Questions linger amid China's diplomatic push in virus fight

March 02, 2020 16:35
President Xi Jinping meets with World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing on Jan. 28 to discuss the virus outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Photo: CNSA

When President Xi Jinping was first informed of the looming threat posed by the emerging new coronavirus in Wuhan, probably towards the end of 2019, one of his chief concerns was that China would be condemned internationally as the source of the disease, which today has spread to more than 50 countries.

To deflect such thinking, the president, who is also the Communist Party’s general secretary, came up with a strategy to depict China not as the country whose obsession with secrecy delayed decisive action and allowed the virus to spill beyond its borders but as the global leader willing to make sacrifices to protect itself and the rest of the world from a common threat.

Now, with Covid-19 having peaked in China, according to the WHO, this narrative seems to have taken hold with large segments of the international community, with the notable exception of the United States.

President Xi set the ball rolling when he met World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Jan. 28, six days after Wuhan was locked down. He asserted that China had released information about the epidemic in a timely, open, transparent and responsible manner.

Tedros agreed, praising China for its “openness to sharing information”.

But has China been that open, and that timely, in sharing data with the WHO?

An investigative report by Beijing-based Caixin Media shows that China inexplicably delayed sharing genome sequence data with the world health body for weeks in late December and early January.

The explosive Caixin Global report disclosed that the first of several successful sequences of the new coronavirus was on Dec. 27. A few days later, the national health authority ordered the destruction of samples and prohibited the publication of information about the disease.

But on Jan. 11, the laboratory at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center published the information on open platforms. The following day, two things happened: the data was shared with the WHO and the Shanghai lab was ordered to close “for rectification”. It apparently remains closed.

Thus, in the early weeks, while the disease could still have been stopped, there was little transparency. Zhong Nanshan, a highly regarded respiratory diseases expert, said last week that there would have been far fewer infections if strict measures had been implemented in early December. That was when the first cases emerged in Wuhan.

Tedros, at his meeting with Xi, also praised China for protecting not only its own people but the people of the whole world. Two days later, when WHO declared the coronavirus disease a public health emergency of international concern, Tedros said there was no need for measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”.

This was odd since at that point almost all cases of infection in foreign countries could be traced to travelers from China. Besides, during the SARS outbreak in 2003, the WHO itself issued advisories against travel to Hong Kong. Why oppose travel restrictions now?

After the United States advised against travel to China, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying issued a statement chiding Washington: "Just as the WHO recommended against travel restrictions, the United States rushed to go in the opposite way. Certainly, it's not a gesture of goodwill."

Other countries, such as South Korea and Japan, were commended for not banning Chinese travelers.

While doctors on the ground battled the virus, Xi worked the telephone, speaking to world leaders ranging from Donald Trump of the US, Boris Johnson of Britain, Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany to the leaders of such countries as South Korea, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Chile and Cuba.

His message was simple. China was willing to shoulder its responsibility as a major international player and help the world curb the coronavirus contagion.

The words fell on receptive ears. More than 170 state leaders and over 40 international organization representatives, including the UN secretary-general, expressed their sympathies, confidence and support for China.

Clearly, the campaign has been a huge success.

But sentiment may yet turn against China. South Korea, for instance, is resentful that while it didn’t force Chinese travelers to be quarantined, its people now have to endure this in China.

Bruce Aylward, the Canadian epidemiologist who was the lead of the foreign expert panel of the WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19, was asked at a Beijing press conference of the role censorship played in allowing the virus to accelerate.

He answered that he didn’t know because the mission did not look into it. Its purpose was simply to see what worked in countering the virus.

However, if the virus isn’t stopped quickly there will no doubt be further questions raised regarding what China could have done in the early days to stop the disease in its tracks but did not do as a result of its political system.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.