Occam’s Razor and Chinese conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are a powerful drug, as Penn Jillette once observed (in a Joe Rogan interview.) So powerful that people rarely stop to consider how implausible many of the claims actually are.

Let’s start with the conspiracy theory that China initially covered-up the severity of the pandemic. There’s actually some truth in the theory (as I’ll explain later), but first let’s consider the implausible lengths to which some push the conspiracy theory.

China first admitted person-to-person transmission of coronavirus on January 20, 2020. On January 23rd, the central government put Hubei into lockdown. The close proximity of those two dates is easy to explain if you don’t believe in vast dark conspiracies. If you are conspiracy-minded, you need some pretty fancy footwork to explain why China waited until January 23 to lock down Hubei.

Think of it this way. What would China’s government have done if they had known about the severity of the epidemic prior to January 23? The answer is obvious. A Hubei lockdown would have been vastly preferable if done earlier. Today, China locks down entire provinces when there are just a couple dozen cases. There is only one plausible explanation for China delaying the lockdown until January 23—ignorance. They knew they had some sort of “problem”, but they were ignorant of the extremely dangerous epidemic they actually had on their hands.

And the same applies to other areas where China has been blamed, such as the delay in allowing the world to know the disease was highly contagious, or the delay in shutting down flights out of China. If the Beijing government had fully known what was going on, it would have known that this information would get out eventually. It would have known that the flights would be cancelled quite soon–if only by foreign countries. It could have gotten a lot of positive PR by doing these things first.

And yet, there clearly were Chinese cover-ups. So what sort of “conspiracy theory” makes sense? Not a grand conspiracy theory, but a couple small, boring, mundane conspiracies.

The first conspiracy was the Wuhan’s government’s decision to silence doctors so as to not threaten the Wuhan economy, especially as a major conference that was being planned. This was a very small conspiracy, probably not known by Beijing. The local government had no idea it was the beginning of a global disaster.

During January, the problem did become increasingly visible, even to the central government. But it was still a very small epidemic, a total of 17 deaths by January 22. What did the Chinese central government assume when they first heard about this problem? I’d guess it was exactly the same thing I assumed when I first heard about it—“Oh, another SARS problem”. On the other hand, it was known fairly early that coronavirus was much less deadly than SARS, which killed only 800 people worldwide. They weren’t wrong about the lesser severity of the illness, rather they were wrong about the implications of a high R0. Heck, the US stock market didn’t understand this as late as mid-February, by which time stock traders had far more data on coronavirus R0 than the Chinese government had in mid-January.

Given those facts, the Chinese government probably initially believed that things like travel bans were unneeded. Why do I think that? Because they didn’t even impose travel bans within China! They also recalled how panic over SARS had significantly damaged the Chinese economy in 2002, and wanted to prevent panic until the scale of the problem was better understood. Their attitude was “we’ll hold back info until we know exactly what we have on our hands.” Unfortunately, that’s how authoritarian governments behave.

Thus for at least 6 days (maybe 13) they covered up strong evidence of human-to-human transmission, although they never denied it was possible.

So far it seems like I’m making excuses for China. Actually, I’m not. The initial censoring of Chinese doctors was completely inexcusable, as was the later delay in acknowledging evidence of the transmissibility of the virus. Rather I’m saying these are the sorts of small-bore conspiracies that occur all the time in a country like China. Heck, under Trump they even occur here, as when Trump repeatedly lied in claiming that there was no shortage of testing equipment, or of PPE, or his claim that the disease was contained.

The actions of the Chinese government speak louder than its words. It’s very clear from their actions that they had no idea they were facing a serious problem until late January. There were some worrisome indicators, but if those indicators weren’t worrisome enough for them to act to protect their own people, their own economy, and the CCP’s own reputation, why would you expect them to act in such a way as to protect nursing homes in Lombardy? Do you seriously believe they actually understood what they were covering up?

Occam’s Razor also applies to the lab release theory. We know that dozens of epidemics have come from viruses jumping from animals to humans without any “lab” being involved. Why construct an entirely new theory for this epidemic?

Even more bizarre, the lab conspiracy theorists are so dumb that they think they are discrediting the CCP. Actually, the CCP would look far better (in a ethical sense) if the virus accidentally escaped from a lab doing valid and useful scientific research, rather than from disgusting “wet markets” that the CCP refused to shutdown. When conspiracy theorists are so dumb they don’t even know they are putting out pro-CCP propaganda, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that they are on the right track.

Of course it’s certainly possible the virus did escape from a lab during research on bat coronaviruses. I really don’t care.

As for the effect of these actions, the cover-up only hurt a few places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, which had a combined death toll of 11. In contrast, America has had over 100,000 deaths, and wasn’t hurt at all by the Chinese cover-up. Since our policy was to twiddle our thumbs until we had 10,000 cases, a warning a week or two earlier would not have made the slightest difference. Unless you think the CCP could have completely stopped the epidemic when there were already thousands of infections in multiple provinces. But in that case, why couldn’t the US have stopped the epidemic early on? Is the accusation against China that they are evil because they failed to competently do what we are too lazy to do?

I also find that people are so anxious to latch onto what they (often wrongly) see as anti-China conspiracy theories that they believe too many such theories, which conflict with each other. If the lab theory were true, especially the version that has a human engineered virus, then the other Chinese government conspiracies make even less sense. Why wait until January 23rd to act? The lack of interest at the federal level and the bungled initial response at the local level are what you expect from a natural virus, not one that escaped from a high security national lab.

