Back in July 2008, I wrote a blog called: Thinking the unthinkable in the 21st century: Who would use influenza as a biological weapon?. The title is an homage to Herman Kahn’s “Thinking about the unthinkable” written during the Cold War. In this and other works, Kahn argued that rather than see nuclear war as something too terrible to even consider, it was important to think through under what circumstances the Soviet Union might choose to launch such an attack. He concluded that the Soviets would be most likely to launch a first strike if they thought they could completely destroy the US and avoid retribution. This led Kahn to suggest a robust Civil Defense response to ensure that as many Americans as possible would survive. This line of thinking also led to the concept of “Mutually Assured Destruction”, the idea that if even the US suffered a nuclear attack, it would still have sufficient assets to destroy the Soviet Union with our nuclear arsenal. Although this strategy was often criticised and mocked, it is a fact that nuclear weapons have not been used for over 65 years despite major global conflicts.
Although the risks of nuclear weapons are well-known, there is another potential weapon which could kill as many people as all-out nuclear between the US and Russia – engineered viruses. I have described the technology necessary to create highly lethal, highly infectious viruses here, here and here. However, in this blog, I’d like to focus on one motivation for using such a weapon: strategic depopulation.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus formulated his idea that human population would inevitably outstrip mankind’s ability to produce food and other necessary resources. Hence, at some point, a crisis should occur which would greatly reduce the human population to the carrying capacity of the earth. Scholars have predicted that such a crisis would occur many years before now. However, thus far, they have all been wrong due to advances in technology, most notably the Haber process and the Green Revolution. In a free market economy, scarcity of goods inevitably leads to efforts to find replacements. However, it is important to note these technological advances do not necessarily come before social unrest, and sometimes war. This is because resources and populations are not evenly distributed on the planet. Some countries have high populations but insufficient resources while others have lots of resources but are unable to protect them. Thus, there is a strong temptation for resource-poor countries to attempt to take resources from weaker countries rather than to hope for technological salvation at some unknown time in the future.
In the 21st Century, many resources are becoming increasing scarce: food, water and energy to name the most critical. As one would expect, these scarcities are leading to new technologies: genetically modified seeds, desalination and solar power, for example. However, it is not clear that these new technologies will be developed and disseminated quickly enough to avoid disruption. Rich countries have standards of living far beyond the minimum necessary for survival. Thus, a temporary lowering of the standard of living in these countries, while unpleasant, would not be fatal. Countries with strong democracies have a built-in safety valve which will blunt unrest: elections.
China, however, is in a very different situation. The government there had a choice 20 years ago, either opt for a slow, even and sustainable pattern of growth or else adopt a mercantilist export economy which would result in uneven unsustainable growth. They chose the latter. On the surface, Globalism appeared to work well for China. The coastal cities erected great masses of skyscrapers. The people who were from the coastal regions saw rapidly rising standards of living. However, beneath the surface trouble was brewing. Factories were built on farmland confiscated from people who had worked it for centuries. Since there are no effective rules against pollution in China, the land and water near these factories was poisoned resulting in many health problems in the people still living nearby. Only the severe repression possible in a Police State was able to prevent frequent outbreaks of unrest from becoming open revolt.
Many observers have suggested that the Chinese government can only maintain control as long as it has the backing of the relatively well-off citizens of the coastal cities. This, in turn, requires a high rate of non-stop growth, something no country in the world has ever achieved. Despite the Depression that began in 2008, China has managed to maintain what would appear to be a high rate of growth. However, much of this is due to government spending and very loose rules for borrowing money. An increasing number of financial experts are suggesting that this has resulted in a bubble that will soon burst. When it does, what will be the fate of the Communist Party in China?
Anyone who spends some time talking to even low-level Communist Party officials in China will learn that these officials live in constant fear of “the peasants”. They know that their special privileges are envied. And that they are hated for the riches they enjoy while people in the interior of the country live in abject poverty. The Communist officials will tell you, quite truthfully, that it is impossible for them to deliver a high standard of living to over 1 billion people any time soon. Yet, the peasants demand it. Why can’t they have what Communist officials have? Why can’t they have what the people in coastal cities have? Why must they live like rats in smelly hovels while others live in fancy apartments and eat at McDonalds?
