How might the lab leak hypothesis matter?

Business Standard, 14 June 2021

By 1955, politics in the USSR had started becoming more normal. When Khrushchev won a power struggle against Molotov, the loser was sent as ambassador to Mongolia: There were no agencies or imprisonment in the picture. The USSR seemed to be coming out of its more radical stage, it seemed to become a normal country. For many in the world, it was a time to normalise the relationship with the USSR, to look for areas of fruitful trade and collaboration, and thus encourage the path of the country towards normalcy.

Two milestones reshaped events. In 1983, a Soviet fighter plane shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 killing 269 people. In 1986, there was a nuclear accident at Chernobyl. In both cases, the regime responded with lies and a cover-up. These events highlighted the problems of the authoritarian regime, and helped set the stage for the end of the USSR in 1989.

The lab-leak hypothesis [DRASTIC, Nicholas Wade, Katherine Eban] has some similarities to these events. It consists of the idea that sloppy and risky research, conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), gave birth to Sars-Cov-2 which has harmed the world.

We do not know if this hypothesis is true. At first, serious people concluded it must be false because it was espoused by Donald Trump. Tinpot leaders are remarkably powerful; they can persuade people that the truth is the opposite of what they say. The Chinese state has operated by the playbook of the USSR in 1983 or 1986. Sceptics argue that the Chinese government has something to hide. Optimists feel that lying and crushing dissent is the everyday behaviour of authoritarian governments.

In coming weeks, the full facts known to Western intelligence agencies, and the Western researchers who were collaborating with WIV, will become known. But it may well be the case that decisive evidence will remain elusive. Many puzzles of history were solved only after the Soviet archives were accessed after 1989. In similar fashion, until the Chinese archives are opened, a decisive answer may not be obtained on whether the lab leak hypothesis is true or false. It is interesting to ask: What might the consequences of the revelations of 2021 be?

In 1978, politics in China started becoming more normal. Handover of power took place without agencies or jail time. Many people worldwide supported normalisation of the relationship with China. It was felt that China could be connected into globalisation, and this would help the country to become normal. This process changed significantly in 2012 when Xi Jinping took the country back on an authoritarian and nationalist path.

None of this is black and white. The lab leak hypothesis alone does not change the picture on all these fronts from 0 to 1. From 2012 onwards, many events have taken place, which have questioned the happy idea that China was becoming normal, or that there was a "China Model" which was worthy of emulation. The phenomena sketched above were all brewing. For practical people who did not decipher abstract ideas like nationalism or dictatorship, the lab leak hypothesis shows their tangible manifestation. In the years to come, perhaps we might see 2020 for China as being like 1983 or 1986 for the USSR.

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