The U.S. State Department recently issued a health alert for its citizens in China after a U.S. government employee in Guangzhou experienced “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure.”
The employee was flown back to the United States for treatment and evaluation after suffering from head trauma in what was described as a “mild brain injury.” Commenting on the episode, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it as a “serious medical incident.”
Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that the State Department “is working to determine the cause and impact of the incident,” and that the government “will be sending a medical team to Guangzhou early next week to conduct baseline medical evaluations of all Consulate Guangzhou employees who request it.” In the meantime, State advised all employees of diplomatic offices who experience “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises” to not seek out the source, but instead to move to a location where they are not present.
China responded swiftly to the news. “We don’t want to see that this individual case would be magnified, complicated or even politicized,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters. “China has been investigating this matter in a very responsible manner, we haven’t found that any organization or individual has carried out such a sonic influence.” Wang finished by recommending the U.S. carry out an “internal” probe into the case. “We would suggest the U.S. side also carry out some internal investigations.” The rush to contain the incident and play down its significance isn’t surprising considering the tensions rising between the United States and PRC during the past several months over everything from trade issues to relations with Taiwan. Recently relations between the countries flared up again when the United States disinvited China from upcoming joint military exercises over China’s “continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea.”
The U.S. was quick to point out the glaring similarity of the recent incident in China to similar events that transpired in Cuba beginning as early as 2016. Secretary Pompeo told the press that medical indications are "very similar" and "entirely consistent" to those experienced by American diplomats posted in Havana. Although there has been only one reported victim so far in China, the initial assessment of the patient seems to be telling a similar story: disorientation and brain trauma, preceded by a strange acoustic experience.
With investigations set to be undertaken both by the U.S. and China, the most important thing is not to rush to conclusions. After the Cuban incidents came out in August of last year, many rushed to label them an “attack” despite the extremely low likelihood that this was the case. Cuban diplomats were even expelled from the U.S. in response, though Congress couldn’t reach a conclusion as to who or what was responsible.
With tensions rising between the U.S. and PRC as of late, the last thing either country needs is an incident blown out of proportion. A bit of prudence may be in order.