Explaining the Intense Diplomatic Battle Between the U.S. and China

The Chinese Communist Party’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ have Secretary Pompeo in their crosshairs right now, but their agenda will outlast the Trump administration.

During an interview on ABC News’ This Week on May 3, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stumbled when Martha Raddatz asked him if he thought COVID-19 is “manmade or genetically modified.” Pompeo responded: “Look, the best experts so far seem to think it was manmade. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point.” 

Raddatz quickly pointed out that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which oversees the sprawling U.S. intelligence community (IC), rejected this claim in a statement just a few days earlier. The IC “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” the ODNI explains.

“That’s right. … I agree with that,” Pompeo said, contradicting his response from just a few moments earlier. “I have no reason to doubt that that is accurate at this point.” 

‘The secretary of state’s misstep was unfortunate given the stakes. The U.S. and Chinese governments remain deadlocked in an information war over the coronavirus, its origins, and which parties are most culpable for the pandemic. And the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “Wolf Warriors”—diplomats who brashly defend the Communist party against all critics—are gunning for Pompeo. Along with President Trump, he’s their No. 1 target. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the CCP’s “Wolf Warriors” get their name from popular action movies starring a Chinese commando who battles various foes “led by a villainous American named Big Daddy.”

Pompeo likely garbled two different theories of COVID-19’s origin. The theory that the Chinese engineered or weaponized COVID-19 in a lab is unsupported by the evidence. Scientists examining the genome of the virus can tell whether or not there has been any human tampering. To my knowledge, no credible scientist has come forward with evidence to suggest that is the case. This is why the ODNI has dismissed this claim. Absent any firm evidence to the contrary, the “Made-in-China” storyline will be relegated to the online fever swamp.  

The “leaked from a lab” theory is a bit murkier. The Trump administration and others have questioned whether or not the virus originated in a Wuhan research lab. According to the ODNI, the IC is still working “to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was a result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” Questioned about this version of events on Wednesday, Pompeo said that while there is no “certainty,” there is “significant evidence” showing that the virus came from a lab—and not an exotic animal eatery. We don’t know what this evidence is, but the ODNI says this possibility hasn’t been ruled out. 

America’s intelligence analysts currently can’t say for certain whether it came from a lab or not. Why? This type of assessment requires more than the expertise of virologists or other scientists. It requires evidence of what exactly transpired inside Wuhan, including how the virus was spread by Patient Zero. This is no easy puzzle to crack, in no small part due to the CCP’s own pattern of obfuscation.

The lab in question rejects both theories of what transpired. On April 28, Reuters published a report based on written responses by Yuan Zhiming, a professor at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Yuan is also the director of the WIV’s National Biosafety Laboratory, the same facility America’s spies are currently scrutinizing. Yuan dismissed the weaponization speculation as “malicious,” dismissing the theory as having been “pulled out of thin air.” He also rejected the notion of an accidental infection. Yuan didn’t offer an alternative hypothesis, writing only that there are “still no answers” regarding the virus’s origins.

China’s “Wolf Warriors” chase Pompeo.

China’s “Wolf Warriors” have been even more aggressive in their pushback—especially in their rhetoric aimed at Pompeo. During a press conference on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying demanded that Pompeo present the “enormous evidence” he claims to have. Hua is one of China’s alpha “Wolf Warriors.” She maintains an active Twitter account, with more than 400,000 followers. If you watch her perform in front of journalists, you can tell she is itching to fight. 

“The origin of [the] virus is a complex and controversial issue, but there is a broad consensus in the international community that it is a very serious scientific issue that must be studied by scientists and medical experts on the basis of facts and science,” Hua said, in response to a question about Pompeo’s claims. “At present, almost all the top scientists in the world, including famous scientists in the United States and experts in the field of disease control and prevention, believe that novel coronavirus originated from nature, not man-made, and there is no evidence of any so-called virus leakage from the laboratory.” 

Hua repeatedly blasted Pompeo, claiming he can’t present any evidence showing the virus leaked from a lab. “How could he bring it out?” she asked herself. And then she answered: “Because he didn't have it!” She also went into a Blame America First diatribe about how the U.S. “used germ weapons during the Korean War and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.” It was her attempt to deflect from the issues at hand.

As far as the intelligence on Pompeo’s mind, it may not be as simple as Hua claims. It is possible that the evidence Pompeo is relying on comes from secretive intercepts, or other intelligence concerning the CCP’s behavior in and around the lab as the coronavirus outbreak became known. This evidence may not be a slam dunk, but like much intelligence collection, uncertain. 

China pursues “discourse power”

Hua is right that “facts and science” are crucial for our understanding of COVID-19. But it is rich to hear her say that. Her colleague at China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, infamously claimed on his own prolific Twitter account that the U.S. military may have brought COVID-19 to Wuhan. This was part of the “Wolf Warriors” aggressive disinformation campaign as the war of words between the U.S. and China heated up. While Twitter is banned inside China, the “Wolf Warriors” use multiple Twitter accounts to spread their own messages on behalf of the CCP.

