Should China Pay? Pompeo Says He’s Confident Those Responsible Will be 'Held Accountable'

Patrick Goodenough | April 14, 2020 | 3:55am EDT
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing. (Photo by Andy Wong/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing. (Photo by Andy Wong/AFP/Getty Images)

(Update: Secretary of State Pompeo said in an interview Tuesday, “when that time is right, those who were responsible for both the loss of lives, the tragedy that’s taken place here in the United States, and the economic damage that has been done all around the world, I’m very confident that this administration will lead the way in holding both those countries and the individuals responsible for it accountable.”)

( – Asked whether the Chinese government should pay for the damage caused by its early mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday did not answer directly, but did say he was confident that “those who are responsible” will be “held accountable.”

“Should China pay for the damage done?” Germany’s Bild TV asked Pompeo in an interview.

Right now, Pompeo replied, the U.S. government was “looking forward,” and focused on “making sure that we reduce risk as we move forward in the days and weeks and months ahead.”

However, he continued, “there’ll be a time to make sure that we all understand what happened and that those who are responsible are held accountable for that. I’m very confident that that process will take place.”

“For the moment, I think it’s absolutely essential that we focus on the task ahead of us, getting systems in place such that we can reopen the American economy, and ultimately the global economy as well,” Pompeo said. “There’ll be a time for recriminations.”

The Bild reporter, speaking through a translator, asked Pompeo if there should be a global debate on the issue of whether “the Chinese government should be held accountable for the damage done.”

“There needs to be more than a global debate,” he replied. “It’s important to understand how this began, where this began, where it originated, and that’s science. That’s fact-based; that is not political. It’s important to know that.”

Pompeo said it was essential to understand where the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 originated, and how it spread internationally.

Noting that the global economy has had to be shut down, at enormous cost, he said, “We need to make sure that no country ever causes something like this to happen again, and that we’re all working together to reduce the risk of a recurrence of a threat like COVID-19.”

Trillions in damages

A recent report by a conservative British think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, argued that the world should pursue “legal action against the PRC for the breaches of international law [specifically, the legally-binding International Health Regulations] and their consequences,” and says China is potentially liable for trillions of dollars in damages.

It noted that the G7 countries alone will together spend more than $4 trillion “to meet the direct economic cost of COVID-19, including health and social security, as well as underwriting loan guarantees and broader financial support to prevent the global economy from entering a period of deep recession.”

The report laid out a range of potential avenues for legal action, including the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the World Trade Organization, and courts in Hong Kong, Britain, and the U.S.

In a column on Monday, Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times accused the U.S. of having “encouraged a few lawyers to initiate lawsuits against the Chinese government, making farcical claims and instigating anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S.”

“Washington has turned to extreme nationalism in the hope of saving itself,” he opined.

Hu did not elaborate, but there has been no indication that lawyers are being “encouraged” by the U.S. government to sue China.

Several federal lawsuits are being pursued, however.

In Boca Raton, Florida, a personal injury firm last month filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and various entities, including the government of Wuhan, the original outbreak epicenter.

It alleges that the defendants, “acting from their own economic self-interest and looking to protect their place as a superpower, failed to report the outbreak as quickly as they could have; under-reported cases; and failed to contain the outbreak despite knowing the seriousness of the situation.”

The suit names four individuals and one company as plaintiffs and claims putative class members “will number in the millions.”


In response to the Florida suit, People’s Daily, also a Communist Party organ, quoted a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University as saying China could not be blamed for the coronavirus’ spread worldwide, and echoed Beijing’s claims that it is not yet known where it originated.

Also commenting on the suit, law scholars Zheng Sophia Tang of Newcastle University in England and Zhengxin Huo of the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, wrote that as a sovereign state China enjoys immunity from the jurisdiction of other countries’ courts.

They acknowledged, however, that under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) a foreign state can be sued in certain cases, including when “money damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury or death, or damage to or loss of property, occurring in the United States and caused by the tortious act or omission of that foreign state or of any official or employee of that foreign state …”

But Tang and Huo argued that it would be difficult to prove that China had breached a duty of care to non-Chinese citizens, or that a breach “caused” the outbreak in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Last week the same Florida law firm filed another suit, on behalf of five medical professionals (putative class members “will number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions”), against the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party.

It seeks damages against them for allegedly hoarding personal protective equipment, and “preventing any exports from [PPE] factories located there, including those owned by U.S. corporations.”

“This effective control of the market means they can now charge higher prices for the PPE that is so desperately needed, because of a pandemic they created,” it charges.

Four plaintiffs in California, meanwhile, are seeking trillions of dollars in damages from the PRC and other defendants, alleging a cover-up that led or contributed to the spread of COVID-19 across the world. The suit says putative class members are the more than 32 million small businesses in the U.S.

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