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A significant figure globally in the culture war over Covid-19, Sharri Markson gives an account of the virus’s outbreak that is lucid, flawed and revealing. By Linda Jaivin.

Wuhan: What the Markson book
tells us

WHO members in Wuhan investigating the origins of Covid-19 in February this year.
Credit: AFP / Hector Retamal

This is a tale of bad decision-making, political infighting and ideological extremism, and that’s just the part that deals with the Trump administration. Then there’s the China story: how China’s ruling Communist Party did its authoritarian best to control the spread of the narrative of Covid-19 along with the virus itself. Sharri Markson’s What Really Happened in Wuhan is the account of one pandemic, two cover-ups and the global hunt for clarity on the virus’s origins.

There are two main scientific hypotheses. One is that Covid-19, like Ebola, SARS and MERS, arose from zoonotic, wildlife-to-human transmission in nature. Markson, investigations editor at The Australian, is a fervent advocate of the second: that it leaked from a lab, specifically one of the labs of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where it may even have been engineered into being.

Lucidly and at length, Markson explains the science behind the lab-leak hypothesis. Regrettably, she neglects to give the same objective consideration to the most convincing arguments on the other side. Instead, she focuses on exposing the shady antics of the zoonotic hypothesis’s dodgiest proponents who, by glossing over relevant conflicts of interest, had already done a good job of trashing their own reputations. She does, however, acknowledge that, as one scientist put it to her: “There are no – absolutely no – scientific data that permit a choice between a natural-accident origin and a laboratory-accident origin.”

The answer, she contends, lies in the weight of circumstantial evidence. She presents a mountain of it, from unusual traffic patterns to database deletions, rumoured disappearances and mysterious illnesses, and even bats on hats. But the most valuable revelations of What Really Happened in Wuhan are about the politics behind and surrounding the search for the virus’s origins.

We witness on its pages the power of Chinese dissident narratives in the West, as well as how the efforts of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to control and suppress information about the pandemic have created both a clean slate for the inscription of conspiracy theories and inspiration for them as well. It attests to the deleterious effect on both scientific debate and international co-operation of political polarisation.

The juiciest bits belong to what you might call the “what really happened in Washington” sections of the book. Markson spoke to many Trump White House insiders, including Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state; leading China adviser Miles Yu, a military historian and Ronald Reagan fan whose “passion for exposing the Communist Party” Markson admires; and Peter Navarro, whose White House office, Markson tells us, contained “a stockpile of hydroxychloroquine to last the entire Trump family a lifetime”. Then there’s David Asher, who led the State Department’s investigation into Covid-19 and who characterises doubters of “China’s sinister intention in Wuhan” in the American intelligence community, including bioweapons specialists, as “Dilberts, dimwits and do-nothings”. He accuses these “negacrats” of wasting their time in China with junkets to the Great Wall instead of “penetrating its hostile interior”.

Christopher Ford, Donald Trump’s assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, who quit after the events of January 6, described Asher and another one of Markson’s informants as “conspiratorial yahoos”. Miles Yu, in turn, accused Ford of being “frustrated with Trump and very woke”. Joe Hockey, then Australian ambassador to the United States, recalled being shouted down at a dinner at the home of a Trump official in early 2020 when he suggested Americans should be told to wear masks. Hockey comments to Markson: “None of them had ever managed a crisis because none of them had ever been in government before – at least not a crisis they didn’t manufacture themselves.”

Ford tells Markson that one of Asher’s wilder theories was that the virus might be “a ‘genetically selective agent’ from a biowarfare program” targeting Americans. Markson describes this as a “terrifying” and “alarming” possibility. No one asks the obvious question of how on earth you’d genetically target “Americans”. The Chinese documents from which these conclusions are drawn speak of the need to defend against such weapons, which makes more sense, given China’s relatively more homogenous population. Asher, for the record, tells Markson he never said that – one of many intriguing “he said, he said” moments in the book.

Australians will be interested in Markson’s revelations about what she describes as the ongoing closeness between Pompeo and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The Australian government’s call for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19, she says, “helped the US frame the crisis as a free world versus tyranny issue – rather than simply a battle between China and America”. So we damaged our most important trading relationship in service of the Trump White House’s desire to impose a Cold War framework onto the problem of the pandemic. Good to know.

Markson is less insightful when it comes to explaining China; her view of how things work there is strikingly uninflected, and prone to rookie error, such as the odd mix-up of Chinese surnames and given names. More curiously, when Miles Yu mentions “dinner with the Taiwanese ambassador” in Washington she doesn’t put the phrase “Taiwanese ambassador” into inverted commas, as with “goodwill ambassador”, to show she understands that, however anyone may feel about it, there is no such office. She describes someone else as having “managed to escape Communist China, moving to Hong Kong in 1938” – and truly he did, leaving 11 years before there even was a Communist China.

