Australia called for a COVID-19 probe. China responded with a trade war

Last year marked the first time Australia referred China to the World Trade Organization during a trade war between the two nations, which has largely been seen as a response to Australia's calls for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

The announcement that Australia would be advocating for such an inquiry was made by Foreign Minister Marise Payne in an interview on Insiders — Prime Minister Scott Morrison doubled down on the new policy days later, saying the World Health Organization needed "weapons inspector" powers to investigate the pandemic.

China viewed Australia's suggestion as an insult: Beijing had been growing increasingly sensitive about the perception that it was to blame for the virus, which was first detected in the city of Wuhan.

Chinese officials have even gone so far as to put forward a conspiracy theory that the virus may have come from the United States

Is there any reason why China should have this aggressive reaction to any independent investigation?

  • 4
    What makes you think that any investigation would be “independent”?
    – user16741
    Aug 31 at 22:55
  • 5
    China reacts aggressively to almost anything that would end up being a huge embarrassment to them especially on the world stage. We all know the outbreak started in China (whether or not if it escaped from a lab or from some mofos chowing down on bat you decide) but China does whatever it can to avoid being shamed and will even make $%^# up like the bunk about it originating in the U.S.
    Sep 1 at 15:33

Preemptive defense.

If Chinese leadership decides that they have more to lose than to win by such an investigation, then it's not worth to allow it.

In the best of cases Chinese leadership has a high level of confidence that no accident or otherwise negligent event happened that significantly contributed to the spread of Covid-19*. Even then, it's possible for an investigation to put a prolonged negative spotlight on China, a meddling power (foreign or internal) to plant false evidence, or investigators to find something Chinese leadership simply didn't know about.

Simply preventing an investigation is way more predictable. And in case pressure eventually mounts, Chinese leadership can always switch tactics and still allow an investigation, with the benefits from the wasted time being generally in their favor.


*If Chinese leadership doesn't have that confidence, that's another plausible explanation for their behavior.

  • 2
    They don't want to allow a precedent? The unequal treaties of the 19th century are still fresh in their memory, fresher than for the West.
    – o.m.
    Sep 1 at 18:49
  • @o.m.: AFAICT, the unequal treaties have been more often brought up in the US-China trade war context, but yeah they were/are a talking point.
    – Fizz
    Sep 2 at 11:47
  • @Fizz, consider also the one-China question. They're very sensitive on the question of sovereignty, and not without reason.
    – o.m.
    Sep 2 at 12:30

Peter's answer summarizes the immediate cost/benefit calculus, but it's somewhat narrow. Consider also that it's part of a larger pattern:

  • China used similar economic measures to pressure South Korea (over THAAD) and in a few more obscure spats with other/smaller countries in the past decade.

  • Their long-term foreign policy plank has been "non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries". If they make concessions on this (which to some extent they actually did, eventually, as there was eventually a WHO mission, which China did their best to control both in terms of who was in the delegation and what they were shown) then why not allow human-rights investigations in Xinjiang and a bunch of other matters that they are being pressed on. (N.B., on Xinjiang, China would agree to a UN "visit"--the details of which are still being worked on, apparently, but they would not agree to an investigation.)

  • Other countries with great- or super-power ambitions don't easily admit to investigations by international bodies in their back yard; the case US and the ICC, Russia and novichok etc.

  • The conspiracy theories with which China "fought back" on Covid-19 are pretty risible from a Western perspective, but consider also how Russia has pushed back similarly e.g. on novichok.

  • China hasn't been terribly good at keeping a lid on their fumbles in the initial responses to Covid-19; plenty of documents have been leaked and covered by the Western media. These exposed issues ranging from bureaucrats not wanting to lose face and "massaging" numbers, to possible corruption (or at least technical incompetence) of some companies that did the initial testing, internal disagreements between Chinese officials, etc. All juicy bits for investigative journalism, but not the kind of image that China (or any state, even more so one with authoritarian tendencies) is trying to project. Unsurprisingly, there's been internal clampdown in China on that angle too.