PS. Today’s FT has a good article on the Chinese cover-up. This guy’s views are very similar to mine:

“We should put together a comprehensive white paper about the virus in which we recount what happened between the end of December and [Wuhan’s quarantine on] January 23, what we did and why we made mistakes,” Yao Yang, a prominent economist at Peking University, said last month in a local media interview. “We should state clearly that during this period we did indeed drag our feet and weigh [various] pros and cons, but did not purposefully engage in a cover-up.”

And then let’s investigate why the US government also dragged it’s feet, and also understated the problem.

PPS. Recall my April 4 post that suggested that 80% of the deaths might have been avoided by starting social distancing 2 weeks earlier. This Columbia University study suggests that 55% of the deaths might have been avoided by starting just one week sooner:

More than 35,000 lives would have been saved in the US if social distancing measures had begun just a week earlier than they actually did in mid-March, according to a new estimate by researchers at Columbia University.

They said simulations based on several models showed that 61 per cent of the US cases of infection as of May 3 – more than 700,000 – and 55 per cent of the more than 65,000 recorded deaths could have been averted if social distancing and other safety measures had been in place a week earlier.


PPPS. At the opposite extreme, here’s a spectacularly bad prediction I made in April:

About 34,000 Americans have already died of Covid-19 and the experts tell us that we are roughly half way through the first wave of the epidemic, which is expected to fall back this summer (and perhaps rise again next winter.) So if the models are correct, Orange County might end up with another 22 more coronavirus fatalities by late summer.

Just today, Orange County had another 14 deaths. While the fatality rate plunges much lower in NYC, it is soaring much higher here in OC.



48 Responses to “Occam’s Razor and Chinese conspiracy theories”

  1. Gravatar of rwperu34 rwperu34
    21. May 2020 at 15:00

    From the actions speak louder than words file;

    Arizona’s legislature is trying to push a bill that would limit liability in Covid related lawsuits. They know it’s not safe.

  2. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    21. May 2020 at 15:40

    Generally, a “conspiracy theory” is any unofficial explanation of events and government actions.

    “Of course it’s certainly possible the virus did escape from a lab during research on bat coronaviruses. I really don’t care.”—Scott Sumner.

    That viruses can leak from the so-called bsl-4 labs, where viruses are engineered to be more lethal and infectious—I think that’s of concern. It is particularly of concerne since we now have a global pandemic that may have started with a Wuhan lab leak, wrecking economies and killing hundreds of thousands.

    The CCP has shown dreadnought determination to prevent any investigation into either of the Wuhan labs, silencing employees, clamping down on records, disappearing people and threatening those who suggest an impartial investigation. See Australia.

    Xi Jinping deserves the “crackpot Marxist despot” appellation.

  3. Gravatar of Garrett Garrett
    21. May 2020 at 15:47


    Off-topic, but given your interest and expertise in China, I thought you might find this story funny: https://dormin.org/2020/04/09/the-taiwan-junket-a-story-of-political-farce-fools/

    I found it on Scott Alexander’s recent links post

  4. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    21. May 2020 at 15:51

    China first admitted person-to-person transmission of coronavirus on January 20, 2020. On January 23rd, the central government put Hubei into lockdown. The close proximity of those two dates is easy to explain if you don’t believe in vast dark conspiracies.

    I think you just checkmated that theory.

    Regarding Orange County: it sounds like it got into a couple of the nursing homes down there. If I were running a nursing home in Orange County and I knew that coronavirus had hit the facility, everyday I’d dress everyone in a bikini and march them up to the roof for an hour long salmon lunch to get their Vitamin D levels up.

  5. Gravatar of Brian Brian
    21. May 2020 at 16:30

    That was very useful analysis in the blog post. Thank you.

    Bret Weinstein says we should cut back on use of the term “conspiracy theory” since the progression is supposed to be an interpretation developing into a hypothesis which survives multiple tests which becomes the consensus theory. Furthermore he denigrates interpretations by labeling them notions. Thus if you want to discredit motivated reasoning attributing evil intentions to China you might call them conspiracy notions. Like embellishments found in a fabric store I guess.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. May 2020 at 16:44

    rwperu34, Yes, but I agree with those limits. We have far too much litigation. The employees know the risks just as well as the owners.

    Garrett, Very amusing. And timely.

    Carl, That could be. I also wonder if it’s shifting from the rich coastal areas to the Hispanic inland areas.

    Brian, I like that.

  7. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    21. May 2020 at 17:48

    Speaking of Occam’s Razor, what is the most-simple explanation of why Beijing has aggressively crushed any investigation into a possible Wuhan lab leak?

  8. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    21. May 2020 at 17:51

    I don’t know how this: “a warning a week or two earlier would not have made the slightest difference.” is consistent with the findings that 1-2 weeks earlier lockdowns would’ve saved tens of thousands of lives. Is the assumption here that no one would’ve cared or prepared at all upon hearing about human-human transmission? That’s possible, but it’s highly speculative. Coronavirus was already all over the news by January, so I don’t think it can be argued that no one was paying attention.

    And I don’t see how the motives you’re ascribing to the Chinese government’s dishonesty vindicates them at all. Perhaps your’re assuming most critics of the Chinese government believe it lied in order to kill as many foreigners as possible? I’m sure someone believes that, but I don’t think that’s the consensus. Rather, that they were so obsessed with saving face (or their tourism industry or whatever) that they concealed what was known at the time is the problem. If it was no big deal, something they can easily handle, then it’s also ‘no big deal’ to pick up the phone and tell the WHO, or at least not incarcerate your own citizens when they try to. Yes, it’s a tragedy that some people conflate the Chinese government with it’s people and politicians see it as a convenient deflection of their own failures and that hawks try to spin it in into a case for more confrontational foreign policy, but one thing I cannot muster a tear for is the effect this has the CCP’s reputation.

  9. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    21. May 2020 at 18:01

    Thanks Scott. Not that I had spent much time thinking about conspiracy theories re China and Covid-19 but that all makes perfect sense.

  10. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    21. May 2020 at 20:49

    Good post, though don’t necessarily agree with the comment about limiting liability for employers.

  11. Gravatar of Jerry Jerry
    21. May 2020 at 21:03

    Sumner, like many academics, has been bought and paid for by the CCP.
    This is why they keep telling us that trade with China is wonderful, while we lose 500M a year, and are neck deep in debt. These people are bankrupting us so they can earn a buck from the CCP.

  12. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    21. May 2020 at 22:41

    I think there is overall perspective misalignment here. This all reminds me of a discussion with liberal friend about Putin in early 2000s. According to him he was guy who saved Russia from kleptocracy and Russia was on road of brighter and more democratic future. I saw what Putin was doing as first – gutting the civil society, making power grabs etc. – and I predicted that Putin will turn into cookie cutter dictator.

    As for China under Xi Jinping I am utterly terrified. We have nationalist dictator with increasingly assertive and diplomacy and bellicose stance towards neighbors. He also revives the cult of personality and lately is louder about how he sees State Owned Enterprises as key to his policies – policies that increasingly use these huge SOE but also private Chinese corporations for political goals.

    Now please tell me how is China today different from your cookie cutter fascist states of 1930s like Italy or Spain. China also literally runs concentration camps to reeducate and forcefully assimilate culturally different part of the population despite (or maybe because) China comprising predominantly of Han ethnicity.

    So sorry – when it comes to this wider context – when I use Occam’s razor I should expect a response of fascist dictatorship. Because events of last 8 years increasingly suggests this.

    Now I know you have Chinese wife and you historically defend China from some of the most out-there narratives. You often use parallels with US or western world suggesting that China is not that much different. I am not convince. The defense of “I know that China is not perfect but ..”. Yeah the but is immense. We are talking concentration camps, tens of thousands of politicians disappearing without trial in anti-corruption purges, petty diplomatic bullying of countries like Czech republic, outright bellicose diplomacy when it comes to South China Sea, state ban on number of Children people can have recently increased to 2, social credit system, ubiquitous surveillance state with monumental censorship apparatus – and we can go on. I know that for many people for whom China is just an outgroup to be used for domestic politics the knee-jerk reaction is sort of: Trump is also dictator with cult of personality, USA also had territorial disputes with Manifest Destiny, USA also has surveillance state with NSA, USA is also bellicose with endless wars and so on.

    And I can agree – even USA and many other countries are turning into dark side. That is why I said this all really reminds me of 1930s where countries increasingly made the world more dangerous place to live. This is also happening right now. And I truly believe that the last thing that is now warranted is to appease Chinese fascist state and play some weak apologetic there.

  13. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    22. May 2020 at 05:05

    You come pretty close to implying that it was really Trump who might have caused excess deaths instead of the Chinese as you quote a dumbass study by Columbia saying 35,000 -65,000 deaths could have been avoided if we started “social distancing” one week earlier. That is ludicrous—-

    By that same logic, if the Chinese had not lied about human to human transmission for 7 (maybe 13) days, perhaps we would have started everything earlier. You contradict your earlier statement by giving credence to that ridiculous Columbia study.

    How you fail to mention how they have been lying about about new cases—-always excusing them because “everyone undercounts”——is simply incomprehensible in a story based on your concept of Occam’s Razor—

    Who cares if about grand conspiracies—itself a subjective idea——but I certainly find it qualitatively different when a country silences it’s doctors (Which you inexplicably call a “small bore conspiracy theory”) on command versus whatever laziness you assign to Trump—-which is a remarkably bizarre equivalence. You say these “small bore” things “happen all the time in countries like China” , as if authoritarians are “born” to be liars like certain animals are “born” to be predators

    I wish you exhibited the same ferocious disdain for Xi as you do for Trump. Yes, you critique him——but you really do seem to take China’s system as a given——and as an observational matter it is—-but as a moral matter for The future of HK, Taiwan, and the mainland Chinese,——and the world—-they could hardly be worse than they are.

  14. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    22. May 2020 at 06:43

    China Derangement Syndrome will cause the Greater Depression: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/greater-depression-covid19-headwinds-by-nouriel-roubini-2020-04

  15. Gravatar of T C T C
    22. May 2020 at 08:32

    Trump has a problem with the Truth for sure, however he nor anyone else knew the ramifications of announcements coming earlier or later in regards to the availability of PPE. for one, the rush to go out and procure PPE could’ve meant more hording by nefarious re-sellers….From my observation, trump doesnt always understand the ramifications or insider info- he more often just wants the attention he gets from being able to make bombastic statements -letting everyone think he is smarter then tey are., While this is dangerous also, its not the same think as assuming he is an evil genius, trying to undermine the health of Americans as the economy is propelled. Its turning out that flattening the curve is somewhat dubious…if the curve is elongated – then the area inside the curve is much greater than it would’ve been otherwise.

  16. Gravatar of Brian Brian
    22. May 2020 at 08:44

    J.V. Dubois, please cite examples of China’s bellicose stance towards its neighbours of recent history. Most people would say HK is not a neighbour since 1997. Whether Taiwan is a neighbour seems to be a matter of preference. Specifically I am asking about “neighbours” other than HK and Taiwan.

    It doesn’t seem to me claiming islands in the South China Sea can be termed bellicose, but depending upon your understanding of the word perhaps it is.

