Here the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People on January 28 in Beijing, with appropriate distancing. Dr Tedros later commented that Xi had a surprising mastery of the detail of what was going on. Two days later the WHO declared the novel coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern. People have made up stories about this meeting and the sequence, but it seems to me an orderly progression of events, coming 10 days after China had alerted the world to a person to person highly infectious novel coronavirus, then sealing off and locking down Wuhan on 23 January.
Subsequently, on 11 March, the WHO declared Covid 19 a pandemic, pointing to the over 118,000 cases in over 110 countries and territories around the world and the sustained risk of further global spread. Time magazine has a good explainer in World Health Organization Declares COVID-19 a ‘Pandemic.’ Here’s What That Means.
Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the whole business “borderline semantics”. Indeed, I think it is pointless arguing over who may have influenced whom, for what reason. This is important:
- “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” said Dr. Tedros on March 11. “Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this coronavirus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”
With all the current kerfuffle over trade between China and Australia, a couple of factors perhaps need to be emphasised.
First, the decision to conduct an investigation into how the pandemic arose and progressed was not made by the World Health Organisation. Rather it was made by the World Health Assembly, which is the body established to supervise the World Health Organisation (WHO).
China has agreed to the inquiry, but as Adam Kamradt-Scott, Associate professor, University of Sydney points out just when and how this will happen are still in dispute. China has agreed to a WHO-led ‘independent’ inquiry provided that it happens after the pandemic is over, whatever that means. Also the resolution does not mention China by name and has been broadened to cover how the pandemic was handled by all parties.
Who else, other than the WHO answerable to its member states, would establish and supervise such an investigation? Similar circumstances apply with the World Trade Organisation and for that matter the UN.
Lai-Ha Chan, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Technology, Sydney and Pak K Lee, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent have some specific suggestions about who should be consulted within China and the questions that should be answered if the inquiry is going to be fair dinkum and restore faith in the WHO. Clearly they are not sympathetic to the WHO, but they are right, the WHO must ultimately have the respect of the health profession and the constituent members. However, most knowledgeable commenters say that the big lack is in the basic funding of the organisation, which has a budget about the size of a single US teaching hospital, with most of that predetermined by donors who give with conditions attached. Also, much of the criticism is not disinterested; political agendas are in play.
On Australia’s effort to instigate an investigation, I would ask whether anything at all was done differently or sooner by virtue of actions taken by Australia in calling for an inquiry at the very time when POTUS Donald Trump was fingering China to distract from his own failings and calling for reparations. I’m inclined to think not. There was always going to be an inquiry, and China was always going to have a fair bit to say about the scope, timing and modus operandi.
The resolution also:
- asks the WHO to work with the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization, now led by the Chinese scientist Qu Dongyu, to: “Identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts.”
Wild stories about human agency invented by propagandists in the US and China have been shunted to where they belong.
Australia, I think, has contributed nothing, and should save its energy for where it can make a difference. There is more to be said, but China’s reaction to Australia has done it harm. The world needs leadership, not a new bully on the block.
Accounts such as those by the ABC and by the SMH (see No longer a joke: Why Australia’s COVID-19 inquiry campaign won the day foreground Australia’s role, and are, I think, obviously partisan. Deutsche Welle quotes former Australian PM Kevin Rudd as president of the president of the (American) Asia Society Policy Institute, but Australia as such does not rate a mention. We should not get inflated ideas about how much we matter.
A number of foreign reports give a short factual account of Australia’s trade problems with China. Foreign Policy reports that Trump Stumbles in Effort to Confront China at WHO as the:
- U.S. fails to gain support for an immediate investigation into coronavirus origins and for bringing Taiwan on as observer.
No mention of Australia.
Many have characterised world politics in terms of the US under Trump vacatiing its special mission to civilise the world, leaving a vacuum in a unipolar world, with China moving to fill the space. Kevin Rudd talking to Tom Switzer is worth a listen. Rudd always emphasises the complexity within the Chinese regime. Globally he thinks the world will become more anarchic. He:
argues that neither China nor the US will gain a strategic victory from COVID-19. And, he predicts that unless a Democrat wins the US election, the international system will become more anarchic, and a new Cold War will begin.
I was impressed by an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post by Laurence Tubiana – A truly multilateral order can emerge from the ashes of the coronavirus pandemic, with China and Europe leading the way.
She says history tells us that out of cataclysms we can build anew. Hence the League of Nations was born from the ruins of World War I, the United Nations from World War II:
- we live in a deeply interconnected world – from the virus’s casual crossing of national borders, to the scenes of empty shelves due to global trade disruptions.