The question why they act aggressively naturally leads to a couple of other questions:

  1. if China actually had nothing to conceal, how likely is it that acting aggressively would silence any critics of its information policy and remove doubts about the accidental nature (even if it is only due to gross negligence) of the outbreak?
  2. how likely is it, that China does not know about the obvious consequences of the premises that underly question 1?
  3. if Chinas aggression was not targeted towards dispelling suspicions, what other benefit for China could be connected to this behavior?
  4. what would be the predictable response of the rest of the world to side benefits under question 3?

I attempt to answer these questions from my experience. Your mileage may vary.

  1. the probability that China would effectively dissipate doubts by acting aggressively is practically indistinguishable from zero. Aggression produces counter-aggression of one type or another, especially among world powers on the same level, that is a behavioral pattern proven true throughout history. Indeed, it is an observed fact, that doubts about the official Covid-19 story grew simultaneously stronger with the degree of aggressive behavior from the chinese representatives.
  2. the chinese autocracy is about to perfectioning social control of their own people to an extent that would have been envied even by Joseph Goebbels. They are also massively infiltrating the rest of the world, for example by corrupting universities, attacking computer networks and buying into critical infrastructure. It is utterly unlikely that they do not know beforehand the effects of such primitive behavioral patterns as aggression and counter-aggression or the dynamics of suspicious behavior. The west somehow tends to think the chinese are naive, probably due to them having been the (regrettable) victims of colonialism in the past. But this has definitely changed.
  3. if the aggression was never likely to settle things, and even was deliberately not intended so, there is hardly any other possible explanation than that China actually wants to arouse suspicion. China wants the world to know that it has something to hide (no matter what that could be, or even if there is anything to hide at all), and that the world can do nothing about it. It is a plain and open demonstration of power, which is coherent with all the other aspects of current chinese policy and apparent strategy (like Taiwan or the One-Belt-One-Road initiative). China clearly benefits from the attempt to strengthen its reputation as a world power that outpaces all the others, latest by 2050.
  4. Chinas implication that it has something to hide will stir up Covid hysteria in the rest of the world because we think that China has control over something that might negatively impact our societies and our economies. We might perceive Covid as the social correlate of a cyber attack, deliberately doctored to improve China's position relative to the rest of the world. As to economic benefits, China has actually suffered much less from the secondary effects of the pandemia. For example its raw steel production has even increased in 2020, while in the US and EU it has dropped by a whopping 18% (https://www.euwid-recycling.de/news/maerkte/einzelansicht/Artikel/rohstahl-statistik-zeigt-corona-schock-weltweit-bricht-output-ein-aber-china-waechst.html, unfortunately the article is in german, but the figures speak for themselves). As to social benefits, the Covid pandemia has obviously destabilized our western societies, with all sorts of extremists and conspiracy theorists mushrooming, something that no intelligence operation (like they are reported to have been responsible for the Arab Spring, for example) could have done more effectively. I have even seen people in discussion forums literally applaud China or Russia or call them for help to end the "unreasonable Covid policy of their governments".

By the way, responding aggressively to accusations can also be observed in Russia's behavior in recent years, for example when they poisoned unpleasant russians abroad (e.g. London, Berlin). Again I allege that there is a pattern, where the respective party thinks the time has come to show their power to the world and tell them through the backdoor, that no-one can do anything against them. This behavioral pattern is also seen in members of organized crime, which I think is not coincidental.

  • 2
    The answer is interesting, but it's marred by needless rhetorical condemnation. Example "...to an extent that would have been envied even by Joseph Goebbels."
    – agc
    Sep 2 at 1:08
  • There's currently a fad in chinese culture called "wolf warrior diplomacy", essentially it's people thinking that acting like a reality-detached bully (I wonder if there's some kind of equivalent persona in the west to use as analogy for that one.../sarcasm) towards other countries on behalf of China is cool, raises their personal status, and might get them promoted.
    – Peter
    Sep 2 at 8:07

There are other reasons for the tension between China and Australia. The media states that the trade war is solely due to the request for the investigation just to fuel the conspiracy theory about Covid-19 origin.

  • What others? They certainly exist, but sanctions came only with this request for investigation.
    – Behemooth
    Aug 31 at 17:29
  • 5
    Please expand on this answer. This answer needs more detail on the "other reasons", and one or more citations from "the media" (or more specifically, the subset that you're talking about, because I doubt "the media" are uniform on this).
    – Joe C
    Aug 31 at 17:40

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