China’s Changing of International Norms Could Lead to Chaos


China’s Changing of International Norms Could Lead to Chaos

May 19, 2020 16 min read

Former Visiting Fellow, DeVos Center

Emilie Kao was a Visiting Fellow for Heritage’s DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family.
A worker wears a protective mask while cleaning construction waste at Wuhan Keting on February 4th.2020 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Getty Images / Stringer / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The coronavirus has clarified the extent to which China’s rights-violating regime influences international organizations and impacts the world. 

The pandemic has given the world another preview of a future in which Chinese leadership dominates the global system, including through international institutions.

The coronavirus is showing the world that China isn’t just seeking to avoid accountability, it is seeking to change the rules.

The coronavirus pandemic has again crystallized the critical connection between human rights, accountability and public health. China’s ruthless suppression of free speech and its lack of transparency gave the disease wings to fly around the world.  

Unfortunately, the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.N. human rights officials turned a blind eye to China’s suppression of vital information and its censorship of whistleblowers. The coronavirus has clarified the extent to which China’s rights-violating regime influences international organizations and impacts the world. 

American citizens and those in other free countries insist on fundamental human-rights, transparency and accountability. These are, after all, elements essential to a functioning democracy. Laws that protect a robust civil society from being fettered by the government serve the public interest by protecting whistleblowers, holding parties accountable, and giving victims access to justice.  

A framework of freedom creates multiple, independent channels of data and prevents government monopolies of information. In a health crisis, workers in private and public hospitals and clinics, citizens and journalists can bring critical facts to the public’s attention through formal and informal networks, the media and social media. Watchdogs in civil society and other branches of government scrutinize the responses of authorities. And finally, litigators can go to court on behalf of victims.  

Public conflict resolution in democracies can look messy but it offers hope for justice. In America, medical professionals, patients and journalists have investigated everything from polluted water to fentanyl-laced prescription drugs to asbestos-laden talcum powder. And they are on the frontlines of treating, studying, and critiquing responses to infectious diseases.  

Because liberty is in America’s DNA, the expectations of its citizens shape not only its domestic response to the coronavirus but its international response, too. Those citizens expect local, state, and federal government to be accountable to their demands. And many Americans also expect the Trump administration and the UN to hold China accountable for respecting international health standards and universal human rights. 

But, in authoritarian one-party states like China, the state holds a monopoly on information, silences whistleblowers, and denies access to justice. Citizens face almost certain punishment for protesting and are rarely able to hold the state accountable. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) censorship has repeatedly undermined the people’s ability to protect public health through sharing information with each other. As Heritage Senior Policy Analyst Olivia Enos writes, Chinese law makes it “illegal for any entity other than the Ministry of Health to break the news about a health-related issue…actually classifying such information as a state secret.”  

Accustomed to acting with impunity at home, it is no surprise that Chinese diplomacy is aimed at deflecting international scrutiny. But the coronavirus is showing the world that China isn’t just seeking to avoid accountability, it is seeking to change the rules. 

Crisis Management, the CCP Way 

It takes a lot of horror to embolden protest in China. Yet the CCP’s mismanagement of past disasters has sometimes been so egregious as to lead aggrieved citizens to take to the streets. The regime’s handling of the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake rose to that level, although the resulting protests were limited and easily stifled. But another CCP misadventure gave the world a particularly tragic demonstration of how Beijing’s suppression of rights could create serious health risks that would spread beyond China’s borders.  

In 2005, a television station aired dairy worker Jiang Weisuo’s concerns about his company adding unauthorized substances to its infant milk formula. Chinese food safety officials said they could not find evidence of wrongdoing but three years later a urologist in a pediatric hospital flagged the unusual appearance of kidney stones in children.  

That same month, July 2008, a journalist at China’s Southern Weekend newspaper reported that infants had been sickened by baby formula. That report was promptly suppressed by authorities, due to the Beijing Olympics which were to be held in August.  

The weekly’s editor, Fu, later confessed that the CCP had ordered the media to report only positive news and declared the topic of food safety to be off-limits. “We couldn’t do any investigation on an issue like this, at that time, because of the need to be ‘harmonious,’” Fu wrote.  

By the time another Chinese reporter broke the news about the dangerous product on September 11, an estimated three hundred thousand babies had been sickened and fifty-four thousand had been hospitalized. Six ultimately died.  