This opens a window of opportunity for discussion – in the wake of this crisis, we should rebuild our system of international cooperation, moving from siloed diplomatic discussions on specific topics such as climate to a broader approach that integrates the management of the new global commons together.
Tubiana hopes that National People’s Congress this week will drive a green transition through a stimulus package. Given that there are major meetings scheduled for later this year on climate, hosted by Britain, and biodiversity hosted by China, Tubiana hopes for new Bretton Woods moment that drives nations to commit to true sustainability and a greening of the planet.
I’ve never been convinced that China is serious about climate change. From what I’ve heard so far I suspect the BBC is right – NPC: China’s congress will be about Hong Kong, the virus and the economy.
Europe cannot lead the world alone.
So, what happened in Wuhan?
There is an excellent half hour BBC radio program I managed to isolate by googling China and the Virus + BBC radio 4 + 20 May 2020. This is their summary:
- Has the coronavirus epidemic weakened or strengthened the grip of China’s Communist Party?
In the early stages of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan, authorities there downplayed its significance. A doctor who sounded the alarm was forced to contradict himself. He later contracted Covid-19 and died from it. Medical facilities were initially unprepared. This and other similar stories led to an explosion of critical comment on Chinese social media, with deep distrust emerging of the official explanations.
President Xi Jinping initially avoided becoming publicly involved in the response to the epidemic, perhaps to avoid a political taint. The government then began to change tack, instituting wide-ranging and it seems effective restrictions, which have slowed the growth of the epidemic. The central government blamed any problems on failings by local authorities. Many Chinese citizens are now taking pride in their country’s response, even arguing that it is an example to the world, despite the continuing economic slowdown.
In this documentary, Mark Mardell assesses how President Xi and his government will emerge from the crisis.(Emphasis added)
I would suggest that Xi sensibly put his deputy in charge because it just doesn’t make sense for a leader to get sucked into any specific problem. That is what was wrong with Kevin Rudd’s leadership.
The program highlights the role of social media in this issue, and in China generally. When unwelcome comments are made on the regime they are simply reposted by others, for example by a group called The Digital Resistance. Change, the BBC group thought, will not be towards democracy, rather that there may be greater transparency in future. In this case when Xi went to Wuhan to greet the people in empty streets people yelled at him from balconies in much the same way that Scott Morrison got yelled at during the bushfires.
I think it is noteworthy and admirable that people aggrieved with the regime express their opinions quite vocally. There seems to be no fear of personal repercussions. The account in Der Spiegel (see below) says this of now famous whistle-blower Li Wenliang:
Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was so ill by the end of January that he had to be transferred to the intensive care unit and intubated. On Jan. 27, he defied the official ban on speaking to the press and gave an interview to the state-run Beijing Youth Daily using a messaging app. He could no longer speak. On Feb. 5 and 6, his condition deteriorated further and he had to be placed on life support. The hospital reported on his treatment using the microblogging platform Weibo. Some 17 million users followed the increasingly hopeless developments late into the night.
Shortly before 3 a.m., the doctors lost the battle to save their colleague’s life. It unleashed an overwhelming wave of sympathy, with 870,000 users expressing their anger and grief on the internet, leading the state to ultimately abandon its censorship efforts.
The Economist (no link, I have the hard copy) reports Xi acknowledging that feelings would be raw after experiencing lock-down for so long. He said:
“They have emotions to vent. We must be tolerant and forgiving. We must continue to step up the intensity of our work in all aspects.”
The notion of ‘forgiving’ sits ill with free speech.
Xi may have been referring to an eruption of emotion on 6 March. The newly appointed party Wuhan party boss Wang Zhonglin told party officials that a campaign of “gratitude education” was needed to make sure people could understand what the Chinese state had done for them in this emergency. His words repeated on local media sites provoked a storm of outrage on social media, and were soon deleted. The new party chief of Hubei issued a clarifying statement that “Wuhan people are heroes” and that he was sincerely grateful to them.
Der Spiegel has now published a blow by blow account of how the local authorities covered up and lied in A Failed Deception: The Early Days of the Coronavirus Outbreak in Wuhan.
By early January medical staff themselves were catching the disease. News was leaking via chat rooms to epidemiologists and virologists in Beijing.
On Jan. 11, [the Wuhan health authority] reported that there hadn’t been a single known case among medical staff. In chatrooms, though, the opposite claim was spreading, something that epidemiologist Li Lanjuan learned on Jan. 17. Alarmed, she reported to the National Health Commission and requested permission to drive to Wuhan immediately. Officials in Beijing agreed. On Jan. 18, Li left for the city together with five other epidemiologists. It was only after this visit by the third Beijing delegation that the world would find out what was happening in Wuhan.
The team visited several hospitals, the Huanan market and the Center for Disease Control located only 300 meters away. The experts no longer had any doubts about human-to-human transmission of the virus or that medical personnel had themselves become infected. In a confidential meeting, Li urged that the highest disease alert level – normally reserved for plague or cholera outbreaks – be declared. She proposed sealing off the city of Wuhan. There were only a few days left until the peak of the New Year travel season, and the concern was that the disease could spread throughout the country.
The experts flew back to Beijing on Jan. 19 armed with these recommendations. At around midnight, they were received by the Chinese health minister, and the next morning, they attended a cabinet meeting in Zhongnanhai, the innermost circle of power in the Chinese leadership. They issued their warnings at the meeting.
It was then, on Monday, Jan. 20, that the Chinese and the rest of the world would learn of the shocking news from Chinese media. Three days later, in the early morning hours of Jan. 23, Beijing moved to seal Wuhan off from the outside world.
If you read the eyewitness accounts by medical staff in Wuhan case files the first is by Wu Feng, a doctor from the southern Guangdong province who volunteered to help out in Wuhan after being approached. She boarded a plane bound for the city as part of a 128-member medical support team sent from Guangdong province late on the night of 24 January.
She was part of the 42,000 medical staff who were brought to Wuhan, housed in hotels, fed and transported to and from work every day. The logistics are mind-blowing. Basically I can’t believe the operation was organised from a standing start on 20 January. An investigation might reveal whether it was a pre-prepared strategy, or whether planning started earlier when Beijing first began getting information in diverse ways. If Taiwan acted from January 1 it is more than likely someone with real clout in Beijing formulated plans on or before the end of the first week of January.
Which would mean the three weeks were not wasted, probably not more than one.
Der Spiegel reports:
- In March, an international team of epidemiologists calculated that the number of infections would have been three-times, seven-times or 18-times higher respectively if China had imposed the lockdown on Wuhan one, two or three weeks later than it did. It is difficult to imagine how many cases and deaths there might be in the world today had the country waited.
But the same study estimates that the numbers would have been 66 percent, 86 percent or 95 percent lower respectively had the government closed off the city one, two or three weeks earlier than it did.
There is evidence now that the virus had already escaped Wuhan and Hubei to other parts of China and indeed overseas before the end of 2019. So there is no realistic scenario in which the virus could have been contained and killed off in central China. Europe, the US and many other countries were completely unready for such a virus. What happened in Italy, New York, Britain and elsewhere would have still happened. Only the timing would have changed.
The Wuhan case files and the graphic accounts in the Der Spiegel article indicate that China too was far less ready than say Taiwan. The scenes described resonate with accounts from Italy. Here’s Wu Feng using garbage bags as foot covering on 11 February, about three weeks into her mission:
In the beginning Wu Feng says they had to wear two to three layers of protective clothing, it was so thin and weak. At first they had to change in a dark room without light. Ask her what she thinks of the CIA report cited by Lai-Ha Chan and Pak K Lee that China was manipulating the timing of announcements so that it could “hoard” personal protective equipment around that time.
It is significant, I think, how much Chinese society has been internationalised. Wu Feng had personal contacts overseas, including the USA where many Chinese have gone to study or work. The Der Spiegel story tells of virologist Gao Fu, the head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who on 30 December picked up on the internet rumors about an internal memo from the Wuhan Health Commission on the outbreak of an undefined lung disease. He called an official at the authority and was exasperated by the evasive answers he was given. He then sent the first of three teams of experts to Wuhan. The Beijing office of the WHO was informed the next day. shortly thereafter he was on the phone to his mate Robert Redfield, then (and still) director of the Center for Disease Control in the US. In a subsequent conversation it is said Gao cried.
Yes, Beijing knew early that something terrible was afoot. So did America.
China will try very hard to make sure they are not caught short again. The problem is that they are likely to try to plug these informal channels. In all probability they won’t succeed.
What kind of society is China becoming?
If you have been following closely you will have noted that Wu Feng volunteered, she was not commanded to go. Chinese fish monger Chen Qingbo in Wuhan was a small business owner, with two trucks and three employees. He owned two apartments apart from the one he was living in.
Laboratory tester Dr An Taixue talks of changing antibody test brands five times in two weeks.