  17. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    22. May 2020 at 09:13

    @J.V. Dubois
    I am more afraid we will repeat the mistakes made before WWI than those we made before WWII.

  18. Gravatar of bb bb
    22. May 2020 at 09:18

    Who would conduct these investigations? It seems silly to talk about investigations if we don’t know who would conduct them?

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. May 2020 at 09:51

    Mark, You said:

    “I don’t know how this: “a warning a week or two earlier would not have made the slightest difference.” is consistent with the findings that 1-2 weeks earlier lockdowns would’ve saved tens of thousands of lives. Is the assumption here that no one would’ve cared or prepared at all upon hearing about human-human transmission? That’s possible, but it’s highly speculative. Coronavirus was already all over the news by January, so I don’t think it can be argued that no one was paying attention.”

    Actually, almost no one paid any attention to the warnings in January. We reacted to the reality of 10,000 cases in March. So I don’t see what your point is.

    You said:

    “And I don’t see how the motives you’re ascribing to the Chinese government’s dishonesty vindicates them at all.”

    I never said it did. Indeed I specifically said it did not.

    You said:

    “Rather, that they were so obsessed with saving face (or their tourism industry or whatever) that they concealed what was known at the time is the problem.”

    I agree. And I don’t think Trump lied to kill people, he lied to boost his political prospects.

    Jerry, The intersection between innumerate people and people who understand complex economic problems like current account deficits is near zero. I doubt you are an exception.

    Dubois, I agree with your views on China. I don’t agree with your characterization of my views. I do not favor “appeasing” Chinese or Russian aggression. When China invades another country as Russia recently did, I’ll be just as opposed to Chinese aggression as to Russian aggression. I would be opposed to China cutting off the South China Sea or invading Taiwan, even though it’s technically part of China.

    We are fighting a trade war with China for no good reason. Trump couldn’t care less about concentration camps. I do.

    Michael, You said:

    “You come pretty close to implying that it was really Trump who might have caused excess deaths instead of the Chinese as you quote a dumbass study by Columbia saying 35,000 -65,000 deaths could have been avoided if we started “social distancing” one week earlier. That is ludicrous—-”

    This is one of the most stupid comments I’ve ever read. I must have said 100 times that Trump is not the main problem here. Are you completely lacking in reading comprehension? I know you read most of my posts, as you often comment. How dense can a person be?

    You said:

    “How you fail to mention how they have been lying about about new cases always excusing them because “everyone undercounts”——is simply incomprehensible”

    I’ve said they underreported cases because the vast majority of victims never get tested, in China and in other countries. To call that “lying” is misleading. The official caseloads are people who have been tested. What is incomprehensible is your lack of reading comprehension. How hard it it to under stand that most people have mild cases, recover, and never get tested? Everywhere. Every media outlet has reported this fact ad nauseam.

    You said:

    “laziness you assign to Trump”

    Wait, so Trump’s consistent and shameless lying is now “laziness” Are you a Trump apologist?

    “I wish you exhibited the same ferocious disdain for Xi as you do for Trump.”

    Actually, I’ve been more critical of the CCP’s role in this than Trump’s role, which you’d understand if you bothered to pay attention:


    Your brain is like one huge organ of “mood affiliation”. That’s not how I write. I make specific logical points. I might be totally wrong, but I mean what I say.

    TC, You said:

    “While this is dangerous also, its not the same think as assuming he is an evil genius, trying to undermine the health of Americans as the economy is propelled.”

    As I said to the commenter above, neither Trump nor Xi are evil geniuses trying to get people sick. They are selfish politicians with authoritarian preferences.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. May 2020 at 10:37

    Everyone, Just stop saying stupid stuff like “I see you’re an apologist for the CCP” Or “I see your wife is Chinese”. Or “I see you blame Trump for this”.

    At some point I may just give up responding to comments.

  21. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    22. May 2020 at 12:05


    That would be really unfair to those of us who are not idiots. Why not just stop responding to those specific commenters?

  22. Gravatar of Michael McCarthy Michael McCarthy
    22. May 2020 at 12:33

    If viruses previously having come from wet markets makes that the most likely theory, wouldn’t that mean viruses have never leaked from a lab before? If viruses have leaked from labs before, then, based on that alone, both theories are equally likely. Are you claiming that no virus has ever leaked from a lab?

    The idea that it escaped from the lab in Wuhan is actually the simpler explanation. Otherwise it had to make a series of extremely unlikely jumps between species and somehow get genetic inserts that would never happen in nature.

    There, I didn’t mention anything about your wife, Trump, or CCP, so please do address my point.

  23. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    22. May 2020 at 14:14

    Professor Sumner, who has a Chinese wife (and in full disclosure I’m a Greek with a Filipina of Chinese descent), makes some incredibly weak arguments that Ben Cole and the Dubois nyms shot down. Regarding Ocham’s razor, if SARS-CoV-2 (hereinafter the C19 virus) was just like any other natural virus, they’d have found (1) an intermediate host for it (which they haven’t, unlike every other virus from Ebola to SARS to MERS to H1N1 etc), (2) C19 would have originated outside of Wuhan, where Dr. Shi Zhengli’s WIV chimeric virus team is, (3) the C19 virus would not comprise three viruses, two of which are findings or creations of She’s WIV, namely the SARS-CoV and RaTG13 viruses (Shi created the first, a chimeric virus, in 2015, and mysteriously supposedly found the second in the wild, both of these viruses and a natural pangolin coronavirus are combined to form the SARS-CoV-2 virus, DNA sequencing shows, see: https://medium.com/@yurideigin/lab-made-cov2-genealogy-through-the-lens-of-gain-of-function-research-f96dd7413748 (4) Shi as director of WIV would not have been replaced with a CCP military general in January, who has forbade inquiries into the origins of C19 virus, after Shi expressed remorse at the fact initially Shi thought her lab had accidentally released the C19 virus, but DNA sequencing, says Shi, absolved her lab, (5) the C19 virus would not be temperature sensitive, which known manmade viruses are (they weaken vaccine viruses, which the C19 virus appears to have been, and these weakened viruses are temperature sensitive) (6) China would welcome an independent investigation into C19 origins as asked for by 100 UN member countries, instead of stonewalling, and, last but not least (7) https://mbio.asm.org/content/6/4/e01013-15 (China and/or Russia in 1977 accidentally released a strain of H1N1 virus, and it infected people, say scientists).

