What exactly is the U.S. Department of State’s position on the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus?
How has this pandemic effectively become a “test case” of democratic versus authoritarian governance?
And what should the relationship between China and the United States look like in the future?
In this episode, we sit down with Morgan Ortagus, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Morgan Ortagus, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Morgan Ortagus: Thank you for having me. It’s my first time. Great to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: There are so many things I want to talk to you about related to China. This has been a big topic on the show recently, pertaining to coronavirus, some of the difficult realities around that. Before I jump into that, one of the things that we noted when we were preparing for the interview is that you pointed out Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at the top of the month. I think it’s particularly appropriate for a couple of reasons, one that we (The Epoch Times) were actually founded by Chinese-Americans back in the day, 20 years ago, to speak the truth about communist China. And of course this is what we’re going to talk about today. Why is it that you and the State Department Secretary are marking this particular month?
Ms. Ortagus: Yes, that’s a great question. We obviously really value the contributions that Asian-Americans and Americans of Pacific heritage [have made] to our diplomatic corps. We have, actually, a very strong contingent at the State Department. And our ties to Asia, to the Pacific Islands, of course, it goes back generations. In fact, I was just with Secretary Pompeo. Gosh I think it was last summer, already. Time really flies. We went to Micronesia, and visited several islands there. … I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him smile so much as I saw him smile on that trip. It was just really wonderful to be in a place that values America. Every time we go to Asia, we meet with people that are really on the frontlines of communism and authoritarianism versus democracy and freedom. You almost don’t see that anywhere else in the world like you see when you go to Asia. So we’re proud of the contributions [of] Asian-Americans and Americans with Pacific Island heritage, what they contribute not only to the State Department, but to America in general. That’s why we thought it was crucially important to highlight their contributions this month.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump right into it. What do you make of these allegations? Some of them coming from Chinese Communist Party spokespeople, that assigning location—i.e. China or Wuhan—to coronavirus, is a racist thing.
Ms. Ortagus: …Folks at the State Department who read Mandarin have pointed out to me that it was the Chinese Communist Party that first pointed out that this virus emanated from Wuhan, and were assigning the origin in Wuhan. That’s just a fact. Right? The fact that this virus emanated from Wuhan and from China. It’s just a fact. Now, what we’re really calling on is to understand more about the origins of the virus. We’re calling on full transparency and openness from the Chinese Communist Party, not just to the United States. … The Chinese government tries to make this about China versus the U.S. It’s not. We’re not the only country that have called for an investigation. The Australians have; the Germans have; many in the United Kingdom have called for transparency. Even the EU’s Foreign Minister admitted that the EU had been naive about China’s intentions.
So, we really think that the world is waking up to this. And the Chinese government needs to understand this isn’t about the blame game. This isn’t about even retribution. We’re trying to get to the bottom of a pandemic that has wreaked havoc around the world, that has destroyed, killed lives, destroyed economies. We’re trying to get to the bottom of it. So that way, we can make sure that the world never has to deal with a pandemic of this scale ever again.
Mr. Jekielek: For whatever reason, there remains some confusion about what the State Department’s position is around the origin of the virus. I wanted to give you an opportunity, for the record, to spell it out. … So, what do we understand today at this moment about the origins of the virus?
Ms. Ortagus: The reality is that we can’t say [with] certainty where this virus emanated from, and that’s what Secretary Pompeo pointed out this morning, when he was briefing the press at the State Department. We know that the Chinese Communist Party has told the world that this virus emanated from a wet market. Now, what we also know is that the underlying data that needs to be provided to credible scientists and doctors who would do a peer review of that data and analysis and also verify that claim, that hasn’t happened. So, maybe it did emanate from a wet market. I don’t know. None of us will actually know until we have the data behind that, for credible scientists and doctors to prove.
As the Secretary pointed out, he has seen a lot of circumstantial evidence related to the lab. You know, I think people are conflating the issues. Obviously, it’s possible for a natural virus to emanate from a lab. It doesn’t just have to be a man-made virus. It’s also possible, as many in the intelligence community have pointed out, that things can accidentally leak from a lab without it being a purposeful or an intentional leak.
So what the job is of the US government is to work with like-minded, credible and independent scientists and doctors around the world to find out can we get the data, can we get the proof, to validate one of these theories. And all of this, whether it’s from a wet market or a lab or somewhere else, another theory that we’re not thinking of, all of this is circumstantial and without certainty until the Chinese Communist Party opens up to the world, allows in credible scientists and doctors to verify data. That’s simply the point that we’re making.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you make of the fact that we know that some of that data was actually destroyed, including the wet market being basically wiped out from what I understand?
Ms. Ortagus: That makes it very hard to prove a theory. I think the Chinese Communist Party just wants the world to trust them. We certainly believe in verifying that trust.
Mr. Jekielek: So, you say that this isn’t about blame, right? And it’s not about politics. This is what Secretary Pompeo said today. At the same time, the Secretary is calling for clear accountability. What’s the distinction here?
Ms. Ortagus: Well, that’s a good question. I think the distinction is, we’ve got organizations like the WHO, for example, that should be above reproach. They should be above influence, especially any sort of nefarious influence from any country. And they should be calling balls and strikes, and being able to say, “You know what? We can’t verify XYZ data? We need that data.” … [This] stems from some of our frustration and the reason why we have a positive review of funding of the WHO, and a review of their activities and what reforms they need, because we do need our multilateral agencies to work. We need them to be independent, and we need for somebody to have a credible voice, to be an independent arbiter of this information.
Mr. Jekielek: Another thing that the Secretary has talked about is, and I think you alluded to this earlier as well, is this need for trust to develop, and to work with “reliable partners” is the term I think I heard. First of all, what reliable partners does the United States have out there right now? I think you’re also arguing that China has not been one.
Ms. Ortagus: That’s a great question. The pandemic has been such an interesting test case of authoritarian governments versus democratic governments. It’s amazing. When you look at authoritarian governments like China, like North Korea, like Iran, [and] the illegitimate dictator in Venezuela, when you see these authoritarian regimes, you see countries in which we know that they are under-reporting the number of COVID cases in the country. I think North Korea said they had no cases. Sure, miracles happen every day, I don’t think that’s one of them. You also see in these authoritarian regimes, not only do we believe that they are underreporting the data of the number of cases, they’re also likely grossly underreporting the number of deaths as well.
So, it’s very hard whenever you look at the projections or the various numbers coming out from around the world. It’s hard to compare apples to apples to authoritarian societies versus democratic societies, where in democratic societies, there is transparency, people demand to hold their government [accountable]. You get to see this in the United States every day. You get to see the press questioning the President, questioning Secretary Pompeo, often in very vigorous exchanges. Those type of exchanges you would never see in China. You would never see the questioning of Chairman Xi, the way you see it [with] President Trump. So, I think that this has been, if anybody was sort of curious about how authoritarian societies handle a pandemic, versus democracies. For me, it’s crystal clear now more than ever that type of transparency you only get from free and open societies. We just wish—and Secretary Pompeo said this last week—what we wish for the Chinese people and all people, people of Iran and other nations that live under these authoritarian regimes, we wish for them the freedom and openness that we cherish as Americans.
Mr. Jekielek: The Chinese ambassador to the United States says: “China has done its best to share information about the virus.”
Ms. Ortagus: Great. Well, there’s still a lot more to be done, ambassador. Open up the country. Let in credible and independent scientists and doctors to verify your claims. It can happen tomorrow. I think Secretary Pompeo has said, we’re at 120 days and counting, waiting on that to happen.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that the Secretary does, which we find very interesting and important is he often delineates a difference between the Chinese Communist Party and China. He said very clearly the Chinese Communist Party. The distinction might be lost on some. I’m wondering if you could speak to why he does that?
Ms. Ortagus: We think it’s very important to remind Americans and to remind the world, the true early heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. And those are the Chinese doctors, the Chinese scientists, the Chinese journalists, the people that risked their lives, some of them, to blow the whistle on this pandemic. Some of them died from COVID-19; some of them, the government made them to disappear; some of them were told, as you alluded to earlier, to destroy their work and to stop talking; some of them [were] imprisoned.
So, we are grateful to all people around the world in the healthcare profession, but especially those early Chinese doctors and scientists who risked everything to blow the whistle and to tell the world what was truly happening. So, we want the Chinese people to know that we can only imagine for them, how much more effective and creative and ingenuitive they could be, if they were living in a free and open society that allowed them to speak and allow them to debate without risking their lives to do so.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the allegations made about the idea of holding China accountable is that the administration wishes to shift blame away from itself. What would be your perspective on this?
