By Eyal Pinko
In late 2019 an outbreak of the Coronavirus was first detected in the Wuhan city of China, from where the virus began to spread to many other countries around the world.
The virus belongs to a family of respiratory viruses (from SARS-Cov-2 family), which usually cause mild respiratory morbidity. Still, the extensive outbreak causes severe respiratory morbidity and death on a large scale.
From the first Chinese report of its outbreak until April 2020, the virus spread out has been reported in 184 countries, and about two million people have been infected. More than 100,000 people died from the infection.
The actual cause of the outbreak of the virus in the city of Wuhan in China is unknown so far. Some claim that the cause is an animal that infected an innocent person.
Others claim that the outbreak began as a result of a malfunction or safety failure at the Chinese Biological Institute in Wuhan. The institute has involved in the research of the virus for about a decade.
The Wuhan Biological Institute is the only institute in China involved in biological development and research (according to Chinese statements), including in the field of biological weapons, which the Chinese have been working on for decades.
This article will analyze the roots of the Chinese doctrine of developing biological warfare capabilities and biological weapons while reviewing their efforts in developing biological weapons.
The article does not intend to address the causes of the Coronavirus outbreak.
On Biological Warfare
Biological warfare is a series of deliberate war efforts, which use dispersed biological materials to disable or cause mortality through clinical disease infection, which spreads in humans.
The infection carries out through effective adhesion mechanisms, which enable the rapid progression of the disease and relatively high mortality rates.
Biological warfare materials characterize by being relatively simple and inexpensive to manufacture, especially with modern production biotechnologies, as well as the ease and efficiency of transporting them to the desired destination and dispersing them by simple measures across large areas.
Like chemical weapons and unlike kinetic weapons, biological weapons do not destroy sites, infrastructure, and territories, but neutralize people and states over time.
Biological warfare can not only neutralize or kill humans, but it also can produce psychological warfare effects. The purpose of the psychological effects is to create panic and fear, which severely affect the economy, trade, security, and governance. The psychological effects and their effect are maybe the most critical effects of biological warfare.
Since the end of the Cold War, a new branch of biological warfare has developed, aim at the destruction of fields and crops. The idea of corps destruction comes from the understanding that the adversary’s agriculture destruction will result in short food supply and even famine and hence his submission.
The use of biological warfare and disease dissemination as an effective means of neutralizing rivals and sowing panic is not new, and countless examples from ancient times to the present can be found, for the use of disease dissemination and viruses to achieve military and political achievement.
Chinese Biological Warfare
Biological warfare has not been the focus of global attention at least since the end of the Cold War, despite attempts at terrorist attacks (such as anthrax envelopes in the United States from 2002 to 2004) and the equipping of various countries with biologic weapons.
In the shadow of international indifference, China has been developing its biological warfare program over the last few decades, from a well-established, budget-based, strategic concept.
The Chinese strategic concept, called “Non-Contact Warfare,” holds that China must fight its rivals as far away as possible from Chinese territory, with minimal risk of Chinese forces, in order for China not to fight on its land.
This point of view is based on the lessons learned from World War II and the war against Japan, as well as on the Soviet concept of warfare adopted in China, known as A2/AD (Anti-Access / Area Denial).
The Chinese doctrine is implemented through a variety of measures, such as the development of long-range anti-ship missiles and long-range air defense missiles, which ensure Chinese maritime and air supremacy in the South China Sea, far from the coast of China.
Another application of the Chinese doctrine is cyber-attack capabilities, chemical weapons, and biological weapons.
The development of biological weapons in China based on three elements that shaped China’s strategic concept of biological weapons:
- The first factor is China’s bitter experience in World War II. An experience that has been imprinted to this day. During World War II, according to official Chinese reports, more than 270,000 Chinese soldiers were killed by biological weapons used against them by the Japanese.
During the war, Japan operated a biological war unit, unit 731, which cooperated with the Nazis in conducting human biological weapons experiments. The biological weapons were tested both physically on Chinese prisoners and the civil population in China and Manchuria by dispersal of biological weapons from aircraft.
- The second element is China’s assessment that the United States used biological weapons against the Chinese and North Korean forces during the Korean War (1953-1950) and its effect during the war.
- The third element is the former Soviet Union and its experiments on dispersing plague, anthrax, and cholera in Mongolia from the end of World War II until the fall of the Communist bloc.
These experiments conducted by the Russians in cooperation with the Chinese have shaped China’s position on the recognition and understanding of the high potential inherent in biological weapons capabilities.
Moreover, the arms race of biological weapons of various countries, headed by the United States and Russia during the Cold War, from 1950 to 1973 (until the date of the signing of the biological weapons and toxins treaty), also contributed to Chinese understanding of the importance and effectiveness of these weapons.
After the fall of the Communist bloc, China continued its independent research and development of biological weapons and the means to transport and distribute them. Initially, China was only developing defensive weapons, and during the 1970s began developing offensive weapons.
In 1984, more than ten years after the signing of the Biological Weapons Convention, China joined the U.N.’s discussions on limiting the development and stockpiling of biological weapons but continued to develop the weapons, despite calls from U.S. presidents for generations.
According to an intelligence report published by the U.S. Intelligence in 1993, claims that China is operating two biological research centers, under the command of the Chinese military, in which they produce biological weapons. In a 1995 congressional speech, President Clinton declared that information was based on the fact that China holds offensive biological weapons.
In late 1999, a Russian biological weapons scientist, who defected to the United States, published that China is developing biological weapons. He reported that during the study and experiments carried out in China, as a result of a safety incident, and HIV that had spread in China released.
At the Biological Weapons Conference held in October 2002, China declared that it had never developed, manufactured, or stockpile biological weapons of any kind, including biological materials that could be dual-use (for research and biological weapons needs). China’s declaration made parallel to repeated accusations by the U.S. Department of Defense against biological weapons development.
About a month after her declarations of the non-existence of biological weapons research and development, the SARS epidemic outbreak starts in the city of Wuhan in November 2002, which continued until February 2003. China reported to the World Health Organization for the first time in the outbreak that the virus had burst due to a virus treatment malfunction during a study at its research institute.
It was impressive to see China’s ability to contain, treat, and overcome the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in about three months. Similar proof of China’s capabilities in this regard has been presented again in recent months in the way the coronavirus outbreak was treated.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense again reported that it had specific and credible information that China was continuing to develop its biological weapons, despite its U.N. statements.
By 2009, various other denials from China were heard regarding its capabilities and development in biological weapons. At the same time, China has reportedly been operating one biological research institute to treat epidemic cases in the event of an outbreak.
China’s Research and Development Institutes
The biological research institute declared by China as operational is in Wuhan City (as mentioned, the same city from which the Corona, HIV, and SARS viruses began to spread). This research institute, China testified, was certified to have the highest level of safety possible (P4) and equipped with the best safety equipment made in Spain.
At the same time, China operates additional biological weapons institutes besides of the Wuhan Institute, all under the command of the Chinese military. For example, in China, four manufacturing industries operate in the cities of Shenyang, Lanzhou, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. In addition, China has another biological research institute in Kunming City, Changchun City Experimental Institute, and warhead integration institute, the Yan’an Bacteriological Factory, where biological materials are being integrated into missiles’ warheads and bombs.
The Chinese institutes produce biological weapons such as anthrax, SARS, plague, brucellosis, botulinum, and other viruses such as yellow fever, Hantan virus, Japanese encephalitis, tick-borne encephalitis, typhoid, and dysentery.
All institutes follow the guidelines of the Chinese National Security Council and the supervision of the second and third academies of military medicine, with the participation of other academic institutions throughout China, dealing with medicine and microbiology.
The Chinese research institutes and military make use of local pharmaceutical companies, which purchase equipment, tools, and infrastructure under civilian needs and naive guise. An example of such a company is pharmaceutical giant Sanjiu (999) Pharmaceuticals Group, which is controlled by the Chinese Army Logistics Division.
