The Saturday Paper

Wuhan: What the Markson book tells us

- Linda Jaivin

This is a tale of bad decision-making, political infighting and ideologica­l extremism, and that’s just the part that deals with the Trump administra­tion. Then there’s the China story: how China’s ruling Communist Party did its authoritar­ian best to control the spread of the narrative of Covid-19 along with the virus itself. Sharri Markson’s What Really Happened in Wuhan is the account of one pandemic, two cover-ups and the global hunt for clarity on the virus’s origins.

There are two main scientific hypotheses. One is that Covid-19, like Ebola, SARS and MERS, arose from zoonotic, wildlife-to human transmissi­on in nature. Markson, investigat­ions editor at The Australian, is a fervent advocate of the second: that it leaked from a lab, specifical­ly one of the labs of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where it may even have been engineered into being.

Lucidly and at length, Markson explains the science behind the lab-leak hypothesis. Regrettabl­y, she neglects to give the same objective considerat­ion to the most convincing arguments on the other side. Instead, she focuses on exposing the shady antics of the zoonotic hypothesis’s dodgiest proponents who, by glossing over relevant conflicts of interest, had already done a good job of trashing their own reputation­s. She does, however, acknowledg­e that, as one scientist put it to her: “There are no – absolutely no – scientific data that permit a choice between a natural-accident origin and a laboratory-accident origin.”

The answer, she contends, lies in the weight of circumstan­tial evidence. She presents a mountain of it, from unusual traffic patterns to database deletions, rumoured disappeara­nces and mysterious illnesses,

Markson expends a fair amount of ink pondering the question of bioweapons even as she concedes “there is no evidence” Covid-19 is one. It’s a delicate game: putting out the crazy trash while hinting that it might just possibly contain treasure.

and even bats on hats. But the most valuable revelation­s of What Really Happened in Wuhan are about the politics behind and surroundin­g the search for the virus’s origins.

We witness on its pages the power of Chinese dissident narratives in the West, as well as how the efforts of the Communist

Party of China (CPC) to control and suppress informatio­n about the pandemic have created both a clean slate for the inscriptio­n of conspiracy theories and inspiratio­n for them as well. It attests to the deleteriou­s effect on both scientific debate and internatio­nal cooperatio­n of political polarisati­on.

The juiciest bits belong to what you might call the “what really happened in Washington” sections of the book. Markson spoke to many Trump White House insiders, including Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state; leading China adviser Miles Yu, a military historian and Ronald Reagan fan whose “passion for exposing the Communist Party” Markson admires; and Peter Navarro, whose White House office, Markson tells us, contained “a stockpile of hydroxychl­oroquine to last the entire Trump family a lifetime”. Then there’s David Asher, who led the

State Department’s investigat­ion into Covid-19 and who characteri­ses doubters of “China’s sinister intention in Wuhan” in the American intelligen­ce community, including bioweapons specialist­s, as “Dilberts, dimwits and do-nothings”. He accuses these “negacrats” of wasting their time in China with junkets to the Great Wall instead of “penetratin­g its hostile interior”.

Christophe­r Ford, Donald Trump’s assistant secretary of state for internatio­nal security and nonprolife­ration, who quit after the events of January 6, described Asher and another one of Markson’s informants as “conspirato­rial yahoos”. Miles Yu, in turn, accused Ford of being “frustrated with Trump and very woke”. Joe Hockey, then Australian ambassador to the United States, recalled being shouted down at a dinner at the home of a Trump official in early 2020 when he suggested Americans should be told to wear masks. Hockey comments to Markson: “None of them had ever managed a crisis because none of them had ever been in government before – at least not a crisis they didn’t manufactur­e themselves.”

Ford tells Markson that one of Asher’s wilder theories was that the virus might be “a ‘geneticall­y selective agent’ from a biowarfare program” targeting Americans. Markson describes this as a “terrifying” and “alarming” possibilit­y. No one asks the obvious question of how on earth you’d geneticall­y target “Americans”. The Chinese documents from which these conclusion­s are drawn speak of the need to defend against such weapons, which makes more sense, given China’s relatively more homogenous population. Asher, for the record, tells Markson he never said that – one of many intriguing “he said, he said” moments in the book.

Australian­s will be interested in Markson’s revelation­s about what she describes as the ongoing closeness between Pompeo and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The Australian government’s call for an investigat­ion into the origins of Covid-19, she says, “helped the US frame the crisis as a free world versus tyranny issue – rather than simply a battle between China and America”. So we damaged our most important trading relationsh­ip in service of the Trump White House’s desire to impose a Cold War framework onto the problem of the pandemic. Good to know.

Markson is less insightful when it comes to explaining China; her view of how things work there is strikingly uninflecte­d, and prone to rookie error, such as the odd mixup of Chinese surnames and given names. More curiously, when Miles Yu mentions “dinner with the Taiwanese ambassador” in Washington she doesn’t put the phrase “Taiwanese ambassador” into inverted commas, as with “goodwill ambassador”, to show she understand­s that, however anyone may feel about it, there is no such office. She describes someone else as having “managed to escape Communist China, moving to Hong Kong in 1938” – and truly he did, leaving 11 years before there even was a Communist China.

