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The Astounding Idiocy of Charging China for Reparations

If China has to pay up for coronavirus, what do we owe Iraq? Afghanistan? Or what does Kansas owe for the ‘Spanish’ Flu?

Amid the fog of COVID-19 and mounting deaths in Europe and the U.S., you can see the pitchforks, rising in concert, aimed to the East. Pretty much every country seems to have badly mismanaged its response to the spread of the virus. But politicians are looking for a more singular source to blame. 

It’s China. And people are already talking about reparations. 



“What is certain is that the highest levels of the Chinese government, up to and including Xi Jinping, lied to the world and undertook a cover-up that allowed the virus to spread out-of-control,” concludes Washington Examiner columnist Michael Rubin in his call for reparations, while comparing the coronavirus to World War II (and Chinese Foreign Ministry official Zhao Lijian to, unbelievably, Joseph Goebbels). 

Many of the cries for compensation are coming from right-wing commentators and politicians, but it’s an idea that’s starting to take hold in the mainstream, too. President Donald Trump, for one, has been acting tough to the World Health Organization, repeating the conservative cry that WHO is manipulated by China and “blew it” on containing the virus. (On Monday, he announced he was freezing the U.S. contribution to the WHO… then walked it back.) The pitchforks, too, are rising in Italy, the U.K, Australia and beyond as people witness the destruction of lives and economies. 

China couldn’t be a more perfect target. It’s a global superpower and the biggest player in a pool of Asian nations that have exploded in wealth, productivity and cultural relevance in the last 50 years. It’s perhaps the greatest national rival in modern American history, with a communist government that seems willing to flex its political might at America — and holds a trillion dollars of U.S. debt in its hand. And more than anything else, China has an ugly present and past of authoritarianism and human rights violations, stretching from the northern deserts of Xinjiang to the waters of Hong Kong and the snowed peaks of Tibet

With that context in mind, it’s no surprise that the missteps and censoring that plagued the Communist Party of China’s response to the virus paint, for a lot of critics, an unforgivable picture: An evil and incompetent government’s attempted cover-up, now wreaking havoc on the world. There are even conspiracy theories that the virus was made in a lab, despite testing proving that it’s impossible.

Yes, there’s evidence that Chinese officials slowed lab testing and regional investigations in an attempt to consolidate efforts, and that the government delayed in reporting the virus’ genome sequence to WHO. But if the argument for reparations hinges on malice and mismanagement by China, doesn’t that indict every other nation-state that badly bungled its public health response to a virus that was headline news long before it became a pandemic? 

Trump and his administration has proven itself inept, dishonest and guilty of long-term errors and massive failure on even the most basic testing issues. Boris Johnson is now in a hospital bed not long after he and his administration blew the British response. Italy is in ruin because of failures on all levels. Underreported illness and death numbers? That’s not just China — it’s everywhere. 

The idea that somehow fuck-ups and censorship would be the sole territory of the big, scary CCP and its shadowy communist officials no longer holds water (and, if you’ve studied American history, never would have). Really, we ought to wonder what the pandemic would look like had it originated in the U.S. Instead, a not insignificant amount of people want justice via Chinese punishment, without too much thought even given to how this would hurt the 1.3 billion people who live there. 


Some experts suggest that China should erase debts to other countries, which would be great news for corporations (and shit for working-class folks) when all that bond stimulus hits the markets. But as John Yoo (that would be the lawyer who gave Donald Rumsfeld the thumbs-up on torture) and Ivana Stradner argue for National Review, any attempt to take China “to trial” over its COVID debts are pretty much dead in the water, given that international law isn’t enforceable against China in that way. In fact, international reparations pretty much only happen after massive wars (as with Germany after World War I and II and the U.S. after Vietnam), or in rare cases involving pollution

If we can demand China pay up for coronavirus, can Iraq and Afghanistan send us a bill for the Forever Wars? Does the Democratic Republic of Congo owe other nation-states for ebola? Do we need to relitigate whether or not the so-called Spanish Flu was born in Kansas and spread across the world? Hell, does Trump himself owe dead American citizens cash? 

There are so many things that China will have to reform in the face of its failure to better contain COVID-19, but the notion that it’s somehow uniquely to blame, even if the virus originated there, is to create a binary and feel better about being on the right side. Meanwhile, the notion that “reparations” could fix the lives of regular people seems laughable; our governments could already do so much more, but aren’t creative or moral enough for action. 

And maybe we ought to remember Germany, World War I reparations and the radicalization of the masses that followed. Strange things happen when you hurt people and diplomacy — and the arc of American history has long followed the ripples of past aggression. It’s all the more ironic that China is America’s biggest trading partner, and remain such, no matter what move we make next.