This is not a command economy. My best window into Chinese society has come from companion TV watching with my son, who is trapped with us after coming for a short transitional stay in February. When I first saw the Chinese dating TV show If you are the one on SBS Demand I thought it unwatchable. After four or five times I started to become interested in the humans in front of me. I was astonished when my wife also became genuinely engaged. Here is the program info, because unfortunately the SBS rights expire tomorrow:
- With a viewing audience of up to 50 million per episode, this popular Chinese dating show is a cultural phenomenon. A lone male suitor has to impress a panel of 24 single women, who can then register their interest or disinterest in the man through the use of their podium lights. Popular host Meng Fei oversees the action in front of a large studio audience.
The program has normally been shot in Nanking, a city of 8.5 million approximately east of Wuhan. I’ve seen the guest shows they did in Sydney, and in Singapore. I’d say that if you want to use capitalism to become who you want to be, China is the place to do it. The young people who inhabit the show are mostly middle class university graduates, from early 20s to mid 30s.
As an example, one of the ‘contestants’ (boys seeking a date) had worked successfully for some years as a wedding designer. He didn’t like the way his bosses treated him, so he started his own company as a wedding tiara supplier.
The market is so large in China that practically anything is possible. And the available discretionary spending compares well with ours.
The show is hosted by Grandpa Meng, who with a PhD in philosophy (he also owns a chain of restaurants, including one in Sydney) is supposed to provide wisdom. He sets the mood, challenges people and jerks them around a bit, providing entertainment. The real wisdom comes from Mr Jiang, who is a very perceptive psychologist, and Ms Huang. Together they oil the process and I think look after the interests of the participants, so that no-one is psychologically damaged.
At times you get the impression that if you haven’t attained a senior position in a large company or started your own by your late 20s, you aren’t really trying.
Regional differences are strong, many of the participants have studied and/or worked overseas. Several contestant have been Taiwanese. Quite simply Taiwan is Chinese, with open channels to the mainland commercially, culturally and in terms of people movement.
The picture you get is of people who are to me surprisingly individualistic and hedonistic (‘clubbing’ seems a favourite past-time), super respectful of parents, but quite clear that they will make their own decisions.
Please don’t get me wrong. The people on the show can be silly and make the same mistakes in relating to other people as anyone. It’s just that what you see on screen has extreme cognitive dissonance with the notion of a people oppressed by an ugly communist party dictatorship.
Clearly the show is edited, but it is definitely not scripted. There is evident spontaneity of action and reaction.
The program has excellent production values and has been running for 11 years, typically with 40 to 50 episodes in a series.
While we are here, I’m told that Three lives, three worlds, the Pillow Book is far and away the most popular series on Chinese TV, with over 70 episodes in the first series and over 50 in the second. If communism was meant to get rid of heavenly beings, it failed.
I do actually find that one unwatchable, but it’s like taking Greek myths and legends as the basis of escapist TV.
Finally, take a look at Digital Deities and Galactic Guardians – How China is Invoking Ancient Gods in Cutting Edge Tech. China is incorporating its myths and legends into its digital future.
They too busy becoming themselves to think about being like anyone else.
Which brings me to the question of Tibet and the Uighurs of Xinjiang Province (apparently one of 55 recognised ethnic minorities).
I’m told that the two big things to remember about China is that the PRC desperately want to avoid a repeat of Tiananmen Square, and that the internal diversity makes it difficult to keep the bits together.
Quite simply, both Tibet and Xinjiang should be their own country, like Mongolia. What we have is grotesque ethnic cleansing, not unknown elsewhere in the world.
My sense is that Chinese autocracy cannot tolerate a powerful god.
The biggest worry about China is that over the long term it is unstable, and is almost bound to become kleptocratic, like Russia.
Meanwhile Donald Trump…
In the beginning of April Elizabeth Drew pronounced that The Trump Presidency Turns Deadly. Trump is mainly successful at blame shifting. In future people will be left with:
The hardest question to face, and one that will be long debated, is how many people died needlessly as a result of Trump’s leadership.
By the end of April we have Fintan O’Toole with Donald Trump has destroyed the country he promised to make great again The world has loved, hated and envied the US, Now, for the first time, we pity it
Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.
However bad things are for most other rich democracies, it is hard not to feel sorry for Americans. Most of them did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Yet they are locked down with a malignant narcissist who, instead of protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality. The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful.
Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode? The US went into the coronavirus crisis with immense advantages: precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world’s best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, effectively limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning logistical capacity and most of the world’s leading technology corporations. Yet it managed to make itself the global epicentre of the pandemic.
As the American writer George Packer puts it in the current edition of the Atlantic, “The United States reacted … like Pakistan or Belarus – like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”
It is one thing to be powerless in the face of a natural disaster, quite another to watch vast power being squandered in real time – wilfully, malevolently, vindictively.
With that he is just warming up.
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