Bat Eating vs Lab Leaks, and a Ukrainian Peace Plan
A few thoughts on China in the news this week
We are experimenting with a new format this week. For the next few months or so the What China Wants podcast will move to every other week, and in the gaps created we will write a short column on the latest news on China’s influence and its relations with the West.
Please do give us some feedback, including on any news stories you want us to write about. Many thanks for reading.
Bat Eating or Lab Leak?
It was no surprise that FBI Director Christopher Wray announced this week that the bureau believes Covid-19 most likely originated in a Chinese government-controlled lab. In our conversations with British and American officials over the last few years it has become clear that almost everyone in the intelligence community believes that Covid started as an accidental leak, rather than being because someone ate a contaminated bat in a Wuhan market.
But why would the Chinese government have proposed the “bat-eating” hypothesis in the first place? The answer probably lies in the way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants its own people and the rest of the world to see China today.
The CCP puts a great deal of store in China as an emerging science super power; as Xi Jinping said last year, “We must regard science and technology as our primary productive force”. So if Covid came from a lab leak, then that would undermine the CCP’s progress in science and research.
If, however, the virus originated because someone ate a bat, then that would support the CCP’s modernisation mission.
Bat-eating is an old tradition in parts of China, and old traditions are an anathema to the CCP. Indeed, the CCP has been driven since the start in its desire to destroy past ways of doing things, reaching its zenith in the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao declared war on the Four Olds: Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits. So, the bat-eating theory falls neatly into the CCP’s wider campaign for social change.
But the end of the day, it will be impossible to prove the origins of Covid one way or the other. Such is the level of distrust between Beijing and Washington that it is highly unlikely that the CCP will publish the (actual) data that could nail down the reason behind Covid. What an individual believes to be the truth comes down to a matter of faith in the system he or she believes in. Which is pretty ironic given the CCP’s attitudes to faith.
Behind China’s Ukraine Plan
Sometimes when it comes to breaking Chinese news it is better to let the tea leaves settle before rushing to judgement. Beijing’s 12-point peace plan for Ukraine is such an event.
On the surface it looks like China is being a good actor in trying to call a halt the worst war in Europe since 1945. There is though likely to be more to it than a stoic desire for peace.
Indeed, China has been in a difficult bind since the invasion began. It has claimed neutrality whilst refusing to call out Moscow for its actions. Whilst it hasn’t knowingly supplied Russia with arms and other war materials, it has parroted Putin’s messaging about the war.
There are a number of ways China benefits from the war.
First, the vast energy, mineral, and food resources of Russia have now moved into Beijing’s orbit. This is of enormous benefit to the CCP in its drive to become less dependent on the West and its allies.
Second, China’s northern frontier is now safe, allowing it to militarily focus elsewhere, such as towards Taiwan.
Third, Beijing now has more leverage to secure advanced military technology from Moscow, something that the Russians have previously been hesitant about given China’s propensity to take that technology for itself.
Yet there is a downside for China. Its own standing in the West has been knocked, and many view Beijing as a closet ally of the despised Putin regime. Economically, China is a significant holder of developing word debt, and the war has increased the chances of default. As the China analyst Sarah Kirchberger pointed out recently on What China Wants, the fact that Beijing fired its Vice Premier in charge of Russia Affairs implies that not all is going to plan in the relationship.
So why present the peace plan? To be fair to Beijing, there are a number of points which make sound sense for humanity, such as standing against the threat or use of nuclear weapons, and for the protection of nuclear plants in Ukraine.
China is also probably worried about Russia losing this war. If Moscow did believe that it was about to lose, then the use of tactical nuclear weapons might be considered. This is in no one’s interests.
But it is important to note that the peace plan is probably as much about China as it is about Russia and Ukraine. Many of its points could easily be translated into how they themselves want to be treated if and when they try to force reunification with Taiwan. “Stopping unilateral sanctions”, “Keeping industrial and supply chains stable”, and “Respecting the sovereignty of all countries” looks very much what would be at the top of Beijing’s wish list when it comes to the fallout over an action against Taiwan.
As is so often the way with proposals, its credibility comes from seeing who champions it. The fact that its biggest proponents so far are President Lukashenko of Belarus (which is serving as a Russian launchpad for the war) and President Orban of Hungary, who is not noted for his anti-Kremlin views, is testament to how it has been viewed diplomatically. The West, meanwhile, has reacted with scepticism. This is not necessarily surprising because if the war were to end now, then it would still be to the strategic advantage of Russia given that it still controls much of Ukraine’s land.
President Zelenskyy has requested a meeting with Xi Jinping to discuss the plan. If that happens then more details are likely to emerge, and it will become clearer if it has any realistic legs. Until then, however, it is probably best to file China’s proposal under “aspirational” at best.