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 United States 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, according to American officials familiar with a new internal report by US intelligence agencies.
The report concluded that officials in the city of Wuhan and 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 organisations and assessments by China experts of the country’s opaque governance system. Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, say current and former American officials.
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 Donald Trump said in a July 4 speech at the White House that “China’s secrecy, deceptions and cover-up” enabled the pandemic.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the administration was “telling the truth every day” about “the Communist cover-up of that virus”.
Mr Peter Navarro, a White House trade adviser, said last Saturday that 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 Mr Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian leader.
But the broad political messaging leaves an impression that Mr Xi and other top officials knew of the dangers of Covid-19 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 Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies.
The report adds to a body of evidence that shows how the malfeasance of local Chinese officials appeared to be a decisive factor in the spread of the virus within Wuhan and beyond.
It still supports the overall notion that Communist Party officials hid important information from the world, US officials said.
The report says senior officials in Beijing, even as they were scrambling to pry data from officials in central China, played a role in obscuring the outbreak by withholding information from the World Health Organisation.
But the report adds to a body of evidence that shows how the malfeasance of local Chinese officials appeared to be a decisive factor in the spread of the virus within Wuhan and beyond.
US officials commissioned the new intelligence report after a Department of Homeland Security analysis said Chinese central government officials hid the severity of the virus in early January to hoard medical gear.
That earlier report, an unusual attempt by Homeland Security intelligence analysts to examine a foreign power, relied heavily on public trade data, a senior law enforcement official said.
Policymakers asked the entire intelligence community to examine it, and analysts came up with the new consensus report that aimed to refine and even correct the Homeland Security assessment.
The new report does not diminish China’s culpability, said current and former administration officials.
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 Dr Michael Pillsbury, a China scholar at Hudson Institute who informally advises Mr Trump.
Although Dr Pillsbury advocates competing with China, he also supports diplomacy and sticking to a trade agreement that Mr Xi and Mr Trump signed in January.
If Mr 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.