Ms. Ortagus: That’s Interesting. I hear that criticism. I know from having worked for Secretary Pompeo up close and personal for over a year now, that he was actually one of the first administration officials way back in February to raise the alarm bells and to say that the Chinese government was not being open and transparent, like we needed with the data. Like we would need to verify what was going on with the pandemic. So Secretary Pompeo has been clear and consistent. He’s been saying this for quite some time.
And now, we know President Trump is taking a whole-of-America approach. We have many businesses, many government officials who are looking at our supply chains, who are looking at America now producing things that are important to American national security here. Really this pandemic has highlighted just how correct I think President Trump has been since he began campaigning for the office in 2015, about the need to protect our borders, to bring crucial manufacturing home, and importantly, for America to have reciprocal relationships around the world, to have an even playing field.
And that’s what we’re calling for in our relationship with China, whether it’s in trade, or whether it’s working on this pandemic or national security issues. We want our diplomats in China to be treated the same way that their diplomats here are treated, same for our journalists. … We know that America and China are geo-strategic competitors, that’s obvious to the world. That’s fine. We can be in competition; we can work in certain areas; we’ll disagree in other areas. But while we are strategic competitors, it needs to be a level playing field. It needs to be a relationship of reciprocity. And that’s all we’re seeking to do, to balance up the field.
Mr. Jekielek: In today’s press conference, the Secretary mentioned that $900 million has been committed internationally to support different countries’ coronavirus response. I’ve seen criticism in both directions. I’ve seen people saying this is not nearly enough, we need to help more. I’ve also seen the criticism: Why are we spending, in this case, it’s $900 million. Why is that not focusing on the US? What is the approach here?
Ms. Ortagus: Good question. So, if $900 million isn’t enough, I would challenge you to find any other country in the world that is as generous as the American taxpayer. Let me just back up and put this into context for your viewers. Over the past two decades, just the past two decades, the generosity of the American people has been so prevalent in global public health. We have given, over the past two days decades, over $140 billion to global public health. The global public health infrastructure that exists today is largely funded by the American taxpayer. There is no country in the world that even comes close. We saw earlier this week that there was an EU pledging conference as it relates to finding solutions to this pandemic. We saw that the Chinese sent a representative, and they didn’t pony up a dime, right? … These are cold, hard numbers. America continues to be the most generous nation on the planet, by a wide margin, and we will be.
But the one thing that the Trump administration calls for is to be good stewards of American taxpayer dollars. We want to use them wisely. So, I don’t think that the generosity of the American people are ever in question. We’ve committed, as you pointed out—today, we just added new funds—so it’s over $900 million in funds, directly related to COVID-19. Some countries that would be considered our worst enemies, we’ve offered to help them because we want to help people around the world recover from COVID-19. No matter what sort of issue we may have with the government, we don’t have it with the people of those nations. So, we know that America will lead the world in COVID-19 recovery. We will lead it from a global health perspective, and we will lead it from an economic perspective.
Mr. Jekielek: What about folks who feel this is too much spending, given the economic challenges that we’re going to face imminently?
Ms. Ortagus: That is certainly a very worthwhile and robust debate that will happen in Washington amongst our appropriators, which is of course the members of Congress. They have allocated these funds to us and our job at the State Department is when these funds are allocated, to be good stewards of American taxpayer dollars. And that’s what we’ll do.
Mr. Jekielek: Fantastic. Any final words before we finish up?
Ms. Ortagus: I just want to tie it back to your first question, talking about Asian and Pacific Heritage Month here in America, for Americans of those descents. One of the beautiful things about America are our immigrants who come here, who become entrepreneurs, who thrive. It’s just such a crucial part of the fabric of the State Department, and of the fabric of American life. And I just want to continue again to recognize those people of Asian descent and their contributions to American society while at the same time, always remembering those early heroes in China, those doctors and scientists, some of them who gave up their lives, who were disappeared by the Chinese government. They knew the risks that they were taking, but they took it to try and save the world from this pandemic. And we want their families to know: We remember them.
Mr. Jekielek: Very powerful words. And I know that the founders of the Epoch Times and my boss are going to be very, very happy to hear what you just said. Such a pleasure to have you on, Morgan.
Ms. Ortagus: It’s great. I hope to be back soon.