Chinese government deception regarding the coronavirus outbreak is raising new fears about Beijing’s biological weapons activities, including population-specific research on germ weapons capable of attacking ethnic groups, according to current and former U.S. officials.
A senior Trump administration official told The Washington Times that China is known to be engaged in a covert program that includes development of biological weapons capable of attacking ethnic groups with pathogens.
“We are looking at potential biological experiments on ethnic minorities,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.
Details about the activities were obtained from sources with direct knowledge of the Chinese programs and are contained in intelligence reports that may be declassified for public release in the future.
The official said China’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has heightened concerns about its secret biological weapons work. Beijing hid early indicators of how infectious the coronavirus was and delayed warning the world.
“We continue to have concerns with China’s BWC compliance as well as their international obligations,” the official said, referring to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, an international treaty that prohibits the development and production of biological agents. “If we’ve learned nothing else through this COVID episode, it’s that China cannot be trusted to do the right thing.”
China signed the BWC treaty in 1984, and more than 100 other countries have joined. Article 5 requires signatories to “consult one another and to cooperate in solving any problems” related to biological threats.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began in December, China has refused to allow international investigators to examine research work on bat-origin coronaviruses conducted at two Wuhan laboratories.
A spokesman for the Chinese mission to the United Nations did not return emails or telephone calls seeking comment.
National security officials focused on international biological weapons security protocols have been concerned about Bejing’s activities for years.
Sources who spoke with The Times pointed to China’s contribution to a U.N. guide to biological security in 2011 that detailed Beijing’s own concerns relating to rapid technological advancements to create population-specific biological weapons and other exotic pathogens capable of attacking ethnic groups.
China did not say in the document that it had its own active program to develop such capabilities, but U.S. intelligence officials and some foreign affairs experts said Beijing did and continues to have such a program.
Some said the language Chinese officials used in the 2011 U.N. guide, which Beijing did not make public at the time, offered a window into their government research activities.
In the document, titled “Preventing Biological Threats: What You Can Do,” Chinese officials laid out their unease that scientific breakthroughs to “combat disease and improve health” could be unleashed as effective weapons. Chinese officials also cited “targeted drug-delivery technology making it easier to spread pathogens,” as well as “population-specific genetic markers” and the “creation of man-made pathogens.”
The U.N. guidebook was a compilation of information from 12 nations participating in the 2011 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, known as the BWC. An addendum, “New scientific and technological developments relevant to the Convention,” includes background information on nations’ submissions.
Several participants revealed ongoing research that could have either offensive or defense biological weapons applications.
The United States disclosed work on advances in manipulating genetic material and microorganisms, awareness-raising communication, confidence-building and scientific conduct, export controls and improvements in biosafety.
One current and two former officials said the prospect that China could develop ethnic-related biological weapons is chilling.
Paula DeSutter, a former assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance and implementation, said China, in the 2011 document, was “admitting to pursuing these activities, which is not surprising since each is clearly indicative of an intent to employ biological weapons, in some cases against specific populations.”
“One has to tremble at the notion that Wuhan may have been an experiment to test all of these items they were working on as far back as 2011,” Ms. DeSutter told The Times.
The notion appears to be bolstered by recent Chinese military writings.
Retired Chinese Gen. Zhang Shibo wrote in his 2017 book, “New Highland of War,” that biotechnology advances were increasing the likelihood of offensive bioweapons, including the danger of “specific ethnic genetic attacks.”
That same year, the Chinese military-run National Defense University’s annual Science of Military Strategy report for the first time included a section on biology as a domain of warfare. The document said germ conflict could include “specific ethnic genetic attacks.”
U.S. officials outlined their concerns about China’s biological weapons programs in a recent executive summary of the State Department’s annual arms control compliance report.
“During the reporting period, the People’s Republic of China (China) engaged in biological activities with potential dual-use applications, some of which raise concerns regarding its compliance with Article I of the BWC,” the report said.
Article 1 states that signatories to the BWC agree never to develop, produce or stockpile biological or toxin weapons, or to build weapons or equipment to deliver the arms.
The State Department’s 2020 compliance report, as well as reports produced by the department in 2005 and 2010, assessed that China maintained “some elements of an offensive [biological weapons] capability” in violation of the BWC.
A former senior Trump administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed particular concern over the prospect that China has been conducting population-specific and other research with applications for biological weapons.
The concerns began receiving attention in the State Department’s annual arms compliance report in 2019. Before that, the State Department and the intelligence community largely played down such concerns, the former official said.
Although China’s 2011 submission to the U.N. guidebook does not provide clear evidence that Beijing is trying to develop ethnic cleansing biological weapons, the former official said the Chinese military writings emphasizing biological warfare as a new domain raises serious concerns.
“This is dual-use research, which is why it does raise the specter of China having an offensive capability,” the former official said. “What the Chinese are unable to say is that [population-specific genetic research] has a peaceful application.”
However, He Yafei, who was China’s ambassador to the U.N. office in Geneva, wrote at the time that closely monitoring bioscience and technology developments was needed to maintain the effectiveness of the BWC.
“China supports efforts to enhance the monitoring and assessment of the impacts of the advancement of biotechnology under the framework of the convention, with a view to preventing the hostile use of biotechnology and making it better serve the mankind,” Mr. He wrote.
China has said it is working on synthetic biology, which experts believe could be used to edit gene sequences to create viruses weaponized to infect a specific person.
A U.S. submission to a 2016 review conference on biological security said the threat of biological and toxin weapons is neither abstract nor theoretical.
“Scientific advances and the increasingly widespread availability of key materials, equipment and knowledge put such weapons within reach of more actors — whether state or non-state — than ever before,” the submission said.
“Biological weapons have been used in the past to horrific effect, and there is clear evidence that terrorist groups, individuals, and states continue to pursue these abhorrent weapons.”
Beijing is engaged in mass repression of several minorities, including Uighurs and other Muslims in western China. An estimated 1 million are being held in concentration camps, which Chinese officials call reeducation centers.
China also has targeted Tibetans for repression. The Chinese military has annexed the southwestern region, and many Tibetans remain loyal to the Buddhist leader Dalai Lama and are seeking independence.
The information about China’s 2011 BWC submission was contained in a report posted on the Geneva-based BWC information support unit website.
It was funded by the British and Canadian governments and reflects the findings of experts who met on the sidelines of the review conference in Geneva in January 2011.
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