WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials have tried taking a political sledgehammer to China over the coronavirus pandemic, asserting that the Chinese Communist Party covered up the initial outbreak and allowed the virus to spread around the globe.
But within the US government, intelligence officials have arrived at a more nuanced and complex finding of what Chinese officials did wrong in January.
Officials in Beijing were kept in the dark for weeks about the potential devastation of the virus by local officials in central China, American officials familiar with a new internal report by US intelligence agencies say.
The report concluded that officials in the city of Wuhan and in Hubei province, where the outbreak began late last year, tried to hide information from China’s central leadership. The finding is consistent with reporting by news organizations and with assessments by China specialists of the country’s opaque governance system.
Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, current and former American officials say.
The new assessment does not contradict the Trump administration’s criticism of China but adds perspective and context to actions — and inactions — that created the global crisis.
President Trump said in a July 4 speech at the White House that “China’s secrecy, deceptions, and coverup” enabled the pandemic. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the administration was “telling the truth every day” about “the Communist coverup of that virus.” Peter Navarro, a White House trade adviser, said on Saturday the pandemic was “perpetrated on America” by the Chinese Communist Party.
The accusations dovetail with advice from Trump campaign strategists to look tough on China to try to shift the spotlight from the president’s failures on the pandemic and the US economy, and to paper over his constant praise of Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian leader.
But the broad political messaging leaves an impression that Xi and other top officials knew of the dangers of the new coronavirus in the early days and went to great lengths to hide them.
The report, originally circulated in June, has classified and unclassified sections, and it represents the consensus of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. It still supports the overall notion that Communist Party officials hid important information from the world, US officials said.
But the report adds to a body of evidence that shows how the malfeasance of local officials appeared to be a decisive factor in the spread of the virus within Wuhan and beyond.
An internal US government assessment of the differences in fault between Chinese leaders and local officials potentially has significant policy implications.
“It makes a huge difference if it was Wuhan or Beijing,” said Michael Pillsbury, a China scholar at the Hudson Institute who informally advises Trump.
If Xi was not the main person at fault, he said, then that meant that top Chinese officials had not engaged in total deceit on the coronavirus, and American officials had some basis for still trying to engage in good-faith negotiations with Beijing on issues of mutual interest.