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The Coronavirus Liability Craze: Holding China Accountable

Politicians, as any political class, will nurse their favourite prejudice. And when there is a crisis, those prejudices will be fanned and praised to the heavens. For some politicians, who find the whole business of lockdowns and business restrictions all too much, someone has to pay for COVID-19.

Australian Senator Malcolm Roberts takes up the theme that is being pushed by assortment of talking heads across the pandemic infested world: “Should China pay compensation for unleashing COVID19 on the world?” The answer is implicit in the question; intention and causality are assumed.

In the United States, Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley and New York Republican Representative Elise Stefanik introduced a bicameral resolution in March demanding a “full, international investigation.” The resolution found “that the Government of the People’s Republic of China should be held accountable for the impact, of its decision to hide the emergence and spread of COVID-19, on the lives and livelihoods of the people of the United States and other nations.” With an arrogance that tends to accompany the aggrieved, the drafters of the resolution also wished any such investigation to be led by public health officials drawn from the US and “other affected nations.” Not that any conflict of interest was at stake: the US and allies were there to lecture the PRC about matters of liability. “Simply put,” raged Congresswoman Stefanik, “China must, and will be, held accountable.”

President Donald Trump’s former deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development is even more gung ho. “Based on China’s culpability,” writes Gavin Clarkson, “President Trump and Steven Mnuchin should immediately extract reimbursement, starting with the $1.1 trillion in US Treasury Department bonds Communist China currently holds.”

In the land of the lawsuit, courts are already being busied by claims about Chinese impropriety and bungling. A class action complaint was lodged in Florida last month “for damages suffered as a result of the Coronavirus epidemic.” The accusation: that China and its various arms of government “knew that COVID-19 was dangerous and capable of causing a pandemic, yet slowly acted, proverbially put their head in the sand, and/or covered it up for their own economic self-interest.” Such conduct had caused “incalculable harm” and injury “and will continue to cause personal injuries and deaths, as well as other damages.”

This brings that old hoary chestnut of sovereignty into play, and even those sympathetic to the argument that Chinese officials have behaved abominably find little room to overcome it. The Foreign Immunities Act of 1976 protects, in the words of a federal court decision, “foreign sovereigns from the burdens of litigation, including the cost and aggravation of discovery.” As the well-cited Queen’s Bench case of Mighell v Sultan of Johore (1894) put it, a sovereign could never waive immunity except through submitting to the jurisdiction of the court “by appearance to a writ.”

The Florida class action suit attempts to sidestep the obstacle of sovereign immunity by claiming an exception for commercial activities and for death and harm “caused by the tortious act or omission of that foreign state or of any official or employee of that foreign state while acting within the scope of his or her employment.” Another ground is even more adventurous, and one floated by Israeli-based attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner: the fanciful argument that China’s conduct amounted to “support for terrorism.” Deliberate concealment of “a deadly medical crisis” and concerted cover-ups were not among “the protected acts of a sovereign state or of responsible leaders.”

The neoconservative British-based Henry Jackson Society has taken an interest in the whole question of PRC liability, putting the claim in a report that China’s balance sheet of damages comes in at £3.2 trillion from G7 countries alone. “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was bound by international law, in the form of International Health Regulations (2005), to report timely, accurate and detailed public health information.” The PRC failed to do this throughout December 2019 and January 2020. “In fact, it appears at least possible that this was a deliberate act of mendacity.” (The authors seem to cast aside those common historical tendencies: negligence through error; damage caused by complacence.) The report’s central sentiment is resentment: had the detection and sharing of accurate information taken place in good time, “the infection would not have left China.”

How this affected Britain is keenly felt. “Inadequate and inaccurate information” from the PRC hampered the UK’s response. Reliance was placed upon World Health Organization reports drawing upon faulty Chinese data claiming, at that point, that “there were no cases of medics contracting the diseases.” Much of this is undeniable, but the authors are desperate to find a guilty culprit, one who will stand up and shoulder the blame.

The report, having reduced the issue of claimed Chinese malfeasance and the pandemic to a matter of Us and Them, err on the matter of “the rules-based international system”, always cited when things do not go the way of Western industrialised states. Forgotten in such enthusiastic exhortations is the sense that such a rules-based system was imposed by the imperialist’s gun and statute book. To preserve that system “and to protect taxpayers from punitive liabilities, the world should seek to take legal action against the PRC for the breaches of international law and their consequences.”

The report fits the current mood among a good number of British Conservatives who see China as needing a good clipping, wings and all. A number of senior Tories, with former Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green leading a call, badgered Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a letter worried about the “damage to the rules-based system caused by China’s non-compliance with international treaties.” As with the Henry Jackson Society, the letter underlined those “Legally binding international healthcare regulations [that] require states to provide full information on all potential pandemics.” China, the petitioners claim, failed to abide by them, a grave omission that “allowed the disease to spread throughout with extraordinary serious consequences in terms of global health and the economy.”

