Written by Robert S. Wang.
Image credit: 1 Oct 2019 National day rally 18 by Etan Liam/Flickr, license CC BY-ND 2.0
While most people agree we need to probe into the origin of the current Coronavirus pandemic, many continue to urge that we initially focus on containing the pandemic and address the broad issues of cause later on. This is also what China’s President Xi Jinping proposed in his speech, along with the offer of $2 billion in assistance, at the opening of the 73rd World Health Assembly meeting on May 18.
Many argue that the US government’s efforts to highlight China’s responsibility for the pandemic and criticism of the WHO is blocking international cooperation and, therefore, intended to shift blame from the Trump administration. They criticise increasing calls for reparations from China as unrealistic and likely to prevent Chinese scientific collaboration.
I understand the urgent need to cope with the ongoing pandemic and agree we need to continue to work with the WHO despite its many issues. Moreover, we should certainly examine critically how different governments have responded to the pandemic in their own countries. Nonetheless, I believe we also need to maintain focus on the systemic origins of the pandemic, while addressing its consequences, if we are to prevent such future crises.
As I see it, a root cause of the pandemic stems from the initial attempt by Chinese authorities to prevent local health officials from disseminating crucial information to deal with the spread of the Coronavirus. This is clear from the well-known case — among many others — of Dr Li Wenliang, who was detained for passing on information to other doctors in late December that had “seriously disturbed the social order” and was forced to stop under the threat of being “brought to justice.” After returning to work, Li contracted the Coronavirus from a patient and died in early February.
It was not until January 20 that the Chinese government declared the Coronavirus outbreak an emergency. Even after this, along with the WHO’s emergency declaration, Beijing berated the United States for restricting flights from China on January 30 as “neither based on facts, nor helpful” and “certainly not a gesture of goodwill.” Meanwhile, with the WHO then issuing a recommendation AGAINST travel restrictions, thousands of overseas flights from China to Europe and the rest of the world continued without checks for well over a month.
Whatever the epidemiological — or laboratory origins of the Coronavirus — China’s authoritarian political regime and increasingly assertive foreign policy bear clear responsibility for this crisis. If a similar outbreak were to have occurred in rules-based, open and transparent democracies like Japan, Korea or Taiwan, the impact on the world today would have been vastly different. For example, Taiwan demonstrates its ability to effectively contain the pandemic despite its proximity to China and exclusion from participation in the WHA.
Whatever conclusion is derived from the WHA meeting in May, the United States and other countries must continue to mobilise international support to press for a full accounting from China at this time. While Beijing is not likely to accept a fully independent international scrutiny, it is precisely its refusal to cooperate on this front from the outset that underscores the root cause of this tragic global crisis.
Ironically, the Chinese understand the significance of such an inquiry better than those abroad who see this as a side issue that can be postponed. This issue involves the fundamental principles, structure and operation of the current political regime in China. This is why Beijing strongly opposes a truly independent inquiry and will very likely continue to do so in the future.
Beijing has, thus, launched a massive diplomatic, media and assistance campaign to divert the world’s attention, as well as its own people. It has concocted and spread conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus originating in America. It has begun retaliation against Australia in response to its call for an independent inquiry, while pressuring the EU to alter a report critical of China’s disinformation tactics. It has widely advertised its own forceful measures to contain the outbreak in China as a model for the world, while continuing to exert pressure on the WHO to exclude Taiwan from participation in the recent WHA meeting.
Finally, while offering assistance to help developing countries cope with the current pandemic, Beijing is essentially conditioning assistance and scientific collaboration on countries not pressing for a full and independent investigation at this time. It is, therefore, Beijing that is allowing political interests to override the priority of saving lives and stopping the spread of the virus.
In the face of this response, it is even more important that the quest for a full accounting continues. This should not be dismissed as a matter of “shifting blame” as we continue separately to examine how the Trump administration, or other governments, have responded to the crisis around the world. Particularly at this time, we should work with other countries to press much harder to demand the inclusion of Taiwan in the WHO’s operations, especially keeping in mind that Taiwan’s involvement could have alerted and better prepared the world for this crisis at an earlier stage. Nevertheless, it is essential to note that we can address the origins and consequences of the pandemic at the same time. The long-term goal is to generate changes in China and the WHO, which will prevent and contain the recurrence of future pandemics.
More broadly, this pandemic has dramatically illustrated how China’s increasingly authoritarian political system not only has consequences for its people but also for the world. The call for reparations, whether realistic or not, highlights China’s responsibility for the devastating human and economic costs it has inflicted on the world. We need to persist in the effort to convince China to undertake reforms that will prevent not only future pandemics but also improve the lives of the Chinese people themselves.
Robert S. Wang is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (SFS). He was a career Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State from 1984-2016.