Zhao Lianhai, a journalist whose own son was sickened, began publicly questioning the safety of the widely distributed Sanlu milk formula. He organized other angry parents through a website called “Kidney Stone Babies” but official retribution was swift. He was detained and ultimately sentenced to two and a half years in prison on charges of “disturbing social order,” “gathering illegally,” holding up signs and speaking to reporters.  

Other parents were detained to prevent them from holding a press conference, and some were sent to labor camps. Authorities harassed their lawyers, threatening them with professional discipline, and ordered courts not to hear cases from the parents. Ultimately, the CCP’s censorship of dissent stifled the protests.  

This is standard operating procedure for a totalitarian regime. It’s captured well in the Chinese adage: “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” By severely punishing small actors—a few journalists, some parents and their advocates—the government intimidated the masses, preventing additional criticism and protests.  

Through this repressive behavior, the Party managed to avoid domestic accountability for its role in the tragedy, even though its interference had kept parents from receiving life-saving information from whistleblowers. “I felt very guilty and frustrated then,” Fu wrote. “The only thing I could do was to call every friend I knew to tell them not to feed their children with Sanlu milk powder.”   

Muzzling International Organizations 

Once the baby formula story was out, the world took notice. Some countries also took action. Eleven nations banned the import of Chinese dairy products.  

The WHO called the scandal “a large-scale intentional activity to deceive consumers for simple, basic, short-term profits.” But with this denunciation, the WHO followed the lead of the Chinese government. It focused solely on the milk producers’ culpability, without examining Beijing’s interference in suppressing critical information.  

Meanwhile, over at the World Trade Organization, Chinese representatives criticized other nations for imposing blanket bans on Chinese food products. And at the time, the U.N.’s human-rights leadership breathed barely a word about Beijing’s censorship of whistleblowers or its intimidation of human rights defenders and their clients.  

Throughout it all, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao denied any culpability on the part of the CCP, claiming “there wasn’t the slightest cover up.” Rather, he said, “What we are trying to do is to ensure no such event happens in future by punishing those leaders as well as enterprises responsible. None of those companies without professional ethics or social morals will be let off.” 

And he was true to his word. The government sentenced dairy company executives to long jail terms, executed two of them, and punished local officials and the head of the Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. 

But, by quashing freedom inside China—and in the absence of a serious investigation from the U.N.—the CCP never faced accountability for its role in the tainted formula scandal. Unfortunately, it was no “one-off.” Stories of tainted pet food, tainted eggs, tainted toothpaste, and lead-painted toys emerged both before and after the 2008 scandal. But nothing so clearly revealed the critical connection between freedom of speech, government censorship, and public health as the baby formula scandal did. That is, until the coronavirus.  

The Fatal Consequences of Information Suppression 

An effective international response to any health crisis, particularly an infectious disease, depends on rapid sharing of accurate scientific and medical data and coordination between international organizations and national governments. Whether or not that happens depends, in part, on whether those responsible for information-sharing and coordination are held accountable if they fail to fulfill their duties.  

None of these accountability systems exists in China because of its governance system (one-party rule) and because of its rising influence at the U.N. The latter has made both WHO and human-rights officials loathe to confront China. For instance, in 2015, China refused to allow language affirming the vital role of civil society in a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on public health. This is one example of how China not only seeks to shield itself from criticism but presses for a more statist approach to public health at the expense of civil society and the individual.  

In addition to defending its own human-rights abuses against religious and ethnic minorities, political dissidents, and human-rights defenders, China has tried to block investigations into atrocities in Syria, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Myanmar. In 2016, it successfully lobbied the U.N. in Geneva and member-states to move an event with Nobel Laureates, including the Dalai Lama, off-site. In 2017, it enlisted U.N. security guards to block an accredited Uighur Muslim activist from entering a gathering at the U.N. headquarters in New York. And it has repeatedly used its position on the U.N. Economic and Social Council to block the accreditation of NGOs that critique its human-rights violations. This is why the human-rights community was appalled when diplomats on the forty-seven-member U.N. Human Rights Council recently elected China to the panel that will appoint both the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. 