Green was already ripe for persuasion, having suggested the adoption of an attitude towards the PRC “similar” to that towards Russia “in the more peaceful stages of the Cold War.” A reconsideration of relations was required. “Whatever your view of how well any Western government is handling the crisis it is clear that a deeper look at the long-term interdependence of Western capitalism and Chinese communism will take place.”

Compensation claims of this sort tread in murky waters. Historical wrongs will be revisited and Chinese responses to such accusations and urgings are already being heavily referenced by Britain’s own ruinous exploits during what is termed the “Century of Humiliation.” “Cool, great, you just pay us back for the Opium Wars,” came a Twitter comment, and not without merit. As The Economist put it in 2017, “Britain and China see each other through a narcotic haze,” but it was a haze very much forced upon China at its moment of weakness. That same year, President Xi Jinping, in an address in Hong Kong, that last outpost of British Empire, referred to a poisoned legacy that enfeebled a state. “After the Opium War, China has been repeatedly defeated by countries which were smaller and less populous.” There is little basis to assume that the PRC intends to acknowledge those, let alone be defeated by, the even smaller courts of those countries.

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  1. LambsFry Simplex.

    Wankpuffins desperate for a diversion from their own grievous errors.

    Same scapegoating as with the WHO who fit neatly in with their conspiracy theories about communist plots and
    “World Gummint”.

    Children’s night terrors, in the dark, because something has happened to disrupt the Aristotelian stupor of the world as we knew until recently, as well as exposing the weaknesses of neo liberalism as to real world infrastructures (many implications when you think about it).

  2. Josephus

    On the topic of plagues throughout history and the scapegoating of Asians and others, another good, reliable summary may be found at :

    Simon Schama, Plague Time: what history tells us,
    Financial Times UK, 10 April 2020.

  3. Michael Taylor

    Josephus, I let fly at you last night. I shouldn’t have done that, despite my feelings.

    Khaled showed me the proper way to respond.

    Your comments are generally highly respected here. I hope we can move on.

  4. Kerri

    If China is at fault for not warning the USA about COVID19, then surely South Korea, with it’s rapid actions and far lower death rate, should be taking action against China.
    Given both the USA and South Korea reported their first case of the virus on the same day surely they were equally uninformed?

  5. Jack Cade

    The most intriguing thing about the allegations being made about China (which may or may not be true) is that Japan said it was an American virus. Nippon is not usually prone to defending China, especially by pointing the finger at Un me Sam.
    Uncle Sam has previous for unleashing biological weapons, not always by mistake and not always against other countries…
    I don’t necessarily believe in conspiracy theories but I don’t believe in coincidences, either. 300 unusually unsuccessful US military athletes (finished 54th) in Wuhan in November, Covid-19 appears 2 weeks after they leave. Trumps harping on the ‘Chinese Virus smacks of what the Bard called ‘…he protesteth too much.’

  6. Andrew Smith

    Another (non peered but credible) research paper has suggested that the virus had been round longer, earlier, before transmitting to humans, and may have been further south in China, not Wuhan (nor related to US military).

    But yes, a useful deflection for the US, UK and Australia (MB business blog like NewsCorp has been floggjng conspiracy too) from their own complacency, unpreparedness and dog whistling, while PRC could be accused of the same in earlier days.

    Now, everywhere, not just PRC, is the need for refining definitions, tests, testing/sampling (random, demographics and clusters), data, analysis and presentation to fill in an incomplete picture, for required actions.

  7. LambsFry Simplex.

    As for not warning the US, for god’s sake it was on Teev from very early days last November.

    Earlier this year, western leaders were laughing it off- China would cop the worst and the rest would be ok.

    Boris Johnson for one, now knows it is not a laughing matter, but where was the much vaunted CIA Intelligence machine in picking it up?

  8. New England Cocky

    @Lambsfry Simplex: The CIA were responsible for the WMD, Words of mass deception, strategy that sent the USA (united States of Apartheid) into the Iraq War for oil reserves. But what about the US military involved in biological warfare development that has bee progressing for at least 50 years? Do you think that these biologists would have missed all the pre-pandemic reports about this COVID-19 virus and its potential use in warfare?

  9. Jack Cade

    I don’t necessarily want to go into a Fort Detrick rave again, but I would urge everybody to research it. One article I read said they had even taken a patent on Ebola!!!
    Although I am anti-USA, virulently, I am not anti-American, because I have liked every American I have ever met and when youth hostelling in Europe in the 60s I always hung out with Yanks because they were great company: but I believe their country is the major rogue state on earth.

