The outgoing United States Ambassador to China has denounced Beijing's initial handling of the coronavirus, saying that "what could have been contained in Wuhan ended up becoming a worldwide pandemic."
Speaking to CNN in Beijing on Friday, Terry Branstad, a former longtime Iowa governor, agreed with President Donald Trump that China was to blame for the pandemic, adding that the "Chinese system was such that they covered it up and even penalized the doctors who pointed it out at the beginning."
Echoing criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other White House officials, Branstad also blamed China's system for leading to a spike in tensions and a degrading of one of Washington's most consequential bilateral relationships.
Branstad surprised many observers when he announced this week he was stepping down from the important diplomatic posting, which he has held since 2017, in order to return to the US.
He told CNN that he was keen to get back home, pointing out that he had been in the role "longer than the previous three ambassadors."
Asked whether he will campaign on behalf of Trump, who may be relying on Branstad to help swing key Midwestern states, the ambassador said that "if the President asks me to appear at some of his events, I will, as I did in 2016."
His departure comes as tensions continue to ratchet up between the US and China in a growing number of areas.
The Chinese government announced last week it would be imposing unspecified restrictions on senior US diplomats and personnel inside China after Washington put in place a similar measure targeting Beijing's diplomatic corps on September 3.
Branstad has known Chinese President Xi Jinping since the 1980s, though his role as ambassador became increasingly fraught in recent months as the coronavirus outbreak continued to spread throughout the world.
Branstad was ultimately never able to leverage the personal relationship to benefit the bilateral ties.
'Friend of the Chinese people'
Branstad was one of Trump's first ambassadorial picks in December 2016, shortly after Trump himself was elected.
Trump said at the time that the then-Iowa governor was picked for his experience in public policy, trade and agriculture, as well as his "long-time relationship" with Xi.
The two first met in the 1980s, when Xi was a relatively low-ranking local official, and were believed to have maintained a friendship of sorts, with Xi meeting again with Branstad during a visit to the US in 2012 as vice-president.
Speaking Friday, Branstad said he "had the honor of being the first American governor to host Xi Jinping when he was only a county-level party secretary from our sister state of Hebei."
He said both he and Trump saw the value in building personal relationships with foreign officials.
"I think you always, as far as diplomacy is concerned, you want to build relationships with people," Branstad said, adding that "President Xi is a very strong leader for China, but this is a communist, authoritarian system, and unfortunately we have very different systems."
He implied that China may have taken advantage of Trump's personal relationship with Xi, saying the US President was initially willing to believe "what (China) said about the virus and then he and the rest of the world found out what they said was not true."
China has consistently denied mishandling the early stages of the pandemic, and raised questions over whether the virus originated in Wuhan.
Originally Branstad's appointment was welcomed by Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang lauding him as an "old friend of the Chinese people."
But Branstad has overseen one of the rockiest periods of US-China relations in recent history. Since his appointment, the Trump administration has placed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods as part of a long-running trade war. It has also banned Chinese technology firms such as Huawei from the country's communications infrastructure and receiving US components, and tightened visa restrictions on Chinese state media journalists working in the US.
Branstad also criticized Beijing's moves in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, where the Chinese authorities have been accused of clamping down and restricting civil liberties, and for ongoing territorial aggression in the South China Sea.
On September 9, an opinion piece written by Branstad, in which he accused the Chinese government of "exploiting" US openness in recent decades, was rejected for publication by Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily for being "seriously inconsistent with facts."
"If you do wish to publish this op-ed in the People's Daily, you should make substantive revisions based on facts in the principle of equality and mutual respect," the state-run publication said in its rejection letter.
Branstad said that one of Washington's priorities has been to improve "reciprocity and fairness" in the China relationship, particularly on the issue of trade, but also for diplomats and journalists, who have faced increasing restrictions in China in recent months.
And while Branstad said the US "has taken the lead" on holding Beijing to account, he pointed to growing discontent elsewhere in the world, which he put down to China's increasingly aggressive diplomacy, as well as the country's failure to contain the initial coronavirus outbreak.
"It's really I think the communist system of China, and their unwillingness to admit wrongdoing. That caused this whole thing to happen. And that's the tragedy of it," Branstad said.
"Interest for people around the world in working with and supporting China has gone down dramatically, not just in the United States."
"The mistreatment of the Uyghurs, what they've done in Hong Kong and the South China Sea, they've alienated a lot of people in the rest of the world," Branstad said. "India, which has been a neutral country, what they've done to India has caused them real problems," he added, referring to ongoing tensions on the countries' shared border in the Himalayas.
This has coincided with the situation growing more tenuous for foreigners living in China itself. Branstad pointed to the case of two Canadians, detained in China since 2018 in apparent retaliation for the arrest by Canadian authorities of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. The two Canadians, Branstad said, had been "held for no good reason," a situation he said he hoped no Americans would fall into.
Role back home
Branstad's son Eric is a senior adviser to Trump Victory 2020, the joint fundraising committee between the campaign and the Republican National Committee, and in a recording tweeted by Eric last week, Trump said that the elder Branstad was "coming home from China because he wants to campaign."
The Trump campaign believes that Branstad -- as a popular former governor -- could have an impact on voters in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and even Minnesota, according to two sources familiar.
"He still plays well in the Midwest. He has high name ID and is probably the best person to talk about the China influence," said a source close to the Trump campaign.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Trump remain in a very tight race in Iowa, according to polls over the last few months. Trump won the state by about 10% in 2016.
Experts say that the repercussions of Branstad's departure from Beijing are not expected to be major, given that he was not a central player in the US-China policy space. While Branstad is not a leading voice in the Trump administration's tough-on-China strategy, he is expected to assume a "more forward-leaning approach" when he hits the campaign trail, said the source close to the campaign.
Brandstad himself said he would be happy to play a role in sharing "with the American people what this administration has done ... to take a tough stand against unfairness in China."
"I'm looking forward to getting back to Iowa," he said. "My wife and I are lifelong Iowans, this is the longest we've ever lived anywhere else."
And he appears to have left the door open to a future official role should Trump win re-election, saying he was only "retiring as ambassador."
CNN's James Griffiths, Ben Westcott, Kylie Atwood and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.