The World Health Organization Bows to China

COMMENTARY Global Politics

The World Health Organization Bows to China

Apr 28, 2020 5 min read
Brett D. Schaefer

Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center

Brett is the Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on January 28, 2020 in Beijing, China. Pool / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The lack of transparency by Beijing directly enabled COVID-19 to spread.

The experience of China, the WHO, and COVID-19 should leave the world with no illusions. As the saying goes, crisis reveals character.

It has become abundantly clear in recent months that China has no interest in supporting the international system, even when such cooperation could have saved lives.

For decades, the United States and other Western nations encouraged China’s integration into international organizations and the global economic order, reasoning that this would “normalize” China—that it would come to appreciate the value of observing international rules and norms and become freer economically and politically.

This perception had shifted dramatically in the U.S. over the past couple of years, but the recent experience with the coronavirus pandemic and the World Health Organization should leave everyone convinced that China is influencing the international system far more than the reverse, and that its influence is harmful. It is now clear that Beijing’s response to COVID-19 enabled its spread, to the detriment of public health and economies throughout the world. 

COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan in late November or early December. Chinese authorities reacted by suppressing details of the disease and punishing doctors who tried to alert the public and the world. China did not inform the WHO about the virus until Dec. 31, weeks after it had detected the disease. Even after informing the WHO, Beijing continued to suppress information about human-to-human transmission of the disease. 

The lack of transparency by Beijing directly enabled COVID-19 to spread. The mayor of Wuhan admitted that as many as 5 million Chinese had left the city before imposition of a lockdown, allowing infected individuals to travel abroad well into January. On Jan. 14, the WHO declared, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” A week later, on Jan. 22, the WHO reversed its position and confirmed that there was “evidence of human-to-human transmission.” 

Despite this evidence, however, the WHO strongly opposed travel restrictions and, on Jan. 23, tweeted: “For the moment, WHO does not recommend any broader restrictions on travel or trade. We recommend exit screening at airports as part of a comprehensive set of containment measures.” In February, after the U.S. imposed travel restrictions on China, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus publicly chastised countries for adopting the policy.

It was not until mid-February, after weeks of negotiations with Beijing, that a WHO expert team was able to travel to Wuhan to examine the situation first-hand. By mid-February, 28 countries had COVID-19 cases, and deaths from the disease had surpassed the total from an earlier coronavirus, the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome, which had also originated in China. 

There is no disputing the fact that China bears primary responsibility for the COVID-19 disaster besetting the world. As Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute observes, “Had the [Chinese Communist Party] placed its population’s health above its own—had it behaved like an open society or followed international transparency norms—there is no question that the global toll from the COVID-19 pandemic would only be a fraction of what has been exacted to date.” But China is not an open society, nor does it feel obliged to follow international norms. If it had felt such an obligation, it would have provided timely and transparent notification to the WHO about the potential outbreak and cooperated fully to assess the risk. These commitments are clear under the International Health