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China’s three-body problem

One of the many things I learned from reading “The Three-Body Problem” is that it’s OK for China to harm the world in order to save it.

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, wearing a protective face mask waves as he inspects the novel coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work at a neighborhoods in Beijing, Feb. 10.Pang Xinglei/Associated Press

In Cixin Liu’s extraordinary science fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem,” China recklessly creates, then ingeniously solves, an existential threat to humanity by establishing contact with the planet Trisolaris and then thwarting a Trisolaran invasion.

I remember thinking it was an odd plot structure when I read it last year. This is not how sci-fi plots work in Western literature. The bad guys (the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese or just the aliens) do bad stuff and then the good guys (they speak English) save the world. One of the many things I learned from reading “The Three-Body Problem” is that, in this respect as in so many others, China is different. It’s OK for China to cause a global disaster in order to save the world.


The nonfictional threat to humanity we face today is not, of course, an alien invasion. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 does not come from outer space, though it shares with the Trisolarans an impulse to colonize us. The fact, however, is that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was in China, just as the first messages to Trisolaris were sent from China.

You may, if you are gripped by our current decadent obsession with cultural inclusivity and sensitivity, not like the fact that Donald Trump called it “the Chinese virus.” But he is as entitled to call it that as people in 1968 were entitled to refer to the influenza A (H3N2) pandemic of that year as the “Hong Kong flu,” because Hong Kong was where the first case was recorded.

As in “The Three-Body Problem,” China caused this disaster, but now wants to claim the credit for saving us from it. Liberally exporting testing kits (some of which don’t work) and face masks (most of which probably do, but I still got ours from Taiwan, thank you very much), the Chinese government is intent on snatching victory from the jaws of a defeat it inflicted.


Not only that, but the deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department had the gall to endorse a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the United States. On March 12, Zhao Lijian tweeted: “It might be [the] US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” Zhao also retweeted an article claiming that an American team might have brought the virus with them when they participated in the World Military Games in Wuhan last October.

The worst of it is that some people in the Western world are so unhinged by Trump Derangement Syndrome or so corrupted by Chinese money or, in the case of Italy, so disillusioned by the less than altruistic responses of their fellow Europeans to their exceptionally severe COVID-19 outbreak, that they actually swallow this toxic stream of hypocrisy and mendacity. Was anything dumber this year than the Mayor of Florence’s “hug a Chinese” campaign back in February?

Let us try to restore sanity with six questions that we should ask Chinese President Xi Jinping the next time we Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangout, or WeChat with him.

First, what exactly was going on in Wuhan that led to the initial emergence of SARS-CoV-2? If, as first claimed but now seems unlikely, the virus originated from a bat at one of the disgusting “wet” markets (for wildlife intended for human consumption), which your regime inexplicably has not shut down, that would have been bad enough. But if it originated because of sloppy practices at the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, that is worse. It is insanity for research on potentially lethal zoonoses such as coronaviruses to be going on in the heart of a vast metropolis like Wuhan.


Second, how big a role did the central government play in the cover-up after it became clear in Wuhan that there was human-to-human transmission? We now know there were 104 cases of the new disease, including 15 deaths, between Dec. 12 and the end of that month. Why was the official Chinese line on Dec. 31 that there was “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission? And why did that official line not change until Jan. 20?

Third, after it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China — on Jan. 23 — but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?

Fourth, what possessed your Foreign Ministry spokesman to start peddling an obviously false conspiracy theory on social media and why has he not been fired?

Fifth, where exactly are Ren Zhiqiang and Ai Fen, to name just two of the Chinese citizens who seem to have vanished since they expressed criticism of your government’s handling of COVID-19?


Finally, how many of your people has this disease really killed? Now, I don’t expect straight answers to these questions, any more than we got straight answers from the Soviet Communist Party after Chernobyl. But I do think we need to keep asking them, if only to vaccinate ourselves against the other kind of virus currently emanating from China — the viral disinformation that Xi Jinping has learned from his Russian pal Vladimir Putin how to spread through the Internet.

China has a problem. It is not “The Three-Body Problem,” a brilliant book that reminds us that the Chinese people are capable of great literature, just as Chinese researchers are capable of great science. The same was true of the Russian people under Communism. China’s problem, like Russia’s before 1991, is the One-Party Problem. And so long as a fifth of humanity are subject to the will of an unaccountable, corrupt, and power-hungry organization with a long history of crimes against its own people, the rest of humanity will not be safe.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.