To be able to evaluate the circumstantial evidence on which the lab-leak hypothesis relies requires a solid grasp of the circumstances themselves. The People’s Republic of China is indeed run by a Communist Party that will do anything to stay in power, including crushing its opponents and silencing its critics. It has always gone to extraordinary measures to conceal its mistakes, especially fatal ones. There is ample evidence of an ongoing cover-up of both the initial handling of the pandemic and of activities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Abhorrent as all that may be, however, it doesn’t prove anything.

Markson’s chief dissident informer is Wei Jingsheng, a former Red Guard turned democracy advocate. Arrested in 1979, Wei spent 18 years in Chinese prisons. In the 1980s, I regularly harangued an editor of The People’s Daily, the husband of a writer I knew, about the injustice of his arrest. I was Team Wei. But by no stretch of the imagination was his negotiated release to the US in 1997, technically for medical parole, “one of the biggest defection coups the US had pulled off from inside communist China”.

The term defector, as journalist Hamish McDonald has written with equal frustration, “usually applies to regime insiders who escape with valuable secrets”. Wei isn’t that, but this is precisely how Markson wishes us to see him: a “former Communist Party insider from one of the 500 founding families”. Wei was the son of middle-ranking party cadres with a personal connection to Mao; he has written that he grew up calling Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, “aunty”. But Wei himself never joined the party or worked in a party or government institution, unless you count the Beijing Zoo, where he was an electrician.

As for the “500 founding families”, neither I nor scholars of party history I consulted had ever heard of such a thing. The party was founded by 12 or 13 men, most of whom had died or abandoned the party by the time of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. That year, the party claimed four million members, with a Central Committee of fewer than 80 full and alternative members. Wei’s father wasn’t one. There has been some talk of the moneyed “500 Families of Special Privilege” of the reform era. The Wei family doesn’t figure there, either. Perhaps someone got this mixed up? This is important because Markson cites Wei’s “insider” status to lend credibility to some of his wilder claims.

It may well be that one of his schoolfriends was the son of the deputy dean of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, and that the boy told a young Wei that Chinese military scientists “were conducting depraved germ-warfare experiments on young men”. A friend of mine, the daughter of a CPC Politburo member in the 1980s, once told me that a qi gong master was keeping her elderly, bedridden father alive by transmitting the vital energy qi through the door of his bedroom. The children of high-ranking cadres tell the best stories. I’m not saying they lie; but as a journalist, I want three sources.

Markson also reports that Wei has done what no scientist has been able to, and “systematically and emphatically ruled out that natural animal-to-human transmission had occurred through the wet market”. He also thinks it’s possible that Xi Jinping, or his enemies, may have released the virus on purpose because, as he told people who told Markson, “the power elite would do anything to gain advantages during power struggles”.

Markson allows that no one in government or intelligence believes it was released on purpose. The former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, tells her that is “out of the question”. Wei himself could offer “no evidence”. So why describe Wei’s claims as “explosive”? She expends a fair amount of ink pondering the question of bioweapons even as she concedes “there is no evidence” Covid-19 is one. It’s a delicate game: putting out the crazy trash while hinting that it might just possibly contain treasure.

On this, Markson refers repeatedly to the military connections of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Military medical scientists have served on the institute’s editorial boards, given talks there and taken part in research; but civilian and military researchers work side by side in many countries, including Australia. She is wrong to state that either the Wuhan institute or the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to which she says it reports, are “under People’s Liberation Army control”.

In the parallel structure of mainland Chinese governance, institutions either belong to the state or the party. The People’s Liberation Army is under the party. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is under the State Council. All institutions have party secretaries who call the shots, but that still doesn’t put either the institute or the academy “under” the PLA. Yes, an elite military medical scientist was put in charge of the high-biosecurity lab at the institute after the outbreak. Part of a cover-up? Or just the normal use of the PLA in emergency disaster management? We don’t know.

The most concerning circumstantial evidence supporting the lab-leak hypothesis is that the institute, with its American partners, appears to have been engaged in dangerous gain-of-function research with bat viruses. The virus has qualities almost too well-suited for human transmissibility, qualities that are possible to engineer in a lab. The Wuhan institute appears to have been dangerously lax in enforcing standards of biosecurity. Lab accidents are common. But if there’s a smoking gun, no one has found it yet.

Markson, a two-time Walkley Award winner, responsibly if discreetly acknowledges this. At the same time, she gives plenty of oxygen to a range of “conspiratorial yahoos”. She also divides the world a bit too neatly into good guys – Pompeo, Yu, Wei et cetera – and bad – the US president’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, anyone ever associated with the Wuhan lab, and especially the World Health Organization, which, to be fair, hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory.

Markson blames the “febrile political environment in the US and globally” for politicising the search for the virus’s origins. Yet from what lab did that pathogen leak? Markson and her co-hosts at Sky After Dark have emitted a squalling cascade of ideological, self-congratulatory triumphalism, baying to the converted on this subject. Political toxicity is remarkably suited for human-to-human transmission as well.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Wuhan: What the Markson book tells us ".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of The Shortest History of China.