Coronavirus: Trump official Matt Pottinger champions democracy for China

He says those in Wuhan who tried to shed light on virus embodied 'May Fourth spirit'

Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger's speech was full of references to Chinese history and populist symbolism.
Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger's speech was full of references to Chinese history and populist symbolism.PHOTO: AFP

A top Trump administration official yesterday warned China's leadership of a backlash similar to the Tiananmen Square student protests if they continue to crush free speech and dissent, in a rare address to the Chinese people that is likely to attract Beijing's ire.

Speaking in Mandarin on the 101st anniversary of the nationalist movement in China, Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger made a direct reference to the doctors and citizen journalists who had tried to shed light on the Covid-19 outbreak at its outset in Wuhan, asserting that they embodied the "May Fourth spirit" that had led to the Tiananmen protests. He said moves to censure them would backfire.

"The heirs of May Fourth are civic-minded citizens who commit small acts of bravery. And sometimes big acts of bravery," said Mr Pottinger in a speech full of references to Chinese history and populist symbolism.

He called Dr Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who was warned not to speak up about the coronavirus and died in February fighting the outbreak, such a person.

"His small act of bravery, in late December, was to pass along a warning via WeChat to his former medical school classmates that patients afflicted by a dangerous new virus were turning up in Wuhan hospitals," said Mr Pottinger, adding that Dr Li later went public with his experience of being silenced by the police, causing the world to pay close attention.

"When small acts of bravery are stamped out by governments, big acts of bravery follow," said Mr Pottinger, saying that people were still demonstrating this courage in pursuit of the ideals behind the May Fourth movement - reminding a few that they need the consent of many to govern.

"Wasn't a similar idea beating in the heart of the May Fourth Movement too? Wasn't the goal to achieve citizen-centric government in China, and not replace one regime-centric model with another one? The world will wait for the Chinese people - the people - to furnish the answers," he said.

His speech at a University of Virginia event discussing US-China relations in a turbulent time comes amid an intensifying push in Washington to blame the scale of the pandemic on Beijing's early mishandling of the outbreak.

President Donald Trump and his officials are linking the outbreak to a laboratory in Wuhan, asserting that the virus could have been leaked accidentally or otherwise, but without presenting evidence.


Mr Trump accused China of misleading the global community. "My opinion is they made a mistake. They tried to cover it, they tried to put it out. It's like a fire," he said in a virtual town hall on Fox News on Sunday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a TV interview the same day that there was a "significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan". "Remember, China has a history of infecting the world..." he said.

But Mr Pompeo did not disagree with the intelligence community's assessment that the virus was neither man-made nor genetically modified, a conclusion that scientists worldwide have reached.

The remarks have riled Beijing. Mr Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-owned tabloid Global Times, wrote on Twitter: "Don't just say there's enormous evidence, Pompeo should present them to the world. Republican government is putting on a show. By demanding to investigate Wuhan lab, they are trying to create continuous controversy... to fool the (US) public."

State broadcaster CCTV yesterday attacked Mr Pompeo's "insane and evasive remarks", which it called "a complete and utter lie".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2020, with the headline 'Trump official champions democracy for China'. Subscribe