When it comes to international diplomacy, the CCP isn’t really beholden to “facts and science.” Instead, the party is attempting to increase what it calls its “discourse power” —a concept Xi Jinping and his comrades use to explain their objections to a U.S.-led global order. As with many Chinese terms, it is difficult to define. 

In essence, the CCP complains that the current international system was established by the U.S. and its allies before China’s rise to power over the past four decades. According to Beijing, current international laws and rules were written mainly by the West and need to be either erased entirely or substantially rewritten. Once this global order is reset in Beijing’s favor, the CCP’s word will carry more weight, because material power (both military and economic) determines whose version of the truth is victorious. It is a version of power politics that is opposed to Western values. “Discourse power” doesn’t rely on who has the better of the facts. It’s all about the power to shape narratives to one’s own liking.

China’s “discourse power” was one of the key subjects discussed at a public roundtable discussion held by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in late April. Some of the experts who remotely testified at the event defined the Chinese concept for Americans, who may find it puzzling.

“As China’s power has grown, the Chinese leadership now feels entitled to follow a path similar to the U.S and to set the terms for institutions and norms that will reflect China’s preferences and serve as the building blocks of a new order,” Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, explained in her written testimony. “However, even though China’s material or ‘hard’ power has undoubtedly increased, the leadership believes that it still lacks ‘discourse power’,” Rolland added. She explained that the CCP doesn’t have “any appealing substitutes to the existing set of international norms and values,” as the party’s ideology has evolved into an “idiosyncratic mix” that is difficult to export. This hurts the CCP’s ability to shape the public discourse.

Nevertheless, according to Rolland, “Chinese strategists” have defined “discourse power” as an “ability to voice concepts and ideas that are accepted and respected by others, and by extension, the power to dictate the rules and norms that form the basis of the international order.” 

Similarly, David Shullman, a senior adviser at the International Republican Institute, explained that the CCP “seeks greater control over the formulations and ideas that underpin the international order.” After the CCP has obtained this “discourse power,” it can “water down norms around liberal democracy as China takes on a more central global role.”

COVID-19 threatens China’s “discourse power.”

Once you begin to understand China’s novel view of international diplomacy, you see why COVID-19 threatens the CCP’s vision of its own role both at home, and in the so-called global order. Although the mask was already starting to slip on the CCP’s intentions, coronavirus has exacerbated some of its “Wolf Warrior’s” worst tendencies. 

In late April, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison endorsed calls for an independent inquiry into COVID-19’s origins. Morrison said it is “entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again.” He didn’t go out of his way to blame China. Morrison even refused to repeat President Trump’s claim that the virus could have originated in a lab, saying it was more likely to have come from a wet market. But the CCP’s propaganda organs quickly went to work anyway. 

CCP media accused Australia of “panda bashing,” describing Morrison’s country as “gum stuck to China’s shoe.” China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, suggested in an interview with the Australian Financial Review that an economic boycott may be in the works. “[M]aybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef,” Cheng said. “Why couldn't we do it differently?” 

Australia isn’t the only country experiencing the brunt of China’s aggressive diplomacy. The New York Times reports that countries throughout Europe and Africa are part of a “global backlash” to the CCP’s “Wolf Warrior” Diplomacy. America isn’t the only country deeply suspicious of the CCP’s actions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As Rolland told the Los Angeles Times, the criticism from foreign countries “strikes right at the heart of one of the myths that the party has been cultivating to bolster its legitimacy at home: that the [CCP] is efficient, competent and capable, and that it is the only one able to effectively lead the nation.” It also further jeopardizes the CCP’s quest to claim the mantle of global leadership.

Facts vs. “discourse power.” 

Pompeo clearly sees much to fault in China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The secretary of state isn’t wrong in this regard, even though President Trump’s domestic political considerations are always a factor and the administration is keen to avoid blame for any of its own missteps. The president is also notoriously fact-challenged. Pompeo’s jumbled response on This Week didn’t help matters either.  

But this is an opportunity for America to check the CCP’s attempt to remake the global order. And that’s what makes the facts so vital. Nations need to be assured that the American-led order adheres to something more than just the raw power to shape discourse.  

The precise origin of COVID-19 is important, not just for public health reasons, but also in the diplomatic gun fight between the U.S. and China. Yet, that is not the only issue that matters in this war of words. 

The State Department is on safer ground pointing to the CCP’s suppression of early whistleblowers in Wuhan, outrageous disinformation campaign, heavy-handed diplomacy, publication of dubious statistics on the number of infections within China, reported concealment of the virus’s severity, and general lack of transparency regarding what exactly transpired inside Wuhan. The State Department also accuses the CCP’s National Health Commission of destroying early samples of the virus. 

All of these issues require a careful analysis of the facts, whether one has “discourse power” or not.

Photograph of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying by Artyom Ivanov/TASS/Getty Images.