Republican Senator Tom Cotton caused a furor when he advocated sending troops into American streets during the Black Lives Matter protests. Photo: AFP / Mark Wilson / Getty Images/AFP

A headline in Politico last week called US Senator Tom Cotton the Republican Party’s “No 1 coronavirus China hawk.” This was not an honorific title but one that was well earned and well deserved. He has been the most vicious attack dog on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s blame China team.

As early as January, when the world was just beginning to grasp the full significance of Covid-19, Cotton charged that the virus that causes the respiratory disease came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s Hubei province. He planted the seeds of accusation without providing any supporting evidence, but that’s how propaganda is supposed to work.

Sometimes he shared with the media that it may have been an accident that the Wuhan lab let the virus loose. Other times he hinted that the lab may have created the virus in order to let it loose on the world. His allegations were carefully vague so that he could not be pinned down. 

Pompeo and President Donald Trump play the same blame game even though the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a press release last Thursday stating: “The intelligence community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.” (Of course, this statement is subject to withdrawal, if the boss threatens to fire the DNI.)

Cotton follows Ferguson

Cotton also accused China of deliberately letting the virus loose on the world. He was drawing on Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s assertion that China let international flights depart from Wuhan, which was factually incorrect. Daniel Bell, a fellow academic, showed Ferguson that the Wuhan airport had shut down all flights, not just domestic ones, on January 23. Ferguson refused to retract his allegation but stood by his lie.

It’s widely recognized that every lie diminishes the reputation of the perpetrator, but Cotton has an ulterior motive. He wants to sue China for compensation for the economic damage and lives lost due to Covid-19. Of course, he would never call the contagion by the official name. To him, it’s always the “Chinese” virus.

Cotton cleverly thought he could lead a lawsuit to cancel the trillion-dollar IOU the US government owes China. Frankly, that’s going to a lot of trouble to weasel out of a trillion-dollar debt. It would be much easier for the US Federal Reserve simply to print one or two or three trillion dollars with the snap of congressional fingers. Larry Kudlow, President Trump’s economic adviser, also shuddered at the thought of what such a default would do to the creditworthiness of the dollar. 

More recently, Cotton thought out loud on Fox News that it was fine for students from China to come to the US to study Shakespeare but not for quantum computing or artificial intelligence. That was a strange juxtaposition.

Study football at Arkansas

Of course, if Chinese students aspire to become Shakespeare scholars, they would surely apply to Oxford or Cambridge. The University of Arkansas might be a backup choice if a student couldn’t get into the University of Alabama to study college football.

Cotton appears to be under the notion that Chinese students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) come to the US to steal secrets. Quantum computing and artificial intelligence happen to be two disciplines that American scholars are just as likely to go to China to study as vice versa. In some ways, China is as up to date and may be even ahead of the US.

It’s apparent that Cotton doesn’t understand much about STEM education at the university and postgraduate levels. There are a bit over a million international students in the US and slightly more than one-third are from China. Most of them are funded by their families. Since Beijing is not paying their way, there’s no need to spy for their tuition. 

More important, foreign students pay full tuition and represent a significant source of revenue for American colleges and universities.

Especially at the graduate-school level, university STEM departments depend on the quality of their students to maintain the quality of the research output and thus maintaining their reputation for excellence. A recent survey showed that among nationalities, students from China ranked second-highest in IQ while American students came in at No 28. That’s why top-tier schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and others aggressively recruit students from China.

Another surprising revelation was that the five most popular majors among the Chinese students were business management, computer science, finance, mathematics and economics, in that order. This suggests that students from China are not just coming to the US for STEM but are just as interested in learning how to manage businesses the way it is done in the West.

Students from China have discovered that they are four times as likely to be a victim of a violent crime while in the US (and this was before the Covid-19 pandemic induced xenophobia) than if they stayed home. In addition, with Trump’s randomly arbitrary granting of student visas and visa renewals, interest in studying in the US is flagging. A decade ago, enrollment in the US increased by nearly 30% every year. For the academic year 2018-19, the increase was only 1.7%.

Lancet: the US screwed up

Cotton was also part of the chorus accusing China of covering up the seriousness of the virus. Not so, said Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of Lancet, who praised China’s international cooperation and pointed to five papers published in January. It was the US, the UK and other countries in the West that squandered February and March, he lamented. 

Lancet is a world-renowned, peer-reviewed medical research scientific journal. An open statement signed by 27 scientists from around the world was published on February 19 in Lancet declaring their solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China.

Their open letter in part said: “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumors and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.”

At the end of April, the world was greeted with the news that the first double-blind, international study had found remdesivir, an antiviral medication made by Gilead, to be somewhat effective in helping a patient recover from Covid-19. Not a miraculous cure or vaccine to be sure, but a step in the right direction, and the stock market responded positively.

A paper on the findings was published in Lancet under a title that included the words “a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center trial.” The clinical trials were performed in China and the investigators were Chinese. It’s an example of the benefits of international collaboration and cooperation.

The adage “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” is often attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda. Even if Pompeo, Cotton et al succeed in blackening China and obscuring its contribution, how will the world and the American people benefit from the absence of cross-border collaboration? How will lies cure America of the Covid-19 epidemic?

This is the concluding article of a two-part feature. To read Part 1, click here.

Dr George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.

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