- AFP/South China Morning Post/YouTube
- The World Health Assembly began on Monday, with dozens of countries looking to hold China accountable over the coronavirus outbreak.
- It would likely have embarrassed China on the world stage, casting its response in an unflattering light.
- But China ended up sidestepping that. President Xi Jinping deftly embraced a watered-down investigation likely to spare China any humiliation.
- He also made a high-profile pledge of $2 billion to the World Health Organization and more aid to countries in need.
- Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump refused to speak at the assembly and threatened to withdraw the US from WHO. US funding for WHO is already on hold.
- China moved nimbly on the world stage and made a show of generosity while the US appeared small-minded and reluctant to lead.
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China was meant to face a reckoning this week over its early response to the coronavirus outbreak, outnumbered in public by dozens of angry nations at the World Health Assembly. Instead, it ended up outplaying the world.
At Monday’s virtual World Health Assembly, countries were meant to vote on a draft motion, proposed by Australia, that would have begun an investigation into the source of the novel coronavirus and China’s role in the outbreak.
It likely would have cast an unflattering light on China’s early inaction and its suppression of information, which cost valuable days of preparation.
But that motion didn’t even make it to the table.
Instead, the assembly was presented with a watered-down draft motion from the European Union that called for a review on “lessons learned,” with few specifics.
In other words, the new version does not call for an investigation into the origins of the virus in China. At no point does it mention China or Wuhan, the city where the first cases were found.
More than 110 WHO member states had backed the motion on Monday.
As it became clear that the motion was going to pass, China reversed its earlier opposition and embraced it instead. It passed on Tuesday with no objections.
President Xi Jinping on Monday also gave a surprisingly conciliatory speech to the assembly in which he:
- Backed an investigation – but only when the pandemic is over.
“China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19,” Xi said, “after it is brought under control to sum up experience and address deficiencies” (emphasis added).
Dozens of nations still have outbreaks, meaning this criterion is unlikely to be met anytime soon, especially with no vaccine. Many countries that eased restrictions, including Germany and China, had to partially reimpose them when new cases surfaced.
- Worded his pledge in such a way that countries will struggle to hold China to account.
The WHO investigation “should be based on science and professionalism, led by WHO, and conducted in an objective and impartial manner,” Xi said.
The omission of the word “independent” is telling, CNN’s James Griffiths noted.
- HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images
Carrying out independent investigations in China is notoriously difficult, especially if it could embarrass the ruling Communist Party.
When international bodies demanded access to Xinjiang, home to the beleaguered Uighur Muslims, China gave heavily choreographed and chaperoned tours and forbade researchers and journalists from investigating independently.
If this is a glimpse of what a coronavirus investigation would look like, the world will struggle to hold China to account.
- Announced an additional $2 billion in funding to WHO, with a focus on developing countries.
The extra $2 billion almost matches WHO’s entire annual program budget for 2019, Reuters reported. It means China is WHO’s largest financial contributor.
The top contributor used to be the US. But President Donald Trump earlier this year withdrew $400 million in funding to protest what he said was WHO leadership’s “China-centric” nature.
- NAOHIKO HATTA/AFP via Getty Images
On Monday, a White House National Security Council spokesman, John Ullyot, called the $2 billion injection “a token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government’s failure to … warn the world of what was coming.”
Throughout the pandemic, WHO has praised China’s response to its outbreak – despite widespread reports of a cover-up – and repeatedly rejected accusations that it is too close to China.
- Pledged to help African nations better their healthcare systems and promised that any Chinese vaccine development “will be made a global public good.”
The US is reportedly planning to disassociate from a WHO resolution to let poor countries bypass patents to access coronavirus vaccines or therapies.
Even early reports of such a move invited accusations that the US cared more for its pharmaceuticals industry than for impoverished countries suffering from COVID-19 outbreaks.
The reports followed a public spat when the French drugmaker Sanofi reversed a pledge to give the US priority access to a coronavirus vaccine candidate after pressure from the French government.
China, meanwhile, has in recent weeks been crafting an image for itself as a global benefactor in the fight against the virus, rather than the country where the virus originated.
It has sent medical supplies around the world, and Xi pledged on Monday to start an exchange with 30 hospitals in Africa and to help accelerate the construction of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters.
Experts have overwhelmingly dismissed these acts as a propaganda stunt, but it is undeniable that China is making a play for global leadership when few other nations seem willing.
Trump made it easier for China to claim victory
As China made grand pledges at the World Health Assembly, Trump went on the offensive.
He rejected an invitation to speak at the assembly, instead sending Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who went on to blame WHO for failing to warn the world about COVID-19 in the pandemic’s early days.
“In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak, at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world,” he said, clearly referring to China.
As Business Insider’s John Haltiwanger noted, the fact that Trump declined to speak at the assembly – while Xi did – showed that the US was pulling away from its responsibilities on the world stage.
Late Monday, Trump tweeted a furious four-page letter he had sent WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in which he threatened to make the “temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization.”
Trump also accused WHO of favoring China and censured it for not praising his response to the US’s outbreak.
China described the letter as an attempt to smear it and shift focus away from Trump’s mishandling of the US crisis.
The contrast was clear. China was given an opportunity to, however cynically, present itself as a calm, peaceful leader. Meanwhile, the US appeared petty and reluctant to engage.
It is not hard to see China angling to fill the power vacuum Trump is leaving at WHO – which could help the country walk away relatively unscathed from the pandemic that began inside its borders.