  10. Phil Pryor

    Those oozing anuses in the USA are not satisfied with a history of indigenous murder, assault, theft, denigration, humiliation, and of slavery most vile, and of interfering, intruding, coercing, imposing, subverting and more theft and murder. They now want to sue a germ, vilify a virus, attack someone over colds. blame others for stupidity, filth, criminality, idiocy.., is this the last, the ultimate comedy?? President Crap-Cranium is the most vile and vicious foll ever to get to the high office he now despoils, shitting on civilisation.

  11. Phil

    Ah Americans I have such fond memories of them. Growing up in a Navy port and meeting loads of sailors from the American visiting ships their initial greeting was ” Hey kid you got any sisters ” I remember watching a doco about English girls being swept off their feet by Yankee sailors during WW2. . They told the girls they would take them back to the US marry them and settle down on a cattle farm. Yea right. 99.9 % of them ended up in some shit hole called an apartment on the twentieth story of a sky scraper in one of the Navy cities.For mine, Yankee go home. ‘

  12. LambsFry Simplex.

    NEC and Jack Cade.

    I too know many GOOD Americans, such as the ones at FB who I humbly call friends.

    But the politics is dismal as the country as a whole is vigorously encouraged in denialism long term by corporate sharks and the result is a nation caught on the hop by coronavirus and its consequences; by reality intruding.

    Trump sums it up as an example, as Morrison exemplifies the pigmy mentality of many here.

    The myopia throughout the West shows just how bubble-vulnerable the West actually is.

  13. Phil

    ” So help me god, if it doesn’t sum up what this thread has been about, if it shows up and you watch,
    you will be gobsmacked.”

    It doesn’t have me gobsmacked at all. Americans educated out side of their Ivy League Universities, are in large numbers, as dumb as a bag of hammers. Americans have form for experimenting with drugs on their own people ( black soldiers mostly) and there was even an admission from Robert McNamara the Secretary of Defense 1961-68. that they sent young men to the conflict in Vietnam, with below average i.q. ‘s in fact, some were borderline retarded. This was revealed in a not so recent documentary on McNamara himself. Anyone that doesn’t come to the conclusion that the working class US. Citizens are not expendable, have their own heads up their collective arse’s.

  14. Phil

  15. Lambchop Simnel

    Hmm try again, nor sure if the Rachel Maddow report on the South (North?) Dakota governor is working the previous comment.

  16. Jack Cade

    If you want to assess the extent to which the average American is shielded from reality, you should check out some of the questions posed on Quora…
    Why didn’t we (ie, the USA) just continue across Europe and crush Russia after we had crushed the Nazis?
    Would Canada have joined in WW2 if America had not led the way?
    Why did the Germans not invade England via the channel tunnel instead of trying to invade by sea?
    And the winner is
    How long would it take the USA to defeat the UK if we invaded?
    To the last question I could not help myself – I responded ‘What, like Cuba you mean?’

    Rachel Maddox is the most inpressive,intelligent, articulate and fearless of any number of excellent US commentators. But we get fed the Fox fockwits to us as evidence e of US commentaries. That’s what you get when you allow you msm to be dominated by malevolent foreign ownership.

  17. Andrew Smith

    Not just one of many seemingly unrelated ‘issues’ presented in media, Australia’s own Murdoch media is now being cited as central in promoting such themes or narratives by Turnbull, and media academia in the US (as most in Oz are too fearful?):

    ‘A Victoria University study of the 12 most influential far-right Facebook groups in Victoria found their main themes were “nationalism and patriotism; government and politics; and Muslims and Islam.” News Corp outlets The Australian,, The Herald-Sun, The Daily Telegraph, and Sky News were, combined, the largest source of administrator posts to these far-right online groups. In describing the impact this shared material had, Dr Debra Smith, one of the study’s authors said, “I think ‘embolden’ is a really great word. It gives [far-right groups] a certain sense that these ideas are legitimate. They point to issues like this in the press to show that they are not outsiders, that they are not extreme.” ‘


  18. paul walter

    Andrew Smith, watch closely what is going down in parts of the USA, plus the wedge tracer app stunt here.

  19. guest

    China is getting a hammering these days. We are told by right-wing ideologists that we rely too much on China’s industry and we should develop our own industry and be a sovereign, independent country.

    In the WE Australian we are told that Australian universities have a faulty business model, depending too much on high-paying Chinese students, whereas they should be enrolling more Australian students. (Not so long ago we were told in the same media outlet that too many Oz students were taking academic uni studies when more of them should have been studying trade skills.)

    I cannot help but think some of this agitation about tertiary academic ‘leets is really a hissy fit because universities have spoken up about the imminent horrors of Climate Change and have divested themselves of investment in coal shares.

  20. Matters Not

    Guest re:

    depending too much on high-paying Chinese students, … should be enrolling more Australian students

    The numbers of Australian students didn’t decline even though the Commonwealth contribution did. Numbers of locals was made possible because of the significant dollars (fees) coming from foreign students who paid approximately 4 times (many variations) paid by the locals. In short, the foreigners subsidised the locals..

  21. guest

    Thank you, Matters Not. It just shows the jaundiced group-think of the Murdoch/IPA bandwagon.

    They are the ones who promote the Trump question about the cure for coronavirus being worse than the virus itself – because ‘leets, according to them, are taking away citizen freedoms with their lock-down rules and the monetary costs of supporting citizens and businesses with huge social welfare until ‘spring-back’ returns all to ‘normal normal’ – business as usual – but with a huge debt, unnecessarily large, they say.

    Journalists of a certain persuasion know more than academic ‘leets, apparently.

  22. Matters Not

    Guest, it seems to me that we need to rethink higher education (with the emphasis on education). But that’s probably just a pipe-dream. Now the emphasis seems solely on the job-preparation aspect which, while necessary, is not sufficient. We live in a democracy (so called) where governments are elected by citizens, yet the citizenship concept only gets an airing on very limited occasions.

    Now most people when relating to all things governmental see themselves primarily as ‘taxpayers’ rather than ‘citizens’. That many (if not most citizens) are not net taxpayers and most companies are legally liable taxpayers (but not entitled to vote) seems to escape their attention.

    We need an education system that gives due importance to the citizenship concept (among other aspects of the ‘good’ life) but no side of the political aisle seems at all concerned. So it’s not going to happen.

  23. Phill

    ‘ Why didn’t we (ie, the USA) just continue across Europe and crush Russia after we had crushed the Nazis? ‘

    That proposition was put to the high command by General Patton.

  24. whatever

    Well, as the latest initiative from Scotty (the Tracking App for your phone) bites the dust the Govt. have gone feral with the finger-pointing at China. All day today on ABC24 they have been at it.

  25. Andrew Smith

    Although university education is a strong aspiration for many Australian parents, children and required for employment, universities (and yes imperfect) and related are routinely attacked by radical right libertarian Conservatives (IPA now employs a network of young fogies or students, inspired by Koch think tanks, known as ‘Liberty Generation’s to promote freedom of speech etc.).

    In other words they kill various birds with one stone reflecting the ‘great replacement theory’ and decline in white Christian dominance, i.e. cost to govt., promotion of science, educated society, critical thinking, liberal values, international diplomacy, cooperation, emergence of China and xenophobia towards the latter (in addition to India, especially in past when TAFE or VET system’s international cohort was being dog whistled some years ago).

    Again, the roots of this political, economic and social influence are very clear, the US, as researched by Nancy MacLean in ‘Democracy in Chains’, just some of the network of groups including the Chicago School of economics, John Birch Society, ALEC, Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, Heartland, Atlas Network, Cato, Tea Party, etc., nowadays all seem to have the Koch et al puppeteering, along with NewsCorp for communications.

    It’s a desire for a return to 19th century economics, master serf relationships and WASP based exceptionalism or superiority, and eugenics based class system…..

  26. Jack Cade


    The question about ‘crushing Russia’ pre-supposed that the USA did it all by itself. Several people asked why the rest of Europe kept fighting ‘After we took over.’
    The USA has been constantly at war since the end of WW2. To date, the only war they have won was against mighty Grenada…

  27. Brozza

    Whatever – whatever is the reason that anybody would want to sit down and watch abc/fox24?
    But then I suppose it’s one way of assessing how much the abc (and sbs for that matter), have fallen into the same sewer of news(?) reporting as the commercial free-to-air channels.
    The media hasn’t been this rabid since the three towers were demolished.

  28. Phil

    ” The USA has been constantly at war since the end of WW2. To date, the only war they have won was against mighty Grenada…”

    Indeed. Their history is plagued by failures. That joke about Custer not taking any prisoners at the Little Big Horn is telling. As you know the new bogeyman is China. With the current gibbering idiot in the White House anything is possible. I just hope he’s gone before he really does something stupid.

  29. Jack Cade

    The most unbelievable comment of the week occurred in an article about the protests in some US cities; it said that the protests were organised by alt-right groups ‘and some Republican-based non-profits…’

    Can you even IMAGINE a Republican- based non-profit? That’s the ultimate oxymoron.

  30. Kronomex

    Every time I see Lindsey Graham looking at Emperor Donald the First all I see is someone desperately wishing the unrequited love of his life and idol would invite him to the school prom.

  31. LambsFry Simplex.

    Phil, they have been at war with themselves, mainly. Vietnam, for example, led to a sort of massive national nervous breakdown as aspirationalism, appetite, ambition and greed fought conscience and reason to a standstill and the Mid East has had the same consequences

    They behave like small children denied an ice cream at the local deli or a favourite toy till the room is cleaned up.

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