China’s ‘Deception’ Cost Humanity. When Will World Demand Answers?

It is normal for China to peddle half-truths about issues like economic growth, crime, public health, civil unrest.

Published30 Mar 2020, 10:56 AM IST
Opinion
5 min read

In the last half a century at least, humankind has not faced a calamity like the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China. As if the enormity of the human and economic cost is not staggering enough, the possibility, howsoever remote, of it being more than a mere case of ‘cover-up’ or ‘negligence’, poses an existential crisis for humanity.

Normally, a country would have gone the extra mile to collaborate – transparently and proactively – with international experts for getting to the root of the problem and devising solutions. But not the ‘Middle Kingdom’, which believes in its own ‘natural superiority’. China hid the contagion for weeks, allowing it to spread unabated across the world. Next, they tried to pin the blame on the US. And now, Beijing is trying to bully or sweet talk the world into absolving it of any wrongdoing.

Coronavirus Crisis: Not the First Time China Has Acted ‘Recklessly’

This is not the first, nor would it be the last time, that China has behaved or would be behaving so recklessly. Use of force, obfuscation, denial and cover up, comes naturally to this expansionist and totalitarian power, where it is the messenger who often gets shot. Officials therefore, try to bury bad news or indulge in window-dressing.

It is commonplace to peddle half-truths about matters like economic growth, crime, public health or civil unrest.

During the ‘Great Leap Forward’ (1958 -62), local functionaries routinely sent fancy accounts of agricultural surpluses and industrialisation, while the masses starved to death in millions.

A HIV epidemic was discovered in China’s Henan province in the mid-1990s, due to blood and blood plasma collection malpractices. Hundreds of thousands perished. The government tried to hush it up until the local and international media started covering the man-made disaster. In late 2002, the SARS epidemic broke out in China and began spreading rapidly around the world. Beijing came clean only after five months.

A similar proclivity is evident in the political sphere. Images of tanks squashing peaceful pro-democracy student-activists at Tiananmen Square in 1989 are still vivid in public memory. Several hundred lives were snuffed out, just for expressing an opinion that went against the ethos of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

China’s Template of ‘Deception, Aggression, Denial’

Despite protestations to the contrary, Chinese armed occupation and stealthy militarisation of South China Sea is another case in point. China has followed a standard template of deception, aggression and denial, internally (Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong) and externally (Japan, India, Vietnam and others).

“It is difficult to know what is in their (Chinese) mind….They smile when they say the most callous and ruthless things. Mao [Zedong] told me with a smile that he was not afraid of atomic war…,” Pandit Nehru had presciently observed.

“With the Chinese you never know, and have to be prepared for unexpected reactions. This may partly be due to their isolation, but it is mainly in the Chinese character I think.”
Pandit Nehru 

Coming back to the coronavirus, Vijay Gokhale, India’s Foreign Secretary till recently and a Sinologist, writes, “China will put on its humanitarian face... repair the damage in the West, while reaching deep into its pockets to buy support in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Those who call them out may be pressured and possibly punished. Chinese reaction will be predictable, talk of third world and Asian solidarity will be mixed with hints, and even some action that they have the capacity to disrupt our economic recovery. They will act against US in multilateral bodies and activate expected pressure points in the region.”

China is doing precisely that. Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr Jaishankar on 24 March, asking that India refrain from labelling the virus as #ChineseVirus as "it’s not acceptable and detrimental to international cooperation to … stigmatise China".

WHO’s ‘Complicity’ With China & Failure to Alert the World

“China could ban the export of face masks and other medical gear to America which are in acute shortage due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus” – stated Global Times (11 March), the English language daily affiliated to the CPC, in an unsigned story.

Next day, Lijian Zhao, an official spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted: “it might be the US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan” – adding that the US ‘owed an explanation’ to China.

In parallel, China, which holds the Presidency of the UN Security Council (UNHC) during March, blocked the draft that called for “full transparency” over the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Ominously, Dr Tedros, Director General of WHO (World Health Organisation) whose candidature was actively backed by Beijing, dutifully applauded China’s “commitment to transparency”, when none existed, and also failed to alert the world about the ticking COVID-19 time-bomb.

President Trump also stated that WHO had "very much" sided with China on coronavirus crisis. He repeatedly referred to coronavirus as ‘Chinese virus’ adding that “The world is paying a very big price for what they did.”

And for once the American president was not exaggerating. COVID-19 has already consumed close to 34,000 human lives in 199 countries and territories (1000 hrs, 30 March). Yet the toll is mounting by the day with the end nowhere in sight. A deep recession stares the world in its face, coupled with widespread unemployment, disruption in supply chains and social unrest.

Corona & China’s Role: What Steps Could the World Take Immediately?

Global experts opine that (Foreign Affairs, 20 March) COVID-19 will further retard globalisation; create a less open, less prosperous, and less free world; strengthen the role of governments; depress global economic activity and shift manufacturing bases closer home.

Back in China, an outspoken realty tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who called President Xi Jinping a “clown” for “his inaction and measures implemented too late”, has since disappeared; but rumbling within the Communist Party of China (CPC), reflective of widespread public anger, is said to be growing. Unconfirmed reports about efforts to convene an emergency politburo meeting to hold Xi accountable, are also circulating.

So, what is a realistic course that the world could follow in the immediate term? China will not allow the UNSC to discuss the crisis.

However, nothing stops the US, European nations and like-minded states like India, Japan and Australia (for example) from convening a high-level tele-conference, and issuing a joint statement demanding answers from China.

This itself could be ground-breaking, and encourage China to introspect. Gradually, steps should be taken to reduce dependence on Chinese merchandise. Non-Chinese products would be a little more expensive, but the simple choice facing humanity is to pay up a tad extra or continue filling the Chinese coffers and whetting its appetite for global dominance and mis-adventurism. Speak-up now, humankind, or...

(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @AmbVPrakash. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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