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.
The 73rd session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) took place virtually this year, from May 18 to 19. During the summit, 120 out of 194 member states voted for a motion asking for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the World Health Organization (WHO)'s response to the pandemic, as well as the identification of the “zoonotic” source of the coronavirus. Ahead of the meeting, 62 nations led by the European Union and Australia had prepared the draft resolution. India’s decision to openly back the draft resolution was significant, as it was the country’s first public position taken on the issue.
Some relief was expressed at China having given its assent to the the resolution, in an apparent easing of its resistance to mounting calls for an investigation into the origin of the pathogen. Just a week ago, in response to Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into how the corona virus started, China had responded punitively by accusing Australia of launching a political attack, banning imports of Australian beef and raising the tariff on Australian barley imports.
It would be reasonable to assume China had finally sensed it would lose the diplomatic battle with a growing number of countries if it continued to say no. But by reading between the lines of China's statement at the summit, we should take with a hefty pinch of salt the idea that China will cooporate in good faith with any international inquiry on this matter.
Word Games: What Did the Chinese Leader Say, and What Did He Mean?
In his speech at the WHA, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said regarding a possible inquiry into the origin of the virus: “China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to Covid-19, after it is brought under control, to sum up experiences and address deficiencies. This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by the WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner.”
We can take four important points from this. Firstly, a “review” is a much more vaguely-defined and general endeavor than a statutory “inquiry” or “investigation” with fixed parameters. The CCP is notoriously good at word games and this choice of words is not frivolous. The use of the word “review”, instead of “inquiry” or “investigation”, gives China more room for maneuver.
Secondly, Xi said China will support a “review” only after the coronavirus is brought under control. As such, there is no clear timetable for when a China-backed “review” will take place, as it will still be a long time before many countries to bring their infection rate down, let alone bring the virus "under control". China is apparently trying to buy time. For what? A “review."
Almost from the outset of the pandemic, there have been calls for international investigators to be allowed into China. China even objected to calls from the WHO last month a study on the origin of the virus. The government has so far declined requests from all counties to send their experts into China to conduct research into the virus. When WHO representatives entered China for two trips in January and February, their itineraries were allegedly controlled by the Chinese authorities.
If there is nothing to hide, preparation is unnecessary. Would China destroy evidence? Well, why not? China did this back in January, and I raised a question about it then.
In the clearest sign yet that China is being forced to go on the defensive regarding its attitude to the pandemic, the country confirmed on May 16 that it had ordered “unauthorized laboratories” to destroy samples of the novel coronavirus in the early stages of the outbreak, but this was done for reasons of bio-safety. Liu Dengfeng, an official of the National Health Commission’s science and education department, said this step was taken “to prevent the risk to laboratory biological safety and prevent secondary disasters caused by unidentified pathogens.”.
At a briefing in Beijing, he added: “The remarks made by some US officials were taken out of context and intended to confuse,” referring to remarks by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that slammed China for destroying early evidence that the virus originated there. China is now trying to justify its actions in the light of evidence that the pathogen could well have emerged in China as early as November 2019.
Reports indicate that a Provincial Health Commission in Wuhan issued a notice in February 2020, warning that those handling virus samples were not to provide them to any institutions or laboratories without approval. Unauthorised labs that had obtained samples in the early stages of the outbreak had to destroy them or send them to a municipal centre for disease control and prevention for storage. It is clear that the Chinese were aware that a new strain of virus was in business, and their labs were working to figure out the cause.
There is considerable danger in accepting China’s claims on the chronology of the spread of the virus. It is now known that the first signs of the virus appeared in early November 2019 and that for a whole month, China did nothing about it.
Returning to Xi's speech, the third point is that by "objective and impartial," which is not the same as independent, the Chinese leader meant that any “review” should focus on more than just China’s actions. China’s spokesperson Zhao Lijian later confirmed this implication.
Thanks to China’s effective disinformation campaign, the water is now muddied: the once self-evident truth concerning the origin of the virus has become a smudge. Given the importance of potential findings to fighting the next pandemic, it is actually not a bad idea to undertake investigations in other countries as well. But it will buy China more time, and potentially play into Beijing's hands.
Fourth, Xi said that the “review” should be led by the WHO. The WHO has been widely criticized for being too close to Beijing and putting deference to the CCP over saving lives. There are many questions for the WHO which it must answer openly and in detail in order to remain a credible institution. But there is no sign that it will in any foreseeable future.
Xi Jinping, in his speech, pledged $2 billion over two years to the WHO -- a political debt that Beijing may be able to collect on in future. In short, the WHO cannot be trusted to conduct the "review". The countries afflicted by coronavirus must coordinate to set up a truly impartial, objective and independent investigation into the origin of the virus and China’s actions. In fact, two should be called: the other into the WHO’s response to the worst pandemic in a century.
Also in this series: