“Only last year,” said Dominic Cummings at his press conference, “I wrote explicitly about the danger of coronaviruses.” Except he didn’t. In April this year he re-edited an old blog post to make it look like he’d anticipated the coronavirus pandemic.
On the face of it, it’s just another bizarre detail in the fiasco that his trip to Durham has triggered for the government. But it is a lot bigger than that.
The blog Cummings posted in March 2019 was about the danger of pandemics being caused by lax biosecurity at research labs leading to the release of pathogens. It was a perceptive take, but it didn’t originally mention coronaviruses.
Fast forward to 14 April 2020. Cumming has recently driven back from Durham. He’s been out of London for more than two weeks and his boss, the Prime Minister, is out of action. The headline death toll for the day is 778.
At precisely 8:55pm – according to a verified sitemap – he finds time to log on and re-edit his 2019 blogpost to add a warning about an incident in China, where researchers were accidentally exposed to a coronavirus and later passed it on to others. Why?
No one got the chance to ask Cummings at the press conference, but once you place it in the geopolitical timeline, the potential answer is not trivial. Because that was the week when accusations against the Wuhan virus lab, which had been swirling around the fringes of right-wing American politics, went mainstream.
There are two “Chinese lab” theories. One is wacko: that Sars-CoV-2 is a man-made biological weapon and has been released on purpose by the Chinese state to destroy the West. Another is the accusation that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is close to the wet market from where the disease is thought to have spread, accidentally released a sample of the virus into the human population.
This claim first surfaced in the Washington Times on 26 January, in a story entirely based on speculation by a former Israeli intelligence officer. It went nowhere until the Arkansas senator Tom Cotton – a right-wing Republican obsessed with China – voiced the claim on Fox News in mid-February.
The story was debunked by scientists, but simmered away in the paranoid corners of social media until the week of Cummings’ return from Durham. Then things got serious.
On 5 April the Mail on Sunday reported a “government source” saying that the UK was not ruling out the Wuhan lab theory. The paper quoted a “member of Cobra” who had received classified security briefings from British intelligence saying: “There is a credible alternative view [to the zoonotic theory] based on the nature of the virus. Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan. It is not discounted.”
On 14 April Yahoo News reported that US intelligence services were now actively investigating the theory. The next day, US security sources actively briefed both Fox News and CNN that they had “increasing confidence” that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab.
On 21 April Cotton waded in again, writing in the Wall Street Journal that the evidence “all points toward the Wuhan labs”. And on 30 April Donald Trump – without citing evidence – said he had a “high degree of confidence” that the virus came from the lab.
I do not know whether the virus came from a lab or from an animal; both scientifically and journalistically it’s best to consider all possibilities. But I do know that Cummings is part of the same ultra-right political network as Cotton, Trump and Steve Bannon, and that their current obsession is a confrontation with China.
During his 2014 senatorial campaign in Arkansas, Cotton was one of the first users of the Facebook data that Cambridge Analytica used to provide “behavioural microtargeting with psychographic messaging” to the right.
Inside the Trump administration, Cotton worked inside Bannon’s “little war room”, driving the hawkish line on North Korea, migration policy and Iran. At one point Trump is said to have considered appointing him as head of the CIA.
And the strategy of Cotton, Bannon and the Republican right is pretty clear, because it was spelled out in a leaked 57-page document from O’Donnell & Associates, a strategic consultancy. Republican candidates in this year’s elections are advised to deflect from Trump’s catastrophic role in the Covid-19 pandemic by blaming China.
The script goes: “China did this. The Chinese Communist Party caused this pandemic… and my Democratic opponent… is soft on China.” Trump and his Republican allies intend to claw their way to a second term on the back of “yellow peril” rhetoric, in which the alleged laboratory origins of the virus become Exhibit One.
Cummings re-edited his blog at the exact moment that the Wuhan lab accusation was about to go mainstream in the US – despite the UK government officially discounting the theory. In this light, it does not look like the act of a man trying to make himself look prescient. It looks like someone driving an agenda: freelancing on behalf of the international right-wing authoritarian network that wants to start a new Cold War with China. And it’s a dangerous business.
As a result of all the Republicans’ rhetoric, 30 per cent of Americans are already convinced of the Wuhan lab theory. Across the board – as Democrats are forced to respond to the Republican strategy by talking tough on China – the American public is being wound up for confrontation with Beijing.
Yet few in the administration, the US military, or the wider American public have any idea about what they’re getting into. China is simultaneously an authoritarian state and a fragile state. It is a global manufacturing superpower, using aid, lending and infrastructure projects to create a secure network of raw materials and political influence ranging from Hanoi on its doorstep to Belgrade on ours.
It is rapidly building up its military, both in conventional armed force – the new aircraft carriers and stealth fighters – and in unconventional weapons, such as lasers and hypervelocity guns. Since the late 1990s, elements of its military-industrial complex have been obsessed with the idea of a “bloodless” victory over the West by using “unrestricted warfare”, where the whole of society, the economy, technology and civil society become conflict zones, and where there are no rules.
In 2015 an editorial in the People’s Liberation Army Daily, noting the establishment of a biotech department inside the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, warned that China, too, would be forced to go down the route of biological warfare.
“Since the weaponisation of living organisms will become a reality in the future, non-traditional combat styles will be on the stage, and ‘biological territory’ will become a new frontier for national defence,” it said.
As our own economy and civil society come under strain, and China makes its first significant move in decades against Hong Kong (and implicitly Taiwan), we need to restrain the war-hawks on all sides.
I want to democratise China. I want to stop its crackdown against democratic rights in Hong Kong. My books circulate in samizdat form in the underground Chinese workers’ movement – and I want that movement to grow. But I do not want a confrontation between the US and China. And I do not want an unelected adviser in Downing Street fuelling it.
You can fantasise – as Cummings does in a different blog post – that China’s economy will one day collapse under the strain of authoritarianism and corruption. But if that happens, the West won’t pick up the pieces. As after the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the pieces will pick up the pieces.
It may be time for Britain to toughen its stance towards Chinese diplomacy, soft power and economic influence. If so, that change needs to be driven by an open and rational political debate, not late-night blog posts by unelected advisers.