Lawsuits Against China Escalate Covid-19 Blame Game With U.S.

(Bloomberg Businessweek) — President Trump has joined a chorus of calls for China to cough up damages from the Covid-19 pandemic, saying his administration is exploring ways to make the country pay. (“We haven’t determined the final amount yet. It’s very substantial,” Trump said at a press briefing on April 27.) His remarks followed several bills proposed by Republican members of Congress seeking to strip China of its sovereign immunity protection in U.S. courts. That would potentially leave China open to lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in compensation for its handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Those lawsuits are multiplying. Two proposed class-action suits have been filed in federal court in Miami, and similar ones have been filed in California, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The state of Missouri has filed a federal suit seeking damages, while Mississippi has also said it will file a case. Next may be Florida: The state’s chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis, wrote of that intention to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, saying that in the meantime, he’ll seek to seize any payments Florida owes to Chinese vendors as well as any unclaimed property of Chinese-owned companies “to offset the debt” that the Chinese Communist Party owes the people of Florida.

For sure, there’s a large element of political theater in riling up sentiment against China—especially before the U.S. presidential election in November, as Republicans seek to shift blame from Trump for a U.S. death toll above 70,000, 10,000 more deaths than he’d previously suggested might be the maximum. A strategy memo for Republican campaigners obtained by Politico said as much: “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban—attack China.” And it’s not difficult when 72% of Republicans—and 66% of Americans overall—hold unfavorable views of China, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in March.

China is playing its own blame game, with officials taking to Twitter to deflect from Beijing’s failings and to highlight U.S. missteps, even going so far as to posit that the U.S. military introduced the virus to Wuhan. China’s attempts to skew discussion of the origins of the coronavirus provided fuel for Trump, who repeatedly called it the “Chinese virus” until a phone call between him and President Xi Jinping in late March calmed things down temporarily. By early May, Trump was promising a “conclusive” report on the virus’s origins. 

Calls for Covid-19 damages started growing in April. Since then, China’s Foreign Ministry has responded with veiled threats of retaliation, stating that the U.S. has never been made to pay for the damage wrought by the AIDS

epidemic, the 2008 global financial crisis, or the 2009 H1N1 flu strain, which was first detected in the U.S. and killed 200,000 people in more than 200 countries. (China’s ambassador to the U.S. wrote in the Washington Post on May 5, “To ask a victim for compensation is simply ridiculous.”) Any attempts to claim damages from China, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang hinted, could be met with reciprocity.

Rather, he said, U.S. officials are simply playing politics. “They have only one objective: to shirk their responsibility for their own poor epidemic prevention and control measures and divert public attention,” he said at an April 28 press briefing in Beijing. “This is political manipulation.”

It’s also opportunism. More than 10,000 people have signed up online as plaintiffs in one of the Florida suits, which names the Chinese Communist Party along with the Chinese government as defendants, a move lawyers hope will bypass sovereign immunity. “The CCP is a separate organization that controls the government but is not the government,” says Matthew Moore, the lead attorney for the Florida suits at Berman Law Group in Boca Raton. “It’s not subject to sovereign immunity because it is not the state.”


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