Jianli Yang, a mathematician and human rights activist, survived China's Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, after which he left China for the United States. He returned in 2002 and was jailed between 2002 and 2007 for supporting the country's labor movement. He was intermittently held in solitary confinement for a total of 15 months – as detailed in a previous IranWire interview – and returned to the US after his release.
In a weekly series for IranWire, Jianli Yang analyses Chinese disinformation around the origin of coronavirus and its handling to date.
Scientists still have yet to reach a firm conclusion about the origin of Covid-19: a situation for which the Chinese government’s refusal to allow access and research is largely to blame.
In late April China country rejected calls for an independent international investigation into the source, saying such demands were “politically motivated”. In addition, it emerged this week, the World Health Organization has not been asked to collaborate with China in its own internal investigation despite the WHO having made this request repeatedly.
Chen Wen, a diplomat for the regime in the UK, told the BBC: “We are fighting the virus at the moment, we are concentrating all our efforts on fighting against the virus. Why talk about an investigation into this? This will divert not only attention, it will divert resources. This is a politically motivated initiative... It would serve nobody any good."
This may not be the only reason for China’s reticence, however. The WHO holds that human infection from the coronavirus began in Wuhan’s “wet” wildlife markets. Spokeswoman Fadela Chaib has said: “It most likely has its ecological reservoir in bats, but how the virus came from bats to humans is still to be seen and discovered.”
Wildlife Markets Back in Action
China is a linchpin in the global illegal wildlife trade, which accounted for USD$7.3 billion in 2017 according to official Chinese reports. More than 110 different animal species are sold at wet markets across China. These thriving spaces, including the popular Baishazhou and Huanan markets in Wuhan and Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, are now once again in business at full throttle despite all China’s claims of deft handling of the outbreak.
Following the outbreak of coronavirus last year China shut down the domestic wildlife trade in February 2020. But according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, it had reopened 94 percent of wet markets by the end of March: exposing the people of China as well as the world to new waves of Covid-19 or other deadly viruses.
Research conducted by Hong Kong University recently suggested that coronavirus originated from bats and was transmitted to humans via intermediary hosts. Pangolins are now the prime suspect as the intermediary host. After bats infected these small mammals with coronavirus, scientists believe, they were consumed by humans, who in turn contracted the virus. Elsewhere, researchers from the Department of Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics at the University of Michigan have suggested the pangolin may itself be a natural host rather than an intermediary.
Thus far, the Chinese authorities have ignored calls from doctors and environmentalists across the globe to ban wet markets from selling bats and other wild creatures such as snakes, lizards, and scorpions, without health-related regulations.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was similar to Covid-19 biologically, and in the fact that it also originated in China in 2002-3. Following the SARS epidemic Beijing imposed a ban on wet markets, but only for a short period, after which the regime again allowed people to trade in and eat wild meat. Many conservationists, medical professionals, and research institutes in China including the Chinese Academy of Sciences had hoped it would be permanent.
Now these groups as well as international leaders are calling for a permanent ban on the wildlife trade through wet markets in China, to snap the possible links between those environments and zoonotic diseases.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said: “Given the strong link between illegal wildlife sold in wet markets and zoonotic diseases, the United States has called on the People’s Republic of China to permanently close its wildlife wet markets and all markets that sell illegal wildlife.”
The Australian government has also called for an investigation into wildlife wet markets, with Australian minister David Littleproud calling them a “human risk and biosecurity risk.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society has asked for the closure of live animal markets that sell wildlife for human consumption. “If these markets persist, and human consumption of illegal and unregulated wildlife persists, then the public will continue to face heightened risks from emerging new viruses, potentially more lethal, and the source of future pandemic spread,” said Dr Christian Walzer, executive director of the WCS health programme. The WHO has called for stricter safety and hygiene standards for wet markets and urged governments to rigorously enforce bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food.
Chinese public figures have made similar appeals. Jinfeng Zhou, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), raised concerns about the weak enforcement of wildlife protection laws and high levels of illegal trading in China, as well as the failure to ban wet markets.
But the root cause of the problem, says Wang Song, a retired researcher of zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is Chinese culture. "In many people's eyes, animals are living for man, not sharing the earth with man,” he said.
Communist China’s totalitarian system prevents moral leaders in civil society from promoting such humane approaches, and keeps society from moving toward sound, healthy and sustainable approaches to the treatment of domestic and wild animals. But this is plainly not just a domestic affair. The coronavirus epidemic, which has now claimed about a quarter of a million lives worldwide, shows that China’s failures in domestic governance are threats to international public health. And these tragic failures show Xi Jinping’s claims to global leadership based on domestic “progress” to be baseless.
Also in this series: