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Blasting COVID-19 response in China, McMaster advocates ‘bypass’ of foreign firewalls to spread truth

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“I think it’s bad for dictators,” said Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster at a Thursday webinar about the geopolitics of COVID-19. “I think what we’re seeing is the benefit of our free, open, democratic system.

In the Hoover Institution-sponsored event, McMaster disparaged China’s response to COVID-19, warned of a possible U.S. “reprisal” against Iran and called for the U.S. to “bypass” China and Iran’s internet censorship to combat COVID-19 disinformation. He also questioned whether the pandemic could cause a power shift in Russia and excoriated social media companies for allowing falsehoods to spread. McMaster spoke about COVID-19’s ability to accelerate pre-existing trends and the challenges it presents to authoritarian governments. 

“As dissatisfied as Americans are with the government’s initial response, we have a self-correcting mechanism,” McMaster said. “We have a say in how we’re governed. In societies that don’t, as the people’s voices are suppressed, the only alternative to change might be a revolution.” 

The challenges presented by COVID-19 to autocracies remained a prominent theme throughout the discussion.  

The webinar was moderated by Hoover Director Thomas Gilligan, who first asked McMaster about China’s response to COVID-19. McMaster criticized China’s initial handling of the outbreak, blaming the Chinese Communist Party for silencing early warnings

“China has acted in an egregious manner harassing the doctors trying to warn about this,” McMaster said. 

He criticized China’s recent moves to arrest pro-democracy advocates “who advocate for the Chinese people having a say in how they’re governed in Hong Kong and in the mainland.”

McMaster also spoke about the heightening of tensions between China and the rest of the international community. He described China’s information warfare and aggressive militarization as two causes for concern. 

“We can see in recent days an intensification of the information warfare that the Chinese Communist Party is waging against the United States, with the narrative that the United States and other free and open democratic systems have failed,” McMaster said. 

He attributed this escalation as an attempt by China to “mask their responsibility for how rapidly and widely this pandemic spread.”

McMaster said the U.S. should not just defend against misinformation, but also actively seek to spread factual reporting to autocratic regimes. 

Both Iran and China censor the internet among their populations, banning many foreign news services. 

“I do think our government does have a role in trying to figure out how to bypass these firewalls,” McMaster said. “I think we should bypass Iran and China’s firewall and reach those people with information that can allow them to form their own judgements based on the truth rather than on disinformation and propaganda.”

Former Secretary of State and incoming Hoover Director Condoleezza Rice voiced similar criticisms about China during her Hoover webinar last Tuesday

“It is the nature of the Chinese system, and authoritarianism, that control of information is power,” Rice said. “So we shouldn’t be surprised that when this outbreak happened in Wuhan, they silenced the young physicians and medical students who were trying to sound the alarm.”

“I think what you’re seeing is the Chinese Communist Party racing to put in place this Orwellian police state,” McMaster said.

China has received praise from the World Health Organization (WHO) for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its aggressive policies of quarantining infected regions. The WHO’s early support for China later drew criticism for creating what some have seen as an overconfidence in China’s handling of the virus.

McMaster also spoke about what he saw as China’s growing military aggression, citing its actions in the South China Sea. 

“In the last couple days they formed these two municipalities to govern this big land grab in the South China Sea,” McMaster said. 

China is currently contesting ownership of numerous islands in the sea and drew criticism when satellite images revealed the construction of military bases on the contested islands.

Rising tensions with China have the potential to further decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies, according to McMaster. 

“What you’re seeing as a result of this kind of behavior is a backlash internationally, and I think that’s a positive trend,” McMaster said. “The United States and other free and open societies ought to do everything we can to protect ourselves against the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to subvert our free market economic systems and our democratic form of governance.”

“The Chinese government is not a trusted partner,” he added. “It is not a good place to do business. We can no longer have some of our critical supply chains vulnerable to disruption by the Chinese Communist Party.” 

McMaster also hinted at the possibility of unrest within China. 

“The Chinese population is becoming more critical of the party, particularly in the way they’ve handled the crisis,” McMaster said. “This is going to happen against a backdrop of a slowing economy and China not being able to make good on the promise it’s made to its own people under this program of national rejuvenation. As the economy contracts I think there will be a tendency to double down on practices that actually exacerbate the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in that economy, especially state-owned enterprises.”

McMaster isn’t the first to link China’s slowing economic growth to rising internal unrest. The argument hinges upon the assumption that Chinese citizens will happily trade political power for a growing economy rapidly affording middle class lifestyles to millions. The self-correcting mechanism McMaster mentioned about democracies is only relevant when the populace is unhappy with the government. China reported an 6.2% unemployment rate, a 13.5% drop in industrial output, and a 20.5% drop in retail sales in January and February. 

McMaster also attacked social media companies for their role in spreading misinformation about COVID-19. 

“I think it’s abhorrent that U.S. social media companies won’t take down blatant state-sponsored disinformation and propaganda in the United States, when they don’t even get to have access into the Chinese market,” McMaster said.  

He credited the American free press as the best defense against what Gilligan referred to as the “information warfare” related to COVID-19.

“I think our media should be very active at exposing their [foreign states] nefarious activity and their dishonesty and disinformation efforts,” McMaster said.

He also took aim at China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. OBOR is a Chinese program that finances development projects in other countries. 

“I hope that there’s going to be an effort among countries that have been vulnerable to Chinese influence in the so-called debt trap associated with the one belt one road initiative to protect themselves against China attempting to create a servile relationship with these countries,” McMaster said. 

OBOR has come under criticism after several of its projects defaulted, forcing recipient countries to sign long-term leases to China. The initiative has also garnered more positive press for fostering development in Africa and Southeast Asia. 

McMaster also spoke about the effect of COVID-19 in the Middle East. 

“It is a humanitarian crisis of colossal scale that we are witnessing across the region,” he said.

Iran is going through a crisis of the regime’s own making,” McMaster said. COVID-19 is exacerbating the country’s preexistent problems, such as collapsing oil prices and a corrupt economic system, McMaster said, and bringing the whole country under increasing strain. Iran has addressed its internal challenges by turning outwards, launching 20 attacks against U.S. forces since the killing of top Iranian general Qasim Soleimani on Jan. 3. 

“COVID has hidden from our attention a real escalation by the Iranians in Iraq and the Gulf,” McMaster said. “I think there’s a chance for an escalation that will result in a reprisal maybe against Iran or Iranian assets.”

McMaster also spoke about the challenges facing Iraq. 

“Iraq is a country that is going into an even worse crisis and I think we ought to try and maintain our influence and support there,” McMaster said.  “I think the Iraqi people are going to want that more and more as they see that their fate alternative to this is tied to Iranian influence.”

McMaster also spoke about the challenges COVID-19 poses to the Russian government, where the government is already facing a collapse in oil prices and internal political unrest, particularly over recent municipal elections

“This could be the biggest challenge that Putin’s faced in Russia,” McMaster said.

“I think that the pressure on Putin is certainly going to mount,” he added. “Something we’re going to be watching at Hoover is who is going to emerge as a potential new leader of Russia — not that Putin is going to lose power, but I think power is certainly really going to shift away from him to others.”

McMaster also briefly discussed North Korea, adding that the coronavirus may be the best method to enforce United Nations sanctions. Satellite photographs taken of North Korean ships show them idled in port, avoiding trading with China and the risk of bringing COVID-19 to North Korea. McMaster also advocated support for a “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, saying the policy “has been reinforced by the COVID-19 experience in North Korea.”

McMaster, who left the national security council in April 2018, also spoke about the administration’s preparation for a global pandemic. Preparing for a pandemic “was one of our top national security challenges,” McMaster said. The administration had a three pronged approach to combating pandemics. The first prong was “improving global surveillance and trying to contain these problems. That effort was foiled by the fundamental dishonesty of the Chinese Communist Party,” McMaster said. 

Innovating and developing treatments was the second part of the administration’s strategy, according to McMaster.

The third was rapidly mobilizing a response. 

“This is where we’ve fallen short,” McMaster said. “We didn’t have enough personal protective equipment, ventilators and so forth.” 

The solution, he said, might lie in “understanding what we have to do to ensure more effective integration across different departments and agencies.”

Closer to home, McMaster hopes that COVID-19 will allow America to build closer ties with its South American neighbors. 

“I think we ought to continue to support our friends in the region who are democratic countries,” he said, “… and help all of us succeed and then demonstrate to the people of the hemisphere that what works is rule of law, strong democratic institutions and a responsible free market economic system.”

Contact Nicholas Midler at midler ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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