    Ocham’s Razor meets Bayes theorem: China is probably guilty of a lab release for C19 based on (1) – (7)

    Analogy: a known felon who has committed a string of home invasions is seen running from the house of a man with no known history of problems who suffered a head shot, holding a gun that is later found to have been used to fire the fatal shot in the victim. Are we to assume the felon is just as innocent as a random person picked from a phone book or does Bayes theorem say the known felon is probably guilty of a home invasion gone bad? It’s the latter. Same with C19. If C19 originated from some wet market in any other town than Wuhan, where China’s only BSL-4 bioweapons lab resides (a defensive lab involved with vaccines, as is the USA’s Ft. Detrick’s MD, to avoid the 1969 bioweapons ban), and given the above points (1) – (7), one could conclude China is innocent. But it didn’t and she’s not (Shi’s not either).

    Plot twist: in my hypothetical above, the victim accidentally shot himself in the head while cleaning his gun, the dog took the gun outside and dropped it on the sidewalk, to be picked up by the known felon who indeed had committed numerous home invasions in previous days but that very moment had a religious conversion and had found Jesus, and had merely picked up the gun to run and give it to the police. Reality is sometimes like that, true, but Bayes’ theorem counsels otherwise, on average.

  24. Gravatar of rwperu34 rwperu34
    22. May 2020 at 15:29

    Scott, Employees may know the risk, but there is nothing they can do about it. If you’re suggesting that they can continue to get assistance (UI, Medicaid…etc) if they feel it’s not safe, then I”d be fine with that.

    That is beside the point though. AZ is not attempting change the rules because they think there is too much litigation in general. They are attempting it because they know that due to Covid-19, it is not safe and without the change business will be slower than with it.

  25. Gravatar of D.O. D.O.
    22. May 2020 at 15:33

    Thus for at least 6 days (maybe 13) they covered up strong evidence of human-to-human transmission, although they never denied it was possible.

    This. The fact that if they reported it earlier it probably have made no difference in most of the world is neither here no there. Incompetence and complacency of the rest of the world is no excuse for hiding potentially important information. Think not about C19, think about what happens when in a couple of years there’ll be another new virus with unclear properties. Add to this that Chinese local officials probably actively suppressed the research into possible human-to-human transmission at earlier stages.

    And all this game playing “if Chinese government knew that, why they did this” is a bit simplistic. They obviously didn’t know, they had a range of possibilities and the incentives are stuck such that discounting low probability/high negative impact events is a net positive.

    All in all, this blame game (not only around C19) is very stupid. There is no courtroom to assign blame and get a big payoff. The true question is where the things got wrong and to improve them for the next time; and there are probably multiple places.

    If the lab theory were true, especially the version that has a human engineered virus, then the other Chinese government conspiracies make even less sense. Why wait until January 23rd to act?

    How these two are even related?

  26. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    22. May 2020 at 15:35

    In addition to McCarthy and Ray Lopez, I would emphasize that an official, highly believable, highly transparent version would be preferable in order to compare this official version to alternative theories.

    Unfortunately, there is no such version, and probably never will be, because you need an opposition, and freedom of expression, and freedom of the press in order to achieve that.

    The term “conspiracy theory” is also terribly overused, no one here claims that there is a sinister secret organization planning the end of the world. We only claim that the CCP is known for its notorious lies, that you can’t believe a word they say, and that even the most banal things are often twisted by the CCP due to a motivation that is difficult to understand if you don’t even aknowledge how the CCP thinks.

    Your texts are mostly written in a way that CCP politicians could sign, with minimal changes, which is another very strong indication that your theory must be complete garbage at certain points.

    You would be ideal in a position where diplomacy and CCP flattery are in high demand, but you are not helpful in getting closer to the truth.

  27. Gravatar of bb bb
    22. May 2020 at 16:01

    So let’s imagine that a vaccine is developed in the US through public private partnership and deployed around the world next winter. And then the vaccine kills a percentage of recipients all around the world. There are rumors that our agencies cut corners, and 100 countries demand an investigation. Is there any chance that we agree to an investigation? Get real.

  28. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    22. May 2020 at 18:24

    I was going to write a comment saying something along the lines of “If the CCP is sure that the virus came from nature and not from the virology lab, why be so touchy about some kind of investigation to confirm that?” But then I thought through how a confirmation of that might look to Chinese people. Many, perhaps even most, Chinese people shop at wet markets, and I don’t think they view them as disgusting. I doubt that they would hold the CCP responsible for a virus coming out of a wet market from sales of say, chickens. But if the way the virus got to the wet market was through trade and slaughter of exotic animals, that might be different. Mainly wealthy people buy those animals, not ordinary folk. A lot of people don’t eat much meat because they cannot afford it. So an international investigation showing that trade in exotic animals caused the virus would highlight economic inequality and would serve as fodder for a narrative about the CCP catering to the wealthy at the expense of the nation. And yes, the CCP would try to spin that and drown it out and block it, but the CCP couldn’t really accomplish suppression of the basic facts reaching the populace.

