China downplayed the initial coronavirus outbreak and misled the world by saying the virus could not be transmitted from human-to-human, according to leading American expert on Chinese affairs Gordon Chang.
The Associated Press revealed last week that top Chinese officials waited six days to take preventative measures after privately concluding on January 14 the country was likely facing the outbreak of a severe coronavirus pandemic.
Epidemiologists say that COVID-19 is so infectious that a delay of days can result in a large escalation of cases.
“Beijing took actions it knew would cause death and suffering outside of China,” said Gordon Chang in an interview with Al Arabiya English. Chang is a widely respected authority on China, lawyer, and author of the book “The Coming Collapse of China.”
During those six days, the city of Wuhan - where the coronavirus originated – carried on as usual despite authorities knowing about the severity of the highly contagious virus, according to the Associated Press report based on documents from an anonymous source in the medical field. The city hosted a banquet for thousands of people and Beijing allowed millions to travel for Lunar New Year celebrations.
“I think the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are totally responsible for the global pandemic,” Chang added.
Chang’s charges against Beijing and the WHO are gathering weight in the United States as President Donald Trump and members of his White House Coronavirus Task Force accuse China of circulating disinformation about the virus.
But not all experts in the US are buying the accusations against China. Expert on US-China politics Peter Li said the slow response by the Chinese government was “related to the need for the Chinese authorities not to create panic,” without realizing more proactive measures should have been implemented.
“The caution was understandable when things were still developing and the new virus was being determined,” said Li, a professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.
Chang said that Beijing’s missteps did not stop with the delayed domestic response to contain the novel coronavirus, but that the government went on to misinform the world about COVID-19, which has now killed more than 170,000 globally.
Beijing said: Not human-to-human
Though doctors in the city of Wuhan knew that the coronavirus was human-to-human transmissible at the end of December, Chinese police reprimanded at least eight physicians for warning others about the emerging threat, while some doctors were ordered to delete posts on social media appealing for donations of medical supplies.
There is evidence that human-to-human transmission occurred among close contacts in Wuhan as early as the middle of December, according to the American peer-reviewed medical journal New England Journal of Medicine’s March 26 report.
“Beijing tried to mislead the world into believing it was not human-to-human transmissible,” said Chang. “And the World Health Organization helped them with that infamous January 14th tweet.”
The WHO posted on January 14 that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the coronavirus.
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China🇨🇳. pic.twitter.com/Fnl5P877VG— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020
The next day head of China’s CDC emergency center Li Qun told Chinese state media that the risk of “sustained human-to-human transmission is low.” It wasn’t until five days later, on January 29, that a leading Chinese government expert announced to state media that the virus was transmissible from person-to-person.
As scientists study the outbreak and realize more and more that the spread was unnecessary, China will have to answer to the international community, according to Chang.
“This just should have been a local epidemic in the center of China. Instead it has killed hundreds of thousands and has sickened millions. And this is not over yet,” said Chang.
Beijing said: Keep borders open
While denying the novel coronavirus’ human-to-human transmissibility, Beijing pressured countries to keep their borders open to China.
“Either China was reckless, taking action it knew would inevitably lead to the spread of the virus, or it was in fact malicious, that Beijing wanted this virus to spread. In either case China is responsible,” said Chang.
The WHO supported China’s call to keep borders open, issuing a statement on January 10 recommending against countries restricting travel and trade with China.
“WHO advises against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China based on the information currently available,” the statement said, adding that preliminary investigation suggests there is “no significant human-to-human transmission.”
The WHO “supported China in keeping borders open, supported China’s narrative that this was not human to human transmissible,” said Chang.
“There’s got to be a reassessment by the international community of the WHO because in its present configuration it is promoting disease, not hindering it,” he added.
US President Donald Trump called the WHO “China centric” on April 7 and said it was fortunate he rejected the WHO recommendation to keep US borders open to China in the beginning stages of the pandemic.
The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 7, 2020
Li said that Trump “should stop blaming others for his own incompetency on this national crisis.”
“What is more important for the US and for Trump today is not blaming China or the Democrats but to mobilize the entire federal government and Congress to respond to the crisis,” said Li.
“The pandemic should not be politicized,” he added.
Beijing’s ties to WHO’s Dr. Tedros
Trump suspended US funding to the WHO on April 14 pending an investigation into the organization’s role in “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” The US is the single largest funder of the WHO.
Chang said that the Chinese government intimidated the WHO and that the WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus may have been influenced by Beijing’s past efforts on getting him elected to his current position.
China was an “important ally of Tedros in the WHO’s DG election in 2017,” according to the US thinktank, Council on Foreign Relations.
Dr. Tedros has praised China’s leadership for its “openness to sharing information” about the pandemic, a congratulation that falls short in light of the government’s crackdown on Chinese doctors who tried to alert the public to the danger of the virus in the initial phase.
“The WHO has a lot of great doctors and professionals who do really important work, but that work is nullified by this senior leadership of the organization,” said Chang.
Impact on China-US relations
Beijing’s mishandling and misinformation about the coronavirus has lost it support from Western democracies like the US and countries in the region like Japan, according to Chang.
“There will be real changes in the way other governments interact with Beijing. I think that Beijing has lost support and it's going to be very difficult for China to get beyond that,” said Chang, adding that ties are likely going to become tense between the US and China.
Just three months after Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu shook hands at the White House’s signing of a landmark bilateral trade deal, Trump warned on Saturday of “consequences” for Beijing if China were found to have deliberately allowed the novel coronavirus to spread.
“If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, then there should be consequences,” said Trump, who has said he wants American investigators to go to China to examine the outbreak.
Chang said the over 39,000 Americans who have died from the coronavirus “died only because China spread this disease.”
“That’s got to have severe implications for the relationship going forward and indeed it should,” said Chang.