Misinformation and foreign policy
By Scott Sumner
A few weeks back I did a post that discussed the first of Philippe Lemoine’s four essays on China’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic. Now I’ve had a chance to read all four of what will likely become the definitive account of China’s role in the pandemic. I cannot recommend them highly enough. Over at MoneyIllusion I discuss the second essay, and here I’d like to discuss the concluding paragraphs of the fourth essay:
I have examined in detail the accusations made against China in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. I have concluded that there is a grain of truth to some of them—mistakes were certainly made in the early days of the crisis and the Chinese authorities have not always been forthcoming with information about the epidemic. Nevertheless, a careful review of the evidence suggests that most of the allegations are either exaggerated, unsubstantiated, or nonsensical, and sometimes they are all three. In particular, the claim that China is somehow responsible for the botched response to the pandemic in most Western countries doesn’t withstand even cursory scrutiny. Yet this claim continues to be made—not only by government officials eager to scapegoat China for their own lamentable failures, but also by journalists and citizens who ought to be more concerned about how badly their own countries have been misgoverned during this public health emergency.
I have highlighted several instances in which Western officials and journalists have misrepresented or distorted evidence. This may be a consequence of confirmation bias, fear of being accused of helping China or a tacit assumption that, since the Chinese regime is evil and hated, there’s nothing particularly wrong with dissembling to make it look bad. But, whatever the reason, this disregard for accuracy is dangerous, particularly on the part of journalists, who ought to at least strive to pursue truth irrespective of their personal ideological leanings. And it has contributed to a feedback loop I have observed over the past few months—people blame China for the pandemic because they adopt low evidentiary standards when it comes to accusations against China, which makes them hysterical about China, which in turn leads them to further lower their evidentiary standards, which makes them believe even more nonsensical accusations against China, etc. If people would only pause to consider whether or not the accusations against China make sense, they might realise that many of them do not.
As I wrote in the introduction to this series, there are many reasons to dislike and distrust the Chinese regime. But when dislike and distrust disable the ability to parse evidence and think clearly, they disfigure our understanding of reality. Hatred of the Chinese regime has become so strong and pervasive in the West—especially in the US, where China is seen as its main geopolitical foe—that it creates incentives that allow unsubstantiated allegations to spread largely unchecked. Indeed, not only does this prejudice mean that people adopt a lower evidentiary standard to examine such allegations, but anyone who points out they are unsubstantiated risks being accused of being China’s dupe. As the rivalry between the US and China grows, we should expect disinformation about China to become increasingly common. This is especially true since, as we have seen repeatedly in these essays, China hawks in the US administration are clearly trying to influence public opinion about China by leaking misleading information. China’s regime is appalling in many ways, and it’s understandable that people feel no sympathy toward it, but this fact should not make us accept dubious claims just because they fit our preconceptions. On the contrary, knowing that we feel that way and that it will unconsciously make us less cautious when evaluating claims that cast China in a dark light, we should be extra careful before we accept such claims.
When we look back at history, there are numerous examples of a sort of spiral of misinformation, where actual flaws in a foreign regime lead us to become too credulous about further accusations made against that regime. For instance, if Saddam Hussein is known to have tortured people and to have repeatedly lied about his military activities, who wants to go out on a limb and defend him from the specific accusation that he is developing WMDs? A few people (including some of my fellow Econlog bloggers) might have the courage to ask for proof of charges made against highly unpopular regimes, but not many. History shows that if we base our foreign policy decisions on false accusations against unpopular governments, it usually does not end well.
Here’s The Economist:
Thanks to its high quality and low prices, Huawei’s telecoms gear is popular around the world. Not in America, where the Chinese giant is banished over (unsubstantiated) fears that it could be used by spies in Beijing to eavesdrop on Americans. But expelling Huawei from the United States—and pressing allies like Australia and Britain to do the same—was not enough for the Trump administration. It seems to want Huawei dead.
It’s certainly possible that Huawei is spying on the US, but given Lemoine’s documentation of how the US government has repeatedly lied about China’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic, promoting completely unsubstantiated rumors that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, why should we accept on faith that Huawei is a national security threat to the US?
And what are we to make of the fact that the US government has seemed willing to use Huawei as a stick to achieve its trade negotiation demands? What does it suggest if the US government is willing to do something that they claim would hurt our national security in exchange for a few more soybean exports?