In an unguarded moment, your low-level Communist Party official may let slip that they wish *something* would wipe away all these hungry mouths. All these angry demanding peasants. The government can’t just kill everyone it wishes would die. There are too many. If only there were a “natural solution” that would do this for them. Something they would not be blamed for. Like maybe a virus.
In my original blog in this series (in July 2008), I documented a number of odd events and strange behaviour related to how the Chinese government handled the H5N1 influenza virus. Although I have no definitive proof that they had a role in creating it, I did suggest that there was at least some “smoke” in their vicinity. I also pointed out that the H1N1 virus then circulating was thought by many virologists to have originated in a Chinese laboratory (New York Times, November 29, 1992), establishing an obvious interest in influenza as a biological weapon. In Spring of 2009, the world became aware of new pandemic with a new H1N1 virus. One with a puzzling assortment of genes from viruses of unknown provenance. This virus has caused great harm, but does not have nearly the killing ability of the H5N1 virus. However, that could change at any moment. There is nothing to prevent a highly lethal, highly infectious influenza virus from emerging.
Given that the China has the technical ability to create a “world-killer” virus at any time, why would the government there want to? In part, because they want to reduce their own population, a fact which is easily verified. But there is another reason as well. The current Malthusian crisis will affect China with particular harshness as their resources are grossly insufficient to meet their needs, even with a reduced population. Like other totalitarian countries in similar circumstances, they are likely tempted to take resources from weaker countries (oil from the Middle East, minerals from Africa, food from the Ukraine, etc.). However, before they can do this, they must find a way to neutralise the US and its allies, who would surely not permit such a resource grab. They cannot do this with either conventional or nuclear forces. But they could do it with a virus. As I have pointed out in previous blogs, a highly lethal, highly infectious flu virus could be engineered which would be difficult to distinguish from a natural virus. With so many “natural” strains now floating about, it wouldn’t be hard to convince many that a virus with worst bits of H5N1 and H1N1 came about “naturally”.
Release of a “world-killer” engineered virus by the Chinese government would thus have several beneficial effects, from their perspective: Reduction of their “excess” population; Neutralisation of the US and its allies; and Depopulation of resource rich countries. The recent build up of China’s military, especially its blue-water Navy, makes perfect sense in a world where its main opposition is incapacitated and its resource-rich targets scattered across the globe.
Although I named this series of blogs after Herman Kahn’s book on strategies to avoid nuclear war, there is an important difference. Because atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, everyone in the world understood the danger of nuclear weapons, even if they had little or no understanding of the physics involved in their construction. However, a modern biological weapon has never been used. Most pundits and military analysts are unfamiliar with modern biology and do not know what is possible. As a result, the strategic use of biological weapons to selectively depopulate the earth is rarely discussed.
I started this series in response to a charge by the then head of the Ministry of Health in Indonesia, Siti Fadilah Supari. She alleged that the US intended to use H5N1 sequences from Indonesia to produce biological weapons. She further suggested that the Director-General of the WHO, Margaret Chan, had “terminated” a “criminal in the WHO” who had sent samples to the US. To this day, Director-General Chan has not denied making this statement. In a recent blog, I described how Margaret Chan became Director-General of the WHO. It was with the strong backing of the Chinese government. They are alleged to have paid billions of dollars in bribes to representatives of several African countries to ensure her election as Director-General. Why would the Chinese government do this? Humanitarian motivations are not convincing in light of their history in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Tibet, North Korea, Burma or many other areas of the world. They are motivated exclusively by self-interest.
If an engineered flu virus is released, one person, and one person only, will have the power to declare a pandemic and alert the world. That person is Margaret Chan. Given her recent strong statements in support of the North Korean government in their handling of public health, it is pretty clear that she is not motivated by humanitarian impulses, but rather, a slavish devotion to the Communist Party of China which has rewarded her in the past for towing the Party line.
Thus, the Chinese government now has the means, motive and opportunity to release an engineered virus. And no-one is warning the world of the mortal peril it is in. This blog will have to do.
Sorry about that.
Previous blogs in this series: