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A politicized WHO

The current coronavirus pandemic has revealed China’s growing influence over the World Health Organization

Bruce Aylward speaks at a press conference about China's response to the new COVID-19 coronavirus. Sam McNeil/AP

A politicized WHO
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In a viral video clip, Hong Kong journalist Yvonne Tong asked World Health Organization Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward if the organization would allow Taiwan to become a member. On a video call, Aylward pauses uncomfortably before responding “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear your question, Yvonne. … Let’s move to another one then.” When Tong repeats her question, he responds by hanging up the call.

After Tong called him back and asked about Taiwan again, Aylward deflected, claiming they had already talked about China.

On Twitter, some joked he was pulling a trick used by students trying to avoid answering questions on Zoom classes by pretending their screen is frozen. Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist living in Australia, drew a picture of Aylward in front of the WHO logo with 100 RMB bills stuffed in his ears and the quote, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear your question.”

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the WHO (an agency of the United Nations) has parroted China’s narrative, delayed declaring the outbreak a public health emergency, and praised China’s response. In a clip shared by Chinese media, Aylward said, “If I had COVID-19, I’d want to be treated in China.” China has also successfully blocked democratic Taiwan and its 23 million citizens from being part of the WHO, with the group’s leaders avoiding mention of the T-word like the plague.

Has China bought the WHO, as Badiucao’s comic suggests? China’s monetary contribution to the WHO has increased by 52 percent from 2014 to $86 million in 2019, but that is still less than 10 percent of what the United States contributed the same year. Instead the communist country’s growing influence around the world has given China enormous sway over the United Nations.

A timeline of WHO’s actions on COVID-19 demonstrate this influence. China first alerted the WHO to an outbreak on Dec. 31 but claimed it “had not found any obvious human-to-human transmission.” Meanwhile officials reprimanded eight Chinese doctors for sharing information about this unknown pneumonia on social media. That same day, Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control alerted WHO about its suspicion the new virus could be spread between humans and asked the organization to investigate.

Instead, two weeks later the WHO endorsed an initial investigation by Chinese authorities that again stated there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. It wasn’t until Jan. 23—three days after Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan backtracked the earlier report—that the WHO followed suit. By then, more than three weeks had passed and the virus had spread throughout Wuhan, China, and the rest of the world. Still, the WHO refused to call the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern until a week later.

On Jan. 28, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and praised China for “setting a new standard for outbreak control” and praised the government for its “openness to sharing information.” This was as Chinese censors wiped reports about the outbreak from the internet and the government under-reported the number of infection cases and deaths. Rather than offend the Chinese government, Tedros instead urged countries not to close their borders to travelers from China, even as the number of cases ballooned to 17,000 in early February. “China has bought the world time,” Tedros stated on Feb. 20.

The delays continued as the WHO refused to declare the outbreak a pandemic until March 11, after 114 countries reported a total of 118,000 infections. This affected the preparedness of countries that count on the WHO’s guidance, wrote François Godement of the Paris-based think tank Institut Montaigne, as “a number of governments and organizations either believed naively those claims … or they chose to rely on this false comfort in order to delay difficult measures.”

Tedros’ loyalty to China dates back to his election to the post in 2017. Months before the election, he was invited to speak at Peking University about how the Global South and China should cooperate on health issues. China supported his nomination, and after he won the election, he announced the WHO would support the “One China” principle that denies Taiwan is a separate entity from China.

International organizations give China such deference because of money—but not the relatively small amount China gives to them. A growing number of countries around the world are dependent on Chinese investment. This allows China to quickly garner support from other countries and create voting coalitions within the UN, Godement said. China’s contributions are still small, but agencies hope China will provide more funding in the future.

For instance on April 1, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Consultative Group appointed a Chinese official to the panel, which plays a key role in choosing human rights monitors for freedom of speech, health, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detentions.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the non-governmental organization UN Watch, compared allowing China to choose monitors to “making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief.” China consistently bars free speech, “disappears” whistleblowers and critics, and arbitrarily detains dissidents.

“It’s absurd and immoral for the UN to allow China’s oppressive government a key role in selecting officials who shape international human rights standards and report on violations worldwide,” Neuer said in a statement.

In contrast, Taiwan has the freest society in Asia and one of the world’s best responses to the coronavirus outbreak. Despite its proximity to China, Taiwan only has 380 cases and five deaths. Although Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, was one of the founding countries of the UN, member states kicked it out in 1971 when the world began to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Since then, Taiwan has not been able to participate in the UN or any of its agencies like the WHO.

From 2009 to 2016, when the more Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou was in power, China allowed Taiwan to join the World Health Assembly, WHO’s decision-making body, as an observer. But once President Tsai Ing-wen was elected, China again barred Taiwan.

This is harmful to citizens of Taiwan as its government is excluded from emergency meetings, global expert briefings, and information collected from other countries’ health departments. Also because the WHO categorizes Taiwan as a province of China, several countries restricted travel from Taiwan even though it had few cases of the coronavirus.

The row between Taiwan and the WHO continued this week. At a press briefing on Wednesday, Tedros accused Taiwan’s government of conducting an attack campaign against him, claiming he’s received death threats and racist attacks originating from Taiwan. Tsai has protested the accusation, responding in a statement that “for years, Taiwan has been excluded from international organizations, and we know better than anyone else what it feels like to be discriminated against and isolated.”

She invited Tedros to visit Taiwan and see their efforts to fight COVID-19—granted he “could withstand the pressure from China.”

Not free at last:

After four and a half years in prison, prominent human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was supposed to walk free this week. But instead of reuniting with his wife and young son, Chinese officials sent him 250 miles away to his hometown of Jinan, Shandong, for a mandatory coronavirus quarantine. His wife, Li Wenzu, fears the government is using the virus as an excuse to continue detaining him.

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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