  29. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    22. May 2020 at 18:48


    “Australia has been one of the most vocal and early advocates of an independent investigation into the origins and early handling of the coronavirus outbreak, a stance that has attracted strong pushback from China, which claimed it was a political “manoeuvre” against Beijing.

    “The draft motion – now supported by 122 countries, including the members of the European Union and the African Group, the UK, Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – calls for a systemic review of the world’s response to Covid-19.

    The latest version of the motion calls on the World Health Organization’s director general to initiate a “stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19”.



    So, I guess somebody under WHO auspices would do the Wuhan investigation, although at this point, it would likely be an investigation of what is no longer there, and of people too frightened to talk. You need an old investigative reporter and detective as much as medical sleuths for this job. Someone fluent in Chinese, and who knows what a silence means.

    (BTW. A great movie plot that Hollywood would no longer make: An old Sino hack detective, perhaps a drinker-smoker in the twilight of his career, does go to Wuhan, sent there as people think he is a hack and will produce an anodyne report. But once there, the old detective sees death and foul play, finds resolve. Figures he is going to die soon anyway. Lightens up on the drinking, can sense when he is being lied to, can read the silences, develops an anonymous source. Wuhan was a nascent bio-terrorism lab, and a virus leaked, or was perhaps leaked by a disgruntled employee. The old detective files a report, and also slips a copy to WHO and the US. The truth comes out. The old crapulent, wash-up detective tells truth, and Beijing does not. But Hollywood no longer makes movies that reflect badly on Beijing)

    If you are suggesting the Wuhan virus investigation would be an exercise in futility due to CCP obstructionism, you might be correct.

    My guess is the CCP does not believe the for public-consumption “wet market” explanation, or else wet markets would be forced to change operations across China.

    The final explanation is an ordinary traveler to bat-country (SE Asia including Yunnan) became infected, then became a carrier of C19 but who then immediately went to Wuhan and spread the virus, just coincidentally by the Wuhan labs that harbored thousands of such viruses. And whose researchers often traveled to Yunnan to collect bat viruses, and worried about being infected.

    Egads, Occam’s Razor indeed.

    Dr. Ray Lopez above points out several curiosities about C19, and its purported natural evolution. Virologists, like macroeconomists, appear to have diametrically opposed viewpoints on various topics.

    But if you contacts in Hollywood, let’s make that movie.

  30. Gravatar of Tacticus Tacticus
    23. May 2020 at 03:57

    Prof. Sumner, please don’t deprive your non-moronic readers and commentators from engaging with you here.

    Perhaps you could implement some type of CAPTCHA-esque test involving NGDP targeting or current account deficits to cut down on the bandwidth-wasting stupidity?

  31. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    23. May 2020 at 05:20

    Scott—-I read you for your monetary views, which are potentially one of the great advances in economic history. And you also write about politics and other issues which you have no particular expertise other than being a smart person who can think things out.

    My sense of you about China is you wish it were something different than it is. You have seen it’s great economic advances, which clearly have benefited the world. And you are smart enough to know they could be better than they are.

    But China, as I have said too many times to count, is a tragedy—-and it is only getting worse. It’s not what they have done which is impressive, it’s what they have not done—-the remarkable opportunity cost wasted that is the tragedy. Perhaps you think other countries can be criticized in the same way——I am sure they can, but not to the degree of China.

    When Xi declared himself the great philosopher king he clearly was trying to forestall some threats he perceived to himself. That was when the bell rang loudest announcing the true danger he, and his party represents.

    He feels threatened and unfairly treated as having caused the global pandemic. But his own behavior invited such critiques—even if other politicians may have scapegoating motives—-he is completely untrustworthy. At least in America, everyone with an internet connection can critique our politicians as morons and thieves so they have to fight back.

    Xi is beginning to appear more and more paranoid. He has not reached the Stalin level yet, but he is walking on that path.

    You may or may not agree with any of this. From 1920 -1940 the US was determined to stay out of the way of the rest of the world. They discovered that did not work. Since WW2 we have decided to be the world’s global power. Is that good? It is a judgment call.

    It is interesting to me 115 nations led by Australia want to “investigate” the history of Covid 19. Why is that? Well, the words they use are reasonable——they really want to analyze how it came to be what it has become. China, perhaps rightly, believes this study is designed to blame them.

    We do know it was created there. Even if by accident, why did it happen there? Shouldn’t Xi be leading this effort openly with the rest of the world? Instead they have given every appearance of having something to hide—-even if they do not.

    Xi and the communist party of China is as bad as it gets in the current era. I would like to see more analysis on this——rather than trying to debunk so called conspiracy theories on virus—-which are encouraged by their own behavior.

  32. Gravatar of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson
    23. May 2020 at 06:37

    I read that more than 120 countries are calling for an investigation into the causes of the pandemic.

  33. Gravatar of Jaroslav Hasek Jaroslav Hasek
    23. May 2020 at 08:03

    Speaking just for me, I would not miss the crazy commentators who appear to derive some weird enjoyment out of being yelled at anonymously if they got banned from ‘contributing’ their insane theories to the discourse. Although I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t find it at least a little amusing to read Scott calling them stupid idiots week after week.

  34. Gravatar of Bob OBrien Bob OBrien
    23. May 2020 at 08:28


    Excellent comment. I used to think that it was good that China has adopted many market ideas and has been so economically successful the past 10 years because I thought it would lead to them developing a better government that was less autocratic. Now I am not so sure it has been good. Are they developing into a monster?? Could this lead to another cold war or worse??

