US politicians seek to hold China financially and legally accountable for the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Facebook

As the coronavirus pandemic ravages nations worldwide, resulting in unprecedented human death and economic destruction, calls are rising for China to take legal and financial responsibility for a health crisis that by all accounts originated on its shores.

With more than 180,000 lives lost worldwide and the global economy teetering on the edge of a once-in-a-century depression, China now faces the prospect of multiple lawsuits filed by federal states, regional governments and aggrieved individuals.  

United States Senator Tom Cotton is now pushing for a bill that would allow American “victims” of the virus to sue and seek reparations from the Chinese government through US courts.  

Cotton, who represents the state of Arkansas and openly refers to China as a “pariah state”, has been quoted in US news reports suggesting that sanctions should be imposed on Chinese officials involved in the “cover-up” of its initial Covid-19 outbreak.

Such sanctions could be crafted to “bring back the manufacturing that China has depended on for so much of their economic growth over the last 40 years to the United States,” Cotton told US media.

US Senator Tom Cotton speaks to the media in a January 2020 photo. Photo: AFP via Getty/Mark Wilson

A civil society group in Texas has filed a whopping US$20 trillion lawsuit against China, accusing the communist regime of a coverup as well “international terrorism” by allegedly deliberately unleashing a pandemic “designed to be used against the general population of one or more of China’s perceived enemy nations, such as the United States.”

The state of Missouri has announced its intent to sue China in US courts for virus-inflicted economic damages for “causing a global pandemic that was unnecessary and preventable.”

Eric Schmitt, Missouri’s attorney general, is seeking a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of a lawsuit against Chinese authorities who “deceived the public, suppressed crucial information, arrested whistleblowers, denied human-to-human transmission in the face of mounting evidence, destroyed critical medical research, permitted millions of people to be exposed to the virus, and even hoarded personal protective equipment.”

“Before the pandemic, Missouri had one of its lowest unemployment rates of the past decade, but on information and belief, Missouri’s unemployment rate is now the highest it has been since the Great Depression,” the proposed lawsuit states.

With more than 47,000 fatalities and 26 million workers forced into virus-caused unemployment, the US is now the epicenter of a growing global anti-China movement spurred by Beijing’s perceived lack of Covid-19 related transparency and unwillingness to accept responsibility as the pandemic’s origin.

Legal experts and analysts have raised doubts about whether such lawsuits could win given the two sides’ depth of economic interdependence and the fact that China could and likely would invoke so-called “sovereign immunity” against any lawsuits filed in US courts.

While the legality of such suits is questionable, the claims are giving new political impetus to disengage with China, including through possible legislation that would make it illegal in the name of national security to do business with China, particularly among firms that take US government virus-related bailout funds.

US President Donald Trump leads a meeting with travel and tourism industry executives to discuss economic response to the coronavirus outbreak in the Cabinet Room of the White House, March 17, 2020, Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

It’s an issue that is already inflaming the US presidential election campaign, with both incumbent Donald Trump and Democrat Party rival Joe Biden seeking to score nationalistic, anti-China points against each other, including through incendiary campaign ads that portray China in a diabolical light.

The case against China is being built on claims its initial response to the outbreak lacked transparency and suppressed important information at the pandemic’s root. Those allegations have given rise to mounting media speculation that the virus was accidentally leaked from a Chinese laboratory rather than spawned from a Wuhan City wet market that sold Covid-19 infected bats for human consumption.

A recent expose by China-based Caixin Global suggested potential suppression of crucial evidence in the early phases of the crisis. A recent Washington Post article raised the possibility of accidental leakage from either the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention or Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) due to poor safety standards.

Beijing’s systematic suppression of reporting and research into the origins of the virus has fueled nationalistic suspicion and antagonism, particularly in the US, while reinforcing a flurry of conspiracy theories including some spread over social media that have claimed without evidence that China intentionally unleashed the plague.

Western governments are calling for answers, though some more critically than others. But Beijing is resisting any multinational independent investigation whose outcome could lead to even greater calls for China to pay what some are now referring to as pandemic “reparations.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government is spearheading an international effort to press for more Chinese disclosure over how the virus first emerged and spread, including at next month’s World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization.  

“It’s important for public health globally that there is a transparency in the way you get access to this information early,” Morrison said, while acknowledging that China took “resolute, timely and forceful measures” to contain its outbreak. 

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has somewhat less diplomatically pushed for an impartial, thorough and comprehensive investigation into the origins of the health crisis.

“Transparency from China, most certainly. Transparency from all of the key countries across the world who will be part of any review that takes place,” she told ABC’s Insiders news program.

A man walks in front of a drawing of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a wall at the Leishenshan Hospital that had offered beds for coronavirus patients in Wuhan, in China’a central Hubei province, April 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

China’s Foreign Ministry, however, has lashed out at Australian officials, accusing them of being “disrespectful of the tremendous efforts and sacrifice of the Chinese people.”

“Australia’s Foreign Minister Payne’s remarks are not based on facts. China is seriously concerned about and firmly opposed to this,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang, while categorically shutting down calls for an independent inquiry.

“Since the outbreak began, China has always acted in an open, transparent and responsible manner and taken a series of resolute, timely and forceful measures,” he maintained, arguing that “[a]ny doubt about China’s transparency is inconsistent with the facts.”

In an op-ed published in the state-affiliated Global Times, Chinese author Wang Wenwen recently attacked Australia as being a “petty follower” of Washington by joining the “US bandwagon over virus policy.”

“Australian politicians are engineering a divorce from China in the context of US policy objectives,” the author warned, reflecting Beijing’s increasingly obstinate position on the origins of the health crisis.

Australia’s push for an international inquiry into the pandemic, however, has not won the same level of support among all virus-hit European powers, a reflection perhaps of China’s “face mask diplomacy” towards the region.

After Austrlian leader Morrison met in mid-April with French President Emmanuel Macron, an Elysee official told Reuters that Macron “agrees that there have been some issues at the start, but that the urgency is for cohesion, that it is no time to talk about this, while reaffirming the need for transparency for all players, not only the WHO.”

A medical worker from Jilin province tears up during a ceremony at Wuhan’s Tianhe Airport on April 8, 2020. Photo: Hector Retamal / AFP

According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson, she told her Australian counterpart that, “The coronavirus appeared first in China. [But] China has [also] suffered a lot from the virus and did a lot to fight against spreading.”

Some in the United Kingdom have been less generous, with the British Henry Jackson Society think tank recently proposing that G7 Western powers file a £3.2 trillion (US$4 trillion) lawsuit against China for pandemic-related losses.

It has accused Beijing of “failure to adequately report information to the WHO,” which reputedly breached “Articles Six and Seven of the International Health Regulations [IHRs], a Treaty to which China is a signatory and legally obliged to uphold.”