In order to develop biological weapons knowledge, China operates on several levels. The first level is cooperation and knowledge transfer with other countries such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
The second level is bringing experts from the Western countries to China and their assistance in establishing research infrastructures and knowledge development in China.
The additional level of knowledge development in China is industrial espionage through both cyber-attacks and human factors in Western countries, including payments to local agents, and through exchanges of a Chinese student and scholarly delegations embarking on research periods in Western countries.
An example of this is a U.S. Department of Justice release in early January 2020, about the capture of three Harvard University researchers who have been developing biological weapons for China. One of the researchers, a well-known American scientist, was accused of aiding Chinese development.
The other two investigators, officers from the Chinese army, conducted a guided study at Harvard University. One of the Chinese officers was caught at the airport as he tried to flee back to China when he dispensed with 12 vials containing microbiological agents.
Biological Weapons Publications
Since the SARS outbreak, Wuhan has conducted biological research at the Chinese Research Institute in Wuhan, and his researchers have published various academic publications, indicating budgeted and well-planned efforts to develop biological warfare attack capabilities and defenses, even under the guise of civilian biological research.
For example, two studies published by researchers from the Biological Research Institute in Wuhan during 2015 in “Nature, Biological and Medical Weekly” Journal describe the study of the Coronavirus, its origin, its discovery in bats, its development and its dangers.
In 2017 an article published by researchers at the Biological Institute in Wuhan revealed the origin of the virus in bats’ gene. The article describes the risk and the need to develop a vaccine for the virus.
Other examples of Chinese publications in the field of biological warfare, which emphasize the Chinese strategic concept that underpins the development of biological weapons capabilities and the need to achieve “biological supremacy” on the battlefield, are the statements of Professor Guo Jiwei of the Third Military Medicine University, who emphasized the importance of the 2010 Biological In the war of the future.
2012 statement by General He Fuchu, who commanded the Chinese Army College of Technology on the importance of biological weapons, concerns that biotechnological and human-brain-affecting capabilities are strategies for Chinese national security that China is required to pursue.
The last example can be found in a 2017 book written by retired Chinese general Zhang Shibo in which he points to China’s biological warfare capabilities and their importance to Chinese national security and its ability to win military systems. His book is sold on the Chinese Amazon Web, but all his copies have recently run out and can no longer be ordered.
China has been working on biological weapons development since World War II. This development carries out under the guidelines of the Chinese National Security Council and the command and supervision of the Chinese army.
The development of biological weapons in China based on a long-standing strategic concept. The concept based on two significant elements. First, on Soviet perception and long experience. The second element is China’s past experiences of World War II and the Korean War, which have made a profound mark on its national biological warfare perception.
At the same time, China is not the only one who is developing biological warfare. Russia, the United States, Iran, North Korea, and other countries around the world are allegedly engaged in biological weapons development, despite the United Nations Biological and Toxic Control Convention (BTWC).
- Dany Shoham (2015): China’s Biological Warfare Programme: An Integrative Study with Special reference to Biological Weapons Capabilities, Journal of Defence Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 April-June 2015, pp. 131-156
- Smith, R. Jeffrey, “China may have Revived Germ Weapons Program, U.S. Officials Say”, The Washington Post, 24 February 1993
- “Suspected Biological Centers in China”, The Washington Post, 26 February 1993, p. 3.
- US Department of Defense, Chemical and Biological Defense Program Annual Report and the Chemical and Biological Defense Program Performance Plan, Washington DC: Department of Defense, 2001
- US Department of State, Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, 2005, available at http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/51977.htm#chapter6
- Croddy, “China’s Role in the Chemical and Biological Disarmament”, n. 21, pp. 16–47
- Xiao, Weihua, “The Global Health R&D Capacity and Opportunities in China”, August 2012, available at http://lstt.ustc.edu.cn/uploads/Documents/Final_VP6.pdf