s response has been woefully inadequate irrespective of China’s initial steps. President Trump’s repeated mention of the “foreign” and “Chinese” virus, along with the lack of domestic preparation organizationally (he did away with the National Security Council Office that would have focused on, and coordinated a science-based response to the pandemic), poor budget priorities (the U.S. administration lowered relevant CDC spending), the president’s protracted resistance to doing anything to dramatically increase domestic testing, his statements that simply contradicted the advice of his science advisors (statements often made with those advisors literally standing by him), and his early statements indicating that the outbreak would be a short, mild episode in the United States, collectively have converged to drive the U.S. president into a corner where he blames his domestic predecessors, China, and our European allies and friends.

USCNPM: There are discussions on whether China will become less ambitious on the global stage because of the virus? What is your take on this?

Dr. Lampton: This episode is not over for either China or the world, so this crisis’ short- and long-term effects on Chinese foreign policy are not yet fully developed or evident. But, I hope that this tragic episode leads to more Chinese involvement in global health and other issues and that it also leads to more positive and active U.S. involvement multilaterally and more U.S.-China cooperation. I have been heartened by China’s initial and rather prompt offers of assistance to Italy, a country that now is suffering greatly from the pandemic. This Chinese assistance was a reassuring exercise of strength and an expression of generosity of spirit. I wish that Beijing could find the same reassuring spirit as it deals with the issue of Taipei’s status and participation in the work of the World Health Assembly.

US-China Perception Question 4): As a global community, if we learn something from this crisis what would your lesson be?

Dr. Lampton: Though perhaps excessively optimistic, we may come to see that this episode of faltering bilateral cooperation was a warning, a warning that we heeded. The warning is that far from being just a peripheral consideration of national interest, Sino-American cooperation is central to both countries’ national well-being and broader interests, whether humanitarian, economic, or security. This episode reveals that so-called “soft” security issues (such as international public health) can teach lessons every bit as bitter as those taught by “hard security” failures. This experience should compel both Beijing and Washington to recognize that either “decoupling” or “self-reliance” are dangerous delusions in the connected world we both are striving to build.

This interview was arranged and conducted by Juan Zhang.