Missouri Sues China for ‘Deceit’ Over Extent of Outbreak

(Bloomberg) -- Missouri sued the Chinese government, claiming it covered up the extent of its coronavirus epidemic through an “appalling campaign of deceit” that led to the death and suffering of state residents.

The suit, filed in federal court on Tuesday by Attorney General Eric Schmitt, alleges that China misled the public about the spread of the virus and refused to cooperate with the global health community. There are more than 5,800 infections in the state, and at least 177 people have died.

The suit “will probably be dismissed fairly quickly,” said St. John’s University law professor Anthony Sabino, citing the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which makes it very hard to successfully sue a foreign government.

In addition, “an important constitutional principle almost dooms such a lawsuit from the start,” Sabino said. “Foreign policy is the exclusive domain of the federal government, and the vast bulk of foreign policy-making power is vested exclusively in the president.”

China’s foreign ministry on Wednesday called the suit a “malicious abuse of litigation” and said it ran counter to international cooperation.

“This so-called accusation has no factual and legal basis. It is nothing short of absurdity,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a media briefing in Beijing. “What the U.S. should do is refute and reject such abuse of litigation.”

‘Critical Weeks’

The Republican attorney general’s suit comes days after President Donald Trump raised the prospect that China may have deliberately caused the outbreak and said there should be consequences if it is found to be “knowingly responsible.” As scrutiny of the president’s response to the pandemic has intensified, congressional Republicans have sought to blame China for the catastrophe. U.S. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri is proposing legislation that would make the Chinese government liable for civil claims in U.S. courts for allegedly withholding information on the outbreak.

“During the critical weeks of the initial outbreak, Chinese authorities deceived the public, suppressed crucial information, arrested whistle-blowers, denied human-to-human transmission in the face of mounting evidence, destroyed critical medical research, permitted millions of people to be exposed to the virus, and even hoarded personal protective equipment -- thus causing a global pandemic that was unnecessary and preventable,” Schmitt said in the suit.

Although the suit “has limited traction at best,” Sabino said, “it is the precursor for other legal steps that will no doubt emerge from the strained relations with China.” The U.S. “holds a powerful weapon in the recently fortified Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States,” he said, noting that Cfius can “investigate and recommend blocking foreigners from investing in American business or property or buying major stakes in U.S. companies.”

At least four suits requesting class action status have been filed against the Chinese government in recent weeks seeking trillions of dollars in damages for failing to contain the nation’s outbreak and warn the international health community about its dangers.

The case is Missouri v. People’s Republic of China, 20-cv-99, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri (Cape Girardeau).

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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