China outplayed the world on the day it was meant to face a reckoning over its coronavirus response

China outplayed the world on the day it was meant to face a reckoning over its coronavirus response
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking at the World Health Assembly's virtual meeting on May 19, 2020.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 WHO, plus more aid to countries in need.
  • At the same time, President Donald Trump refused to speak at the assembly and threatened to withdraw totally. US funding for the 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.
China was meant to face a reckoning this week over its early coronavirus response, 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, which would begin an investigation into the source of the novel coronavirus and China's role in the outbreak.

It 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 from the European Union, which calls 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 by name China, or Wuhan, where the first cases were found.

China outplayed the world on the day it was meant to face a reckoning over its coronavirus response
The Wuhan Huanan wet market, where China says is the origin of the novel coronavirus, pictured on January 21, 2020.Dake Kang/AP

Around 122 WHO member states have now backed the draft.

As it became clear the motion was going to pass, China reversed its earlier opposition and instead embraced it. The WHO is expected to pass the motion on Tuesday, especially since it now has China's backing.

President Xi Jinping on Monday also gave a surprisingly conciliatory speech to the assembly, in which:

  • Xi backed an investigation into the virus — 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 ours).

Dozens of nations around the world are still in the midst of their outbreaks, which means this criterion is unlikely to be met any time soon, especially with no vaccine. Many countries that eased restrictions, including Germany and China itself, had to partially reimpose them when new cases resurfaced.

  • He worded his pledge in such a way that countries will struggle to hold China to account.
A WHO investigation into COVID-19's origins "should be based on science and professionalism, led by WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner," Xi said on Monday.

The omission of the word "independent" is telling, as CNN's James Griffiths noted.

China outplayed the world on the day it was meant to face a reckoning over its coronavirus response
A medical worker takes a swab sample from a man to be tested for COVID-19 in Wuhan on May 16, 2020.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 into how a coronavirus investigation will look like, the world will struggle to hold China to account.

  • Xi announced an additional $2 billion in funding to the WHO, with a focus on developing countries.
The extra $2 billion almost matches the WHO's entire annual program budget for 2019, Reuters reported. It now means that China is the WHO's largest financial contributor.

The top contributor used to be the US. But President Donald Trump withdrew $400 million in US funding earlier this year to protest what he called the WHO leadership's "China-centric" nature.

China outplayed the world on the day it was meant to face a reckoning over its coronavirus response
World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 28, 2020.NAOHIKO HATTA/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, 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, the 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.

  • He pledged to help African nations better their healthcare systems, and promised that any Chinese vaccine development "will be made a global public good."
Xi's pledge came as the US reportedly plans to publicly disassociate itself 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 cares more for its pharmaceuticals industry than for impoverished COVID-19 sufferers.

It follows a public spat after French drug-maker Sanofi reversed a pledge to give the US priority access after pressure from the French government.

China, meanwhile, has in recent weeks been crafting an image for itself as a global benefactor in the virus fight, rather than the country where the virus originated.

It has sent medical supplies around the world, and pledged Monday to start an exchange with 30 hospitals in Africa, and help accelerate the construction of the Africa CDC 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.

China outplayed the world on the day it was meant to face a reckoning over its coronavirus response
President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room of the White House on May 18, 2020.Associated Press

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, sending instead Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who went on to blame the WHO for failing to warn the world about COVID-19 in its 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, in a clear reference to China.

As Business Insider's John Haltiwanger has noted, the fact that Trump declined to speak at the assembly — while Xi did — also shows that the US is pulling away from its responsibilities on the world stage.

China outplayed the world on the day it was meant to face a reckoning over its coronavirus response
Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on March 20, 2020.Associated Press/Evan Vucci

Hours later, 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."

In the letter, Trump also accused the WHO of favoring China, and censured it for not praising his own response to the US outbreak.

China said this was an attempt to smear China and shift focus away from Trump's own 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 the WHO, which could help it walk away relatively unscathed from the pandemic that began inside its borders.

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