It’s widely recognized that U.S. scientists of Chinese descent are often viewed with prejudice and sometimes treated unfairly, either by their fellow citizens or by agents of the American government. This is partially due to racial stereotypes, but also hidebound perceptions of what constitutes loyalty to the USA. Frequent travel to China and sustained family ties across the Pacific are “red-carded” as signs of possible disloyalty. Agreement with the Chinese government on certain policy issues can also be weaponized by critics as a sign of disloyalty.
While it’s less common, sometimes Americans of European extraction are also “red-carded” for views deemed too sympathetic to China. It’s not a case of discrediting someone summarily on the basis of skin color or ethnic stereotype, but the disdain for different views, and the rigid notions of loyalty are in play just the same. Americans of any background who give credence to opinions that echo policy positions adopted by Beijing are frequently labeled apologists or worse.
The case of Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs stands out at the moment because he has been scrutinized for his views on Covid, among other issues. A well-known economist of European descent and Jewish ethnic heritage, Sachs is not at all shy about airing his views and letting the chips fall where they may. He’s not anti-U.S. in any meaningful sense, but he’s often portrayed as such, particularly when he highlights cases where the U.S. is at fault.
Sach’s latest major break from mainstream thinking was expressed in the form of an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, co-authored by Neil Harrison: “A call for an independent inquiry into the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
Sachs admits the piece is his own opinion, but it’s an influential opinion since he was appointed head of the Lancet Covid-19 Commission. Sachs enters the fray bravely, staking out positions on what looks to be shaky ground, because he has a lifelong reputation to uphold as a respected scholar and advocate for economic justice.
The pros and cons of various lab leak theories are too complex to discuss here, but suffice to say Sachs is pilloried with guilt by association: connected with ideas that find a receptive audience in China.
The Globalist calls him “Xi propagandist.”
The National Review calls him “China’s Apologist in Chief.”
The New York Post describes Sach’s Lancet Report as a “China cover up.”
The Times ran a piece pointing the finger at Sachs saying, “China gets a Covid pass from its useful idiots.”
Sach’s latest perfidy in the eyes of his detractors is that he argues the likelihood that the Covid virus was lab-manipulated, and not just that, but done so in a U.S. lab, or foreign labs affiliated with ongoing U.S. research projects.
Americans who see China as the enemy and have invested deeply in the narrative that Covid-19 is a Chinese leak, a Chinese creation or a Chinese bioweapon, will indeed find Jeffrey Sachs’ conclusions troubling. After all, Mike Pompeo staked his hefty reputation as Secretary of State on the insistence that it came from a Chinese lab, and his Trump administration colleague Peter Navarro claimed that China used sick people to seed the world with the Covid-19 pandemic.
But just because an American espouses an opinion that the Chinese government happens to be comfortable with is not to say that individual is an apologist or propagandist for Beijing.
But Sachs gets the China apologist treatment. Consider this takedown by James Lewis in Democracy Brief:
“Sachs is a peddler of anti-American talking points. Over the past few years, he’s praised the Chinese Communist Party, argued that there is no Uyghur genocide, and blamed NATO for instigating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s all bad, and it gets worse.”….
I don’t know if “praise” is the right word to describe a professor’s personal opinions about issues where he happens to be in agreement with China's communist party. Is it not possible to have partially overlapping worldviews, or to give China credit where credit is due? Does the positive China impact of some of his words make every argument by this seasoned academic and peace activist invalid?
Lewis goes on to note that Sachs is “extremely skeptical of the American medical establishment, but he is all too willing to believe Chinese disinformation.”
China, like many countries, produces disinformation, but not everything out of China is disinformation, and Jeffrey Sachs is smart enough to know the difference. And is it beyond belief that the Chinese media might get something right and America might get it wrong?
In the end only scientists can really determine the origins of the virus that has done so much to disrupt the world as we know it. Easy answers would be convenient, but that’s not how science works. It is incremental, it requires good data and transparency. It requires constant testing and correction. If there are areas where China and the U.S. are hiding the facts for reasons of face, it’s essentially an anti-science stance.
Jeffrey Sachs is asking his government to come clean on the Covid files. A scholar of similar stature in China should ask his government the same.