To be able to evaluate the circumstan­tial evidence on which the lab-leak hypothesis relies requires a solid grasp of the circumstan­ces themselves. The People’s Republic of China is indeed run by a Communist Party that will do anything to stay in power, including crushing its opponents and silencing its critics. It has always gone to extraordin­ary measures to conceal its mistakes, especially fatal ones. There is ample evidence of an ongoing cover-up of both the initial handling of the pandemic and of activities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Abhorrent as all that may be, however, it doesn’t prove anything.

Markson’s chief dissident informer is Wei Jingsheng, a former Red Guard turned democracy advocate. Arrested in 1979, Wei spent 18 years in Chinese prisons. In the 1980s, I regularly harangued an editor of

The People’s Daily, the husband of a writer I knew, about the injustice of his arrest.

I was Team Wei. But by no stretch of the imaginatio­n was his negotiated release to the US in 1997, technicall­y for medical parole, “one of the biggest defection coups the US had pulled off from inside communist China”.

The term defector, as journalist Hamish Mcdonald has written with equal frustratio­n, “usually applies to regime insiders who escape with valuable secrets”. Wei isn’t that, but this is precisely how Markson wishes us to see him: a “former Communist Party insider from one of the 500 founding families”. Wei was the son of middle-ranking party cadres with a personal connection to Mao; he has written that he grew up calling Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, “aunty”. But Wei himself never joined the party or worked in a party or government institutio­n, unless you count the Beijing Zoo, where he was an electricia­n.

As for the “500 founding families”, neither I nor scholars of party history I consulted had ever heard of such a thing. The party was founded by 12 or 13 men, most of whom had died or abandoned the party by the time of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. That year, the party claimed four million members, with a Central Committee of fewer than 80 full and alternativ­e members. Wei’s father wasn’t one. There has been some talk of the moneyed “500 Families of Special Privilege” of the reform era. The Wei family doesn’t figure there, either. Perhaps someone got this mixed up? This is important because Markson cites Wei’s “insider” status to lend credibilit­y to some of his wilder claims.

It may well be that one of his schoolfrie­nds was the son of the deputy dean of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, and that the boy told a young Wei that Chinese military scientists “were conducting depraved germ-warfare experiment­s on young men”. A friend of mine, the daughter of a

CPC Politburo member in the 1980s, once told me that a qi gong master was keeping her elderly, bedridden father alive by transmitti­ng the vital energy qi through the door of his bedroom. The children of high-ranking cadres tell the best stories. I’m not saying they lie; but as a journalist, I want three sources.

Markson also reports that Wei has done what no scientist has been able to, and “systematic­ally and emphatical­ly ruled out that natural animal-to-human transmissi­on had occurred through the wet market”. He also thinks it’s possible that Xi Jinping, or his enemies, may have released the virus on purpose because, as he told people who told Markson, “the power elite would do anything to gain advantages during power struggles”.

Markson allows that no one in government or intelligen­ce believes it was released on purpose. The former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, tells her that is “out of the question”. Wei himself could offer “no evidence”. So why describe Wei’s claims as “explosive”? She expends a fair amount of ink pondering the question of bioweapons even as she concedes “there is no evidence” Covid-19 is one. It’s a delicate game: putting out the crazy trash while hinting that it might just possibly contain treasure.

On this, Markson refers repeatedly to the military connection­s of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Military medical scientists have served on the institute’s editorial boards, given talks there and taken part in research; but civilian and military researcher­s work side by side in many countries, including Australia. She is wrong to state that either the Wuhan institute or the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to which she says it reports, are “under People’s Liberation Army control”.

In the parallel structure of mainland Chinese governance, institutio­ns either belong to the state or the party. The People’s Liberation Army is under the party. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is under the State Council. All institutio­ns have party secretarie­s who call the shots, but that still doesn’t put either the institute or the academy “under” the PLA. Yes, an elite military medical scientist was put in charge of the high-biosecurit­y lab at the institute after the outbreak. Part of a cover-up? Or just the normal use of the PLA in emergency disaster management? We don’t know.

The most concerning circumstan­tial evidence supporting the lab-leak hypothesis is that the institute, with its American partners, appears to have been engaged in dangerous gain-of-function research with bat viruses.

The virus has qualities almost too well-suited for human transmissi­bility, qualities that are possible to engineer in a lab. The Wuhan institute appears to have been dangerousl­y lax in enforcing standards of biosecurit­y.

Lab accidents are common. But if there’s a smoking gun, no one has found it yet.

Markson, a two-time Walkley Award winner, responsibl­y if discreetly acknowledg­es this. At the same time, she gives plenty of oxygen to a range of “conspirato­rial yahoos”. She also divides the world a bit too neatly into good guys – Pompeo, Yu, Wei et cetera – and bad – the US president’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, anyone ever associated with the Wuhan lab, and especially the World Health Organizati­on, which, to be fair, hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory.

Markson blames the “febrile political environmen­t in the US and globally” for politicisi­ng the search for the virus’s origins. Yet from what lab did that pathogen leak? Markson and her co-hosts at Sky After

Dark have emitted a squalling cascade of ideologica­l, self-congratula­tory triumphali­sm, baying to the converted on this subject. Political toxicity is remarkably suited for human-to-human transmissi­on as well.

 ?? AFP / Hector Retamal ?? WHO members in Wuhan investigat­ing the origins of Covid-19 in February this year.
AFP / Hector Retamal WHO members in Wuhan investigat­ing the origins of Covid-19 in February this year.

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