Just as Beijing’s three-year censorship of information about melamine-tainted formula deprived Chinese parents of life-saving information, so its withholding of critical information about the human-to-human spread of the coronavirus led to the current catastrophe. On December 30, 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang tried to alert his classmates over social media to the risks of treating patients with the mysterious new disease—the coronavirus that ultimately killed him. Within days, Chinese authorities summoned Dr. Li, admonished him for "making false comments on the Internet” and forced him to sign a confession.  

Silencing him cost thousands of lives in China according to Dr. Ai Fen, his colleague at Wuhan Central Hospital's emergency department. She, too, was concerned by the similarities between the new pneumonia-like disease and SARS, but both hospital and government officials from China’s Center for Disease Control reprimanded doctors voicing alarm and told them to change the medical charts of patients to hide the disease. 

One doctor lamented that the state-imposed silence about human-to-human spread left hundreds of his fellow medical professionals “in the dark.” He echoed Fu Jianfeng’s helplessness over being prevented from sharing what he knew about the tainted milk. “Even when they fell ill, they could not report it. They could not alert their colleagues and the public in time despite their sacrifice. This is the most painful loss and lesson.”  

Punishment of concerned citizens was severe, as well. Outspoken businesspeople and citizen journalists like Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi, and Li Zehua simply disappeared. Of those three, only Li Zihua has resurfaced. They tried to raise the public’s awareness of the disease’s severity and the government’s poor management by reporting on the rising numbers of dead and Wuhan’s severely overcrowded hospitals.  

Aiding and Abetting on an International Scale 

The WHO abetted Beijing’s cover-up by repeating Chinese government talking points, failing to investigate the spread among medical personnel, and praising China’s management of the new disease. A study from England’s Southhampton University found that “if interventions in the country could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent and 95 percent respectively—significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease.”  

Had China shared information earlier about the human-to-human transmission, other governments could have used the time to prepare health personnel and facilities, to create screening protocols for overseas travelers, and to tell the public how to begin protecting themselves from infection. According to one study by Axios, those three weeks might have given the world time to keep of provincial outbreak from becoming a global pandemic.  

As reports of both the virus and the Party’s censorship of whistleblowers emerged, a well-functioning, politically-independent international health and human rights bureaucracy would have coordinated to pressure Beijing to lift its dangerous censorship and allow in foreign disease-control experts. If the CCP had balked, the international human rights body could have acted in coordination with U.N. member-states to use public and private channels to press China to do the right thing.  

Instead, what we got was a jaw-dropping failure of leadership from the U.N., followed by a total lack of accountability. On January 14, 11 days after Chinese police questioned Li for raising the possibility of human-to-human transmission, the WHO Twitter account endorsed the Wuhan Health Commission’s talking points: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel  #coronavirus.”

As former Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, “There is some evidence to suggest that as late as January 20, Chinese officials were still saying there was no human-to-human transmission of the virus, and the WHO was validating those claims ... sort of enabling the obfuscation from China.”

Instead of investigating how many healthcare workers had become infected during this time, which would have indicated human-to-human transmission before it was confirmed on January 23, the WHO advised nations not to close their borders. On January 28, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for China’s “openness to sharing information.” On February 20, he even thanked Beijing for “buying the world time.” 

As the outbreak spread, China clamped down on any chance that information contradicting its narrative would get out of the country. It expelled foreign journalists and denied access to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and to international humanitarian aid organizations.

After the WHO declared the coronavirus a global pandemic on March 11, new government guidelines for academic researchers were published and then deleted at Fudan University and China University of Geosciences (Wuhan). The sudden disappearance of the guidances indicates that only academic research on the virus’ origins supporting the government’s narrative will pass censorship. 

Despite the violations of both health and human rights norms, the U.N. bureaucracy remained silent. The WHO is responsible for compliance with the International Health Regulations that calls upon member states to consolidate input from “relevant sectors of the administration of the State Party concerned, including ... public health services, clinics and hospitals.” Yet, the WHO said nothing about China’s censorship of doctors and researchers. And while U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet has warned other countries against restricting human rights during the lockdown, she has yet to comment on China’s censorship and punishment of Dr. Li, journalists, and citizens. As a representative of Reporters Without Borders stated, “Reporting the truth at the earliest possible moment would have allowed the rest of the world to react probably earlier and probably more seriously. The consequences (of stifling media freedom) are actually deadly.”

