Bill Gates stumbles on China and Covid

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has done a fine job reinventing himself as a philanthropist.  The foundation he and his wife established has done admirable work for global public health, giving him credibility in his commentary on the Covid crisis.

But he struck a jarring note, when asked whether the Chinese government could be held accountable for deception in the early stages of the Covid pandemic.

He waffled a bit to dodge the question, said that China had done some good stuff, the US some not-so-good stuff, and settled on the line that such questions were not “timely” and a possible “distraction” from what is necessary (see the interview – comments from 3.45 minutes).

Students of political dialogue will agree that it’s fair to avoid a question by arguing that there are more important priorities or suggest it’s complex and needs to be approached with more care and less blame.

But on the fundamental point, he’s wrong.  On substance and timing.

Scrutiny is the essence of government in an open society.  It’s even more important where it’s limited and restricted – as in autocratic societies like China.

The wider question of how such scrutiny might affect our relationship with an autocratic giant  is not trivial.  But we can’t really surrender the first-order principle without losing something of ourselves.

Mr Gates’s comments also seem to fail the test of realism.

In an event like the Covid pandemic, the actions of every responsible body are going to be scrutinised – intensely – and usually from a strong personal interest.

It’s hard for the source country’s government to avoid such questions as: did you take all reasonable steps to stop the virus spreading to our country; did you give us the fullest information as soon as possible to help our preparations; and did you in good faith meet any obligations – explicit and implicit in our relationship – to provide us with necessary supplies and support.

It also seems plausible that many people are going to impose a high burden of proof on the answers, making life tricky for governments with less credibility to begin with. 

There are plenty of signs that the Chinese government is facing a serious challenge in this respect.

All of which suggests the likelihood of more distant and difficult future relationships between China and what might still usefully be called the free world.

So perhaps Gates’s uneasiness reflects a deeper concern: that the Covid pandemic and the responses to it mark a fundamental change in the relationship with China.

There are grounds for this.  The forty-year accommodation between China and the West has been based on the twin assumptions that Deng’s China was on a liberalising path to the benefit of its citizenry, and this presented more of an opportunity than a challenge for us. 

Events before Covid suggested that this happy coincidence may be drawing to a close. If so, our policy will need to adapt.

As will that of the Chinese government.  Their efforts at news management suggest more than a little concern for the historical vulnerability of imperial regimes which are unable to shield the people from war, famine and pestilence.

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