    What should the US policy be with China. I have no idea and I have not seen any writings from pundits that shed much light on this subject.

  35. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    23. May 2020 at 09:32

    @Bob O’Brien

    I think there is a pretty sensible policy towards China, and it is the one that Obama was charting. Which is for the US to play a large role in facilitating cooperation among nations in the Pacific Rim to collectively push back against Chinese bullying in the region, while the US works at curbing Chinese misdeeds related to unfair trade practices and industrial espionage, which folks all over the world are pissed off about. Realistically, there isn’t anything the US can do to change the internal politics of China. The best the US can hope for is to be a clearly better place for Chinese people to live, so as to counter the kinds of nationalist narratives about China and the CCP that the party is pushing. Also, the US needs to do a much better job at convincing its own citizens that their future, and their children’s future, is bright band full of opportunity. It is really hard to sell liberal democracy as superior when folks don’t believe the system is working to make their lives better.

  36. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. May 2020 at 17:00

    McCarthy, Far more viruses move from the natural world to humans then escape from a lab to humans. The lab theory is obviously not impossible, but it’s clearly less likely. For the sake of the CCP’s reputation, I hope it was a lab.

    bb, Good point. I’d love to see an independent investigation of everything the US federal government did or did not do from January 20 to March 10. If they also want to investigate the origin of the virus then that’s fine. Let’s bring it on!!

    Christian, You said:

    “We only claim that the CCP is known for its notorious lies, that you can’t believe a word they say”

    You mean they are similar to Trump? I disagree. They lie a lot, but not as much as Trump.

    Michael Rulle, Have I ever objected to starting a cold war with a major nuclear power that is invading other countries and stealing their land? Even once?

    Everyone, Stop obsessing about China’s lies on the coronavirus while being silent about Trump’s many lies, which have caused more problems for the US than China’s lies. By all means criticize China (as I have done) but if you are simultaneously silent about Trump’s lies I’ll draw the natural inferences.

    And why investigate this virus but not the dozens of others that have cropped up in recent decades? Could there be an agenda here? Why did Trump praise Xi 15 times between mid-January and February 29, and then start criticizing him based on information that was fully public while he was praising them? Could it be humiliation that the US is having so many more deaths than even the most extreme conspiracy theories attribute to China (40,000).

  37. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    23. May 2020 at 17:51

    Stop obsessing about China’s lies on the coronavirus while being silent about Trump’s many lies, which have caused more problems for the US than China’s lies. By all means criticize China (as I have done) but if you are simultaneously silent about Trump’s lies I’ll draw the natural inferences.


    this is only because of your US-centric point of view. As a European, I don’t really care that Trump is so incompetent in this case. I would be really interested in Trump’s incompetence in this case if the disease had broken out in the United States and then been carried around the world because Trump lied and concealed facts and because we still do not know what actually happened at the site of the outbreak.

    We do not have the faintest idea, and that is because of lack of transparency, and because a certain place in the world was the worst place for the outbreak to occur, as you yourself have analysed. So I’m sorry if I’m not a US centrist and if I don’t talk about Trump all the time in this case when the outbreak was somewhere else.

    You have also linked the study yourself, which discusses how essential early control at the source is. This would have prevented 90-98% of the cases worldwide, or even the pandemic itself.

    What really bothers me about the dishonest EU media, if I may mention it, is that they focus solely on people like Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson, and the communists in China, while none of these media talk even remotely about the ridiculously bad results of European countries like Italy, Spain, France.

    In France, Italy, Spain, it was obviously not massive incompetence, but on the contrary, maximum competence, which was unfortunately somewhat clouded by unfortunate coincidences and fate. You can’t make this stuff up anymore.

  38. Gravatar of O Oliver O Oliver
    23. May 2020 at 20:04

    The information about a devastating epidemic in Wuhan caused by a “novel” coronavirus, provided worldwide via MSM news in January, should have been sufficient for governments in ALL countries to ban entry of any non-Nationals who had, or could reasonably be suspected, been exposed to probable risk of infection.
    News of the infection in a nursing home in WA state in January should have been triggered the pandemic response plan of the US. Until their death toll reached unacceptable levels, most governments appeared not to have acted.
    While many countries now call for an inquiry by an appropriate international agency, as to the cause of the pandemic, few governments are above reproach, and few can claim to match the effectiveness of the Chinese government in containment.
    My point is that a sufficiently open inquiry is unlikely to eventuate. Broad criticism of the WHO is one sign of governments’ attempts at blame-shifting and obstruction. It could be that the truth will emerge from a synthesis of several national enquiries.
    Australia, has called for such an inquiry, against considerable push-back from China, which has begun to frustrate bilateral trade. Australia’s death-toll is 101, with a high proportion being nursing home residents. Co-incidentally, there is a current national Royal Commision inquiry into aged care. It will be interesting to see if its terms of reference allow, or are broadened to include the cases of COVID-19 deaths. It is to be hoped that independent judicial inquiries are established in several countries which maintain the rule of law. Then we can all apply Occam’s razor to the findings.

  39. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. May 2020 at 09:57

    Christian, You said:

    “This would have prevented 90-98% of the cases worldwide, or even the pandemic itself.”

    Sure, if the US and Europe had competent leaders and a cooperative public like Taiwan, then early control would have helped. But since they don’t, it wouldn’t have.

  40. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    25. May 2020 at 10:07

    You equate Trump with Xi—-because of “more lies”—-well, I guess it is good our guy is only 3% of impact on America—what % is Xi on China? 8%? Or what percent is GOP versus Communist Party?

