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A woman wearing a protective mask is seen by portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Shanghai, China in this file photo from March 12, 2020.Aly Song/Reuters

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

In Liu Cixin’s extraordinary science-fiction novel The Three-Body Problem, China recklessly creates, then ingeniously solves, an existential threat to humanity, by establishing contact with the planet Trisolaris and then thwarting a Trisolaran invasion.

I remember thinking it was an odd plot structure when I read it last year. This is not how sci-fi plots work in western literature. The bad guys (the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, or just the aliens) do bad stuff and then the good guys (they speak English) save the world. One of the many things I learnt from reading the novel is that, in this respect as in so many others, China is different. It’s okay for China to sicken the world in order to save it.

The non-fictional threat to humanity we face today is not, of course, an alien invasion. COVID-19 does not come from outer space, though it shares with the Trisolarans an impulse to colonize us. The fact, however, is that the first case of COVID-19 was in China, just as the first messages to Trisolaris were sent from China.

You may, if you are gripped by our current decadent obsession with cultural inclusivity and sensitivity, not like the fact that U.S. President Donald Trump called it “the Chinese virus”. But he is as entitled to call it that as people in 1968 were entitled to refer to the influenza A (H3N2) pandemic of that year as the “Hong Kong flu”, because Hong Kong was where the first case was recorded.

China caused this disaster, but now wants to claim the credit for saving us from it. Liberally exporting testing kits (some of which don’t work) and face masks (most of which probably do, but I still got ours from Taiwan, thank you very much), the Chinese government is intent of snatching victory from the jaws of a defeat it inflicted.

The worst of it is that some people in the western world are so unhinged by Trump derangement syndrome, or so corrupted by Chinese money or, in the case of Italy, so disillusioned by the less than altruistic responses of their fellow Europeans to their exceptionally severe COVID-19 outbreak, that they actually swallow this toxic stream of hypocrisy and mendacity. Was anything dumber this year than the mayor of Florence’s “Hug a Chinese” campaign in February?

Let us try to restore sanity with five questions that we should ask Chinese President Xi Jinping the next time we Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangout or WeChat him.

First, what exactly was going on in Wuhan that led to the initial emergence of Sars-CoV-2? If the virus originated from a bat at one of the disgusting “wet” markets (where wildlife intended for human consumption is sold alongside chicken and beef), which your regime inexplicably has not shut down, that is bad enough. But if it originated because of sloppy practices at the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, that is worse. It is insanity for research on potentially lethal zoonoses such as coronaviruses to be going on in the heart of a vast metropolis like Wuhan.

Second, how big a role did the central government play in the cover-up after it became clear in Wuhan that there was human-to-human transmission? We now know there were 104 cases of the new disease, including 15 deaths, between December 12 and the end of that month. Why was the official Chinese line on December 31 that there was “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission? And why did that official line not change until January 20?

Third, after it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China – on January 23 – but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?

Now, I don’t expect straight answers to these questions, any more than we got straight answers from the Soviet Communist Party after Chernobyl.

But I do think we need keep asking them, if only to vaccinate ourselves against the other kind of virus currently emanating from China – the viral disinformation that Xi has learnt from his Russian pal President Vladimir Putin how to spread through the internet.

China has a problem. It is not The Three-Body Problem, which reminds us that the Chinese people are capable of great literature, just as Chinese researchers are capable of great science.

China’s problem, like Russia’s before 1991, is the One Party Problem. And so long as a fifth of humanity are subject to the will of an unaccountable, corrupt and power-hungry organization with a long history of crimes against its own people, the rest of humanity will not be safe.

©Niall Ferguson/The Sunday Times, London

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