Before he died, Dr. Li told the New York Times, “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better…There should be more openness and transparency.” At a February 6 press conference, Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, mourned Dr. Li’s death but remained silent on his detention and arrest. He did, however, praise China for reporting the first clusters “in an extremely timely fashion.”

Not to be outdone, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Gutteres has called China’s efforts “remarkable.”

The combined failure of the U.N. bureaucrats responsible for health and human rights and the diplomats on the UN Human Rights Council to hold China accountable has compounded the human costs of the coronavirus.  

Beijing also continues its practice of using economic diplomacy to secure the cooperation of troubled nations—even democracies. This, too, has happened before. In 2017, Greece blocked the E.U. from criticizing China’s human-rights record at the Human Rights Council, calling it “unconstructive criticism.” Greece’s government has courted Chinese trade and investment naming it the “country of honor” at its annual international business fair. And E.U. representatives softened their own report about China’s disinformation under pressure from Beijing. As China spends trillions of dollars to expand its Belt and Road infrastructure across the world, it will seek to bring more democratic countries into its fold by promising financial remuneration in exchange for complicity on its human-rights abuses.  

Pushing Back 

Now, Australia, the E.U., and the U.S. are calling for an investigation into Beijing’s role in exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus. When the World Health Assembly meetings on May 17, the international community should insist that these investigations include inquiries into the censorship and punishment of doctors, citizens, and journalists. These are critical issues, because the timely transmission of scientific and medical data hinges on the freedom of expression and association.  

Continued U.N. silence on the relationship between China’s human-rights violations and the spread of the coronavirus should further delegitimize the institution in the eyes of both democracies and authoritarian regimes and unite those on both the political Left and Right. However, we don’t appear to be there yet. 

In 2018, the Trump administration decided to leave the U.N. Human Rights Council because of its ineffectiveness. Now the administration has announced its intent to hold the WHO accountable by temporarily withholding funds. Prominent officials from previous administrations and both domestic and foreign media have criticized these moves, but few have offered visions for reforming either institution. It is doubtful that either the WHO or the council will reform without serious political pressure.  

Previous American administrations did little to prevent Chinese officials from taking the leadership of four U.N. specialized agencies, despite Beijing’s long record of violating diplomatic norms. As Human Rights Watch reported, Chinese officials have intimidated U.N. staff in violation of U.N.  rules and harassed non-governmental organizations critical of Chinese policies on U.N. property. In addition, Beijing instructs Chinese nationals working in international organizations to advance its national interests, although U.N. civil servants are supposed to be neutral and independent.  

The pandemic has given the world yet another preview of a future in which Chinese leadership dominates the global system, including through international institutions. China’s violations of health and human rights norms have cost untold lives domestically and now globally.  

In both 2008 and 2020, the CCP silenced and punished whistleblowing doctors, journalists, and citizens and tried to shift blame to others. In 2008, Beijing pointed the finger at milk manufacturers, denied its role in the cover-up, and then criticized other countries for banning its products. In 2020, Beijing pointed the finger at U.S. soldiers, suggesting they imported the virus to China. It denied its role in suppressing critical information about the virus, and then criticized other countries for imposing travel restrictions.  

In both cases, neither the WHO nor the U.N.’s top human rights bureaucrats nor the U.N. Human Rights Council investigated Beijing’s role in censoring warnings to the world community of looming dangers.  

Some countries are now betting that China’s economic assistance will more than offset the costs of its rights-violating behavior. But these countries should heed the other implications of the Chinese saying: the chicken’s death should cause the monkey to pay attention and ask questions, not turn its head and look away.  

Beijing’s money may be able to buy some friends for some purposes, but it can’t buy back the lives and livelihoods shattered by the pandemic. The world needs rights-based leadership to shape the international response to the coronavirus.

Since World War II, America has led the responses of freedom-loving nations to global crises, including those spawned by totalitarian regimes. Given China’s rising influence at the U.N., the international community urgently needs to grasp the intrinsic relationship between human rights, accountability, and public health. Leadership needs to come not just from America, but from democracies around the world. Otherwise, Beijing may further violate and transform international norms unleashing even more deadly global catastrophes in the future.  

This piece originally appeared in The National Interest

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