Chestnuts are in blossom, but there are no holiday tables under the trees this spring as Paris struggles with the coronavirus. For the past seven weeks, its citizens have been confined to their homes, sans sidewalk cafes, sans restaurants, sans museums and everything else that makes the city a delight. The economy is on the ropes, with unemployment soaring and a drop of 6 percent in GDP in the first quarter. Among the tens of billions of euros the government of President Emmanuel Macron has spent to prop up businesses has been $8 billion to Air France — a virtual nationalization of the airline — with another $5 billion for that other national champion, Renault. Urgently needed restoration on fire-damaged Notre Dame cathedral has been neglected as locked-down workers are only now beginning to return to work.
Some 25,000 French have died from COVID-19, the fourth-highest number of deaths in the world and, incredibly, nearly four times the figure for neighboring Germany. Increasingly, French citizens are blaming the government for its hesitant, vacillating, often contradictory management of the crisis, especially its woeful lack of protective masks and testing kits, which led to the high mortality rate. Polls show a majority no longer have confidence in the Macron administration, convinced that it lied to them about the virus.
The irony is that the crisis sickening France and ruining whole swathes of its economy arguably can be traced back 16 years to France and its desire, for largely geopolitical and commercial reasons, to cozy up to China. It chose to do that by providing the blueprints, technology, and knowhow for a sophisticated new virology lab in Wuhan.
This of course presupposes that the new coronavirus came, accidentally or deliberately, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (also known as the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory). Many refute that, including a spokesman for Emmanuel Macron, who says there is “no factual evidence.” Then there is Yuan Zhiming, a top researcher at the lab and, not incidentally, secretary of its Communist Party committee, who states flatly, “There is no way this virus came from us.” Anyone who disagreed was “deliberately misleading people.” He is seconded by the pro-Chinese WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who maintains there is no irrefutable proof. They are all, all honorable men.
The crisis sickening France and ruining whole swathes of its economy arguably can be traced back 16 years to France and its desire, for largely geopolitical and commercial reasons, to cozy up to China.
But the alternative story, that the virus came from a Wuhan seafood market selling tasty bats as gastronomic treats, doesn’t hold up — the first victims had no connection to it, and the fish market doesn’t sell bats. I find the common-sense argument of White House Trade Adviser Peter Navarro more convincing: “We know that ground zero for this virus was within a few miles of that lab,” he told Fox News. “The simplest explanation is the most likely. I think it’s incumbent on China to prove that it wasn’t that lab.” Or as Sen. Tom Cotton puts it in a Wall Street Journal column, “This evidence is circumstantial, to be sure, but it all points toward the Wuhan labs.”
Laboratory accidents do happen with worrisome frequency. During the Cold War, a Soviet bacteriological weapons lab in Sverdlovsk leaked a cloud of anthrax spores, killing over 60 people. In 2004, the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing was guilty of a serious breach of safety guidelines when an infected researcher provoked a new outbreak of SARS. In the UK, there were over 40 events at labs from June 2015 to July 2017 — one every three weeks. But such an event at China’s new and most prestigious virology lab would be especially bad for the country’s global reputation in general, and for President Xi Jinping’s standing with his own Politburo in particular.
Because of that, and given the bald-faced mendacity of the Chinese communists, it is unlikely that we will ever know exactly how the new coronavirus was loosed on the world. “To do so would require finding ‘a smoking gun,’ ” Glenn Gerstell, former general counsel of the National Security Agency, says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we never end up with the actual definitive answer.” The Chinese authorities block every attempt to understand its origins, shutting down the Shanghai laboratory that published its genome on January 11, while the two Wuhan-based doctors who first expressed fears over the virus have either died or mysteriously disappeared. As the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu taught, all warfare is based on deception.
But it is possible, using available information, to piece together the train of events that likely led to the pandemic due to France’s botched involvement in Chinese virological research.
It was in early 2003 that the Chinese Academy of Sciences approached Paris with a request for assistance in acquiring a high-security biology research laboratory. China had just experienced the deadly SARS epidemic. It had lost not only lives, but face: critics, including the WHO with a different director general than today, accused it of dragging its feet on alerting the world’s health services to the new respiratory disease transmitted from animals to humans.
