Local officials in China hid coronavirus dangers from Beijing, U.S. agencies find

click to enlarge Local officials in China hid coronavirus dangers from Beijing, U.S. agencies find
Giulia Marchi/The New York Times
People, wearing protective clothing to guard against the coronavirus, walk in the departure hall of the Beijing South railway station in Beijing on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020.
Edward Wong, Julian E. Barnes and Zolan Kanno-Youngs
The New York Times Company

WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials have tried taking a political sledgehammer to China over the coronavirus pandemic, asserting that the Chinese Communist Party covered up the initial outbreak and allowed the virus to spread around the globe.

But within the U.S. government, intelligence officials have arrived at a more nuanced and complex finding of what Chinese officials did wrong in January.

Officials in Beijing were kept in the dark for weeks about the potential devastation of the virus by local officials in central China, according to American officials familiar with a new internal report by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The report concluded that officials in the city of Wuhan and in Hubei province, where the outbreak began late last year, tried to hide information from China’s central leadership. The finding is consistent with reporting by news organizations and with assessments by China experts of the country’s opaque governance system.

Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, current and former American officials say.

The new assessment does not contradict the Trump administration’s criticism of China, but adds perspective and context to actions — and inactions — that created the global crisis.

President Donald Trump said in a July 4 speech at the White House that “China’s secrecy, deceptions and cover-up” enabled the pandemic. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the administration was “telling the truth every day” about “the Communist cover-up of that virus.”

The report, originally circulated in June, represents the consensus of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. It still supports the overall notion that Communist Party officials hid important information from the world, U.S. officials said. The report says senior officials in Beijing, even as they were scrambling to pry data from officials in central China, played a role in obscuring the outbreak by withholding information from the World Health Organization.

But the report adds to a body of evidence that shows how the malfeasance of local Chinese officials appeared to be a decisive factor in the spread of the virus within Wuhan and beyond.

The Chinese government has said it acted quickly to limit the spread of the virus and to warn the world. This winter, central authorities ousted a few local party officials, indicating they were to blame.

The new report does not diminish China’s culpability, current and former administration officials said.

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