The time was that accidentally letting out a pandemic and then lying about it would have resulted in a little gunboat diplomacy. After all, China’s perfidy has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, trillions in destroyed wealth, and half the planet cowering in their homes in lockdown. However, even if a war with a nuclear power would be courting a greater catastrophe, the principle that one should not start a land war in Asia still applies.
However, one thing that the West has in abundance are lawyers. The proliferation of lawsuits against the Chinese government suggests that the main response thus far is going to be an attempt to take its assets. But will the Chinese government use foreign sovereignty immunity to skate responsibility?
The Newsweek has a good rundown of some of the civil actions being mounted against Beijing,
“In one suit filed in late March, a coalition of California property managers and an accounting firm are seeking to represent all small businesses in California that have suffered as a result of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. A suit filed in mid-March by several Florida residents aims to assemble its own class of millions of people. Larry Klayman, a conservative lawyer and founder of the group Freedom Watch, is leading another class-action complaint accusing China of releasing a “biological weapon” into the public.”
The Jerusalem Post reports on an Israeli lawsuit being filed in an American court. An Israeli NGO called Shurat HaDin, which usually sues countries that foster terrorism, is trying to bring China to court for lying about the coronavirus pandemic.
Some legal experts suggest that if these suits are successful, China may owe the world community as much as $6 trillion. The legal actions would be the biggest class-action lawsuits in history.
However, Jonathon Turley, a Georgetown University law professor, suggests that China is not likely to be forced to pay, largely because of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. He writes in The Hill:
“In 2008, a lawsuit with some interesting analogies was filed against Saudi Arabia over the financing of the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. The kingdom had been accused of effectively releasing terrorists, rather than a virus, but the courts rejected those claims under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Congress then amended it to allow for such lawsuits with the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. President Obama vetoed it, but Congress overrode his veto. It is possible that Congress could do so again for this virus, which has now cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in losses.”
Indeed, as Newsweek notes, Rep Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas has introduced a bill entitled “Holding the Chinese Communist Party Accountable for Infecting Americans Act of 2020.” The bill would amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to allow legal sanctions against states that cause injury and death.
Professor Turley does not think that even this fix will allow a lawsuit to go forward to make China pay for what it’s done. He suggests that courts will be reluctant to award damages for the many deaths and huge economic damages that the pandemic has caused because it could be argued that other factors are involved, including bad public policy decisions by the affected states. The counter-argument might be that those bad decisions were directly caused by the coverup by the Chinese government.
In the meantime, China is not reacting very well to the proliferation of lawsuits, according to Fox News.
“China on Monday played the victim card, calling on the United States to stop blaming the country for the global COVID-19 crisis, as pressure increased over Beijing’s mismanagement of the novel coronavirus that has infected more than 2.4 million people worldwide. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said during a press briefing that COVID-19 is a common enemy of all mankind. He added that China was also a victim and that the global community should work together instead of seeking a single source to blame.”
To be sure, the Chinese people are as much a victim of the pandemic as are people residing in the rest of the world. But it could be so argued that they were victimized by their government which tried to cover up the full extent of the damage wrought by the pandemic. Whatever happens, the lawsuits will proceed.