    RE: your cold war comment. I honestly do not know what you are saying. Without assigning it any sarcasm I assume you favor starting a cold ward with such a power you describe since you deny being against one (or deny having said you are against one). So if you are not against one, that implies you might be for one. That would mean you were for our cold war against Soviet Union, I assume. Many were not for that. Not sure what you are saying about China, however—as belt and land, actions toward HK, potential actions toward Taiwan, building fake islands in the Pacific, by some could be interpreted as “stealing land” or planning to. But somehow I don’t think that is your view.

  41. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    25. May 2020 at 16:58


    They could have killed it right at the source. That was the one and only chance. Everything else is not realistic. I think Taiwan would have done it, so “Mainland Taiwan” could have done it as well. The US and Europe not so much, that’s true.


    You present many good examples of misconceptions. Almost nobody in the West knew how dangerous the disease is. The WHO classified the disease as “Public health emergency of international concern” on January 30th. That sounds nice, but such announcements have been made many times since 2009. Even the status “pandemic” says nothing about the real danger. It was a WHO declaration of harmlessness, not danger.

    The CCP Chinese did not know the danger either at the beginning, but that is not the point. It was a novel virus, they knew that much, and so they should have killed it at the source simple because it is a novel virus.

  42. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    26. May 2020 at 04:00

    Scott said:

    “You mean they are similar to Trump? I disagree. They lie a lot, but not as much as Trump.”

    This is such a categorical error. Here we have a prominent economist who apparently has an ear of top bureaucrats such as those in FED and academia calling American president the worst kind of liar. And all power to you.

    I guess people in China can only wish that they can call Xi-Jinping as a liar. Heck, even many people in free world – diplomats and businessman – wish they could do that without facing severe repercussion to their business or ability to do their job.

    I do not know what else to say. On one hand we have supreme dictator of what is a fascist state that runs state that purged almost a two million political opponents often on made-up charges with tens of thousands vanishing without trace – a state that runs extensive state propaganda, censorship and surveillance state compared to which DDR is children’s play. Oh and he also is the guy behind operation of literal concentration camps. But hey – he is less of a liar compared to Trump. Let’s give that one to Xi-Jingping.

    I am at a loss of words here. If you want to criticize Trump do we really have to go to comparisons with CCP? Do you not understand how tone-deaf all this is? Compare him to Orban if you wish. Something plausible. For me the differences between USA and China when it comes to the topic of public announcements, bureaucratic malpractice or state propaganda and censorship operations have so radically different context as to make any comparisons absolutely ridiculous.

  43. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    26. May 2020 at 04:56

    I will use a literal example of what I mean by categorical error. Imagine that Trump tomorrow tweets that he believes Earth is flat. He is immediately put down by mainstream media and political opponents. The existing nutjobs rejoice and maybe some other who were already on the fence get persuaded. Biggest liar out there, right?

    Now imagine that PRC says that they have historically have claims on piece of India in eastern Ladakh (this is a real thing – not sure if I can do some links so google it). And the state propaganda machinery of millions of people including foreign diplomats go to enforce this claim in state and private, local and international organizations. As a result 1 billion of Chinese are persuaded that they were wronged and we have international border claim crisis born between regional nuclear power and superpower.

    What is the bigger or worse lie? In a sense this is category error. These two events are so far from each other as to be completely different phenomenons. I’d say that the second lie is more dangerous overall – although judging by the claim itself it seems innocuous on first sight.

  44. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    26. May 2020 at 14:58

    Scott said:

    “You mean they are similar to Trump? I disagree. They lie a lot, but not as much as Trump.”

    This is such a categorical error.

    J.V. Dubois,

    Very good point. Categorical error big time. I try to tell him this a lot, but he doesn’t agree with it at all. He keeps making the comparisons. And let’s be real here, “comparisons” in the form of distinctions are okay, but he draws equalizations, or even says that Trump’s America is worse.

    Trump lies all day, but he is immediately corrected by the opposition, by the media, and by the voters.

    It is called democracy, freedom of press, and freedom of speech.

    Scott’s “comparison” to CCP China is beyond embarrassing.

  45. Gravatar of LC LC
    26. May 2020 at 20:34


    Conspiracy theories reflect more about societies and eras where they originate than the theories purport to show. They tend to happen in eras of great income inequality and low trust in traditional institutions. They also reflect the prejudices and powerlessness of these that promulgate the theories. Their believers and promoters don’t believe in Occam’s Razor because their belief is unfalsifable.

    What’s interesting is the typical comment on your blog is just about as sophomoric as our political and philosophical discourse when it comes to trade and Sino-US relations. Deeper insights into the issue from a distributional framework (Piketty, Pettis etc.) or an accumulative framework (Rodrik) are far and few in between. I had thought the Covid crisis would give people more time to reflect and think but I am probably wrong on that.

  46. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    27. May 2020 at 12:54


    Piketty is the conspiracy theorist and liar for the gauche caviar. These guys show up in every crisis, wondering why nobody follows them, except for parts of the gauche caviar. It is telling that you seem to like him and that you seem to think that he has something deep and insightful to say.

    The one thing that stands out about this blog entry is that there is a lot of talk about alleged conspiracy theorists, but not a single one of these persons has shown up.

    An invisible inaudible phantasy group of people, a tiny tiny minority at best, is being used again to discredit questions and criticism that many people have.

  47. Gravatar of LC LC
    27. May 2020 at 15:03

    @Christian List:

    It’s always perfect your post complements and reinforces my previous comment. Thank you for shedding more light on why the subject under discussion.

  48. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. May 2020 at 15:38

    Everyone, Stop lying about what I claim and don’t claim.

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