China’s case was presented to the French by Dr. Chen Zhu, a personal friend of President Jiang Zemin. Chen was a Francophile and fluent in French, having been trained in hematology at the Saint Louis hospital in Paris. France had inaugurated its own P4 biology lab, the highest-level research unit dealing with deadly pathogens, in 1999, making it one of only a half-dozen countries (the others are the U.S., UK, Germany, Russia, and South Africa) to possess the necessary technology. It was the logical fit for China.
Chen met the French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and the two hit it off immediately. Raffarin, a political hack who began his career in marketing and has held practically every political office in the country at one time or another, is France’s most prominent and vocal Sinophile. He likes to boast that he has made dozens of trips to China. He presides over the France China Foundation, which promotes relationships and business deals between the two countries. He appears on the Chinese propaganda TV channel, CGTN, to express his admiration for Xi Jinping and “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” while claiming that China can help France gain its independence from the United States. Xi himself dubbed him an official friend of China with a medal to prove it in 2019.
President Jacques Chirac quickly warmed to the idea of exporting France’s P4 technology to China. During an official visit to Beijing in the autumn of 2004, he met the new president, Hu Jintao. They agreed France would provide the blueprints and know-how for a top-of-the-line P4 lab to be built by a French construction firm, plus four less sophisticated mobile P3 labs. French technicians would oversee the project, which would be under the joint authority of a Franco-Chinese commission. All research studies and results would be shared; 50 French researchers would work on-site with their Chinese counterparts and ensure their proper training in handling dangerous viral samples. It looked good on paper.
The deal was hastily cobbled together and signed by both parties in Beijing on October 9, 2004; France officially codified it by Decree No. 2005-1181 on September 14, 2005. The location chosen for the lab was the Zhengdian district of Wuhan, traditionally the most French city in China. The seat of the French Concession that ruled it from 1886 to 1943, today it is home to fully 40 percent of French investments in China. Dozens of French companies operate there, from Peugeot to L’Oréal, Eurocopter to Pernod Ricard. “The political precipitation to conclude a government-to-government agreement rapidly explains in large part the later problems with the P4,” writes French investigative journalist Antoine Izambard in his recent book, France-Chine: les liaisons dangereuses.
Then began years of doubt and debate in French officialdom about the wisdom of such a move. The Ministry of Defense and its General Secretariat for Defense and National Security were particularly unhappy about the way the Chirac–Raffarin tandem had railroaded the deal through without sufficient consultation. The country’s intelligence services warned that the laboratory was conceived for dual civilian–military use; the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could turn it into an arsenal for bacteriological warfare overnight. They knew the PLA was working on bioweapons and already had taken control of several mobile P3 laboratories France had provided China just after the SARS epidemic.
They also pointed out that some of the mobile P3 units had gone missing and the Chinese couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain why. The danger of weaponizing the proposed site was all the greater because, unlike nuclear or chemical weapons sites, there exists no international verification of biology labs. French scientists who visited a virology lab in Harbin, in far northeast China, reported that the way samples from animals were handled was practically medieval, with serious contamination risks for researchers.
The U.S. began trying to warn off France from its risky project as early as 2005. As a French diplomat posted in Beijing at the time recounted to Antoine Izambard, “In September I was invited to a cocktail party at the residence of the American ambassador to Beijing, Clark T. Randt, Jr. The American science attaché pounced on me and insisted in no uncertain terms, ‘No P4, no P4. It’s forbidden, you can’t do that.’ The Americans warned us several times, even going so far as to call us irresponsible. They were afraid Beijing would weaponize the lab.”
Dismissing U.S. objections as well as the alarm bells set off by their own intelligence and defense services, French politicians stumbled on with the deal, wary of offending their powerful partner. “At the time, we were engaged in other projects with the Chinese, such as a center for treating radioactive waste and contracts for the sale of Airbus airliners,” an official told Le Figaro. “Unlike the United States, France is only a medium power and can’t suddenly pull out of a program like that for fear of the economic retaliation that might result.”
As the project advanced, French officials and scientific experts saw it slipping out of their control. China reneged on its commitment to use a French design firm in favor of a Chinese company, IPPR Engineering International, that Western intelligence services suspected may be controlled by the PLA. The Lyon-based Centre International de Recherche en Infectolgie provided conceptual, engineering, and logistical support, along with a dozen small, specialized French companies. But with construction work being done entirely by Chinese contractors, there would be little or no French oversight of it, contrary to the terms of the agreement.
Despite its misgivings, Paris let China have its way.
The enormous differences between the two countries’ cultural, technical, and legal standards meant the French were often virtually flying blind in their dealings with their partners. The opacity was all the greater because the Franco-Chinese commission supposed to co-direct the project seldom met. The French co-chairman, Alain Mérieux, France’s most prominent pharmacological industry figure and an early enthusiast of the project who hoped for a close working relationship with the Chinese, quit in frustration. “It’s a very Chinese operation,” he declared. “It’s entirely theirs, even though it was developed with technical assistance from France.”
Paris suspected that China wanted to do the job on the cheap, which could compromise the lab’s necessary high level of airtight security. But with few French experts on the spot, how to be sure? The French design engineering firm that was supposed to certify the building refused to do so. Despite its misgivings, Paris let China have its way, pleading with it to at least conform to the Australia Group rules to control the spread of chemical and bacteriological weapons. Beijing ignored the request.
The French had sufficient doubts about Chinese intentions to delay finalizing the project for nearly five years, adding what they hoped would be enough restrictive clauses to the deal to ensure safety. Construction work finally began in 2010 and was largely completed by January 2015 at a reported cost of $44 million. The official inauguration of the four-story, 32,000-square-foot, bunker-like facility took place in February 2017. Then prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, representing France, proudly announced that 50 French researchers would be in residence in Wuhan for five years. They were to provide technical expertise and training to ensure biosecurity, while working on common research projects to the benefit of both countries.
The researchers never set foot in the new unit. Their presence might have prevented some of the flagrantly unsafe practices mentioned by Le Figaro, which claims to have seen Chinese media reports dated February 16. The reports referred to careless researchers in Wuhan who disposed of untreated laboratory materials in public drains and who sold lab animals used in experiments to make pocket money.
To this day there has been only one token French scientist on the site. “It’s a pity, because when we began it was in the hope of developing exchanges with them,” the health minister, Marisol Touraine, said wistfully. “In February 2017 we were really counting on that cooperation.” In other words, thanks to French naïveté — they actually believed Chinese promises — China got its new dual-use laboratory and the ability to do whatever it likes with it, and France got zilch.
Emmanuel Macron appears to have belatedly changed his views on the trustworthiness of France’s big partner. Questioned on April 16 by the Financial Times about how the Chinese have handled the coronavirus outbreak, he replied, “There are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.” Even that circumspect statement drew a sharp retort from Lu Shaye, the Wolf Warrior Chinese ambassador to Paris. “China does not hide anything,” he declared defiantly on a French cable news network. “The President’s speech (sic) has been distorted by the media. I do not believe he intends to accuse China. The French and Chinese systems are different and it’s not possible to make a comparison. There is no problem at the P4 laboratory in Wuhan.”
After a shakedown period, the gray cubic building bearing a large framed photo of Jacques Chirac prominently on one inside wall went operational in January 2018. Coincidentally, the American embassy in Beijing sent its science attachés that same month to Wuhan to observe the new lab’s operations and meet its researchers. According to the Washington Post, which obtained their reports, they were so alarmed by what they found that they sent two Sensitive but Unclassified diplomatic cables to Washington warning of safety and management lapses there. “The new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the attachés reported, warning that the facility’s work on bat coronaviruses posed the risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.
Two years later a new coronavirus, unlike any seen before, was unleashed upon the world from Wuhan.
Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator’s Paris correspondent. His latest book is Jean Gabin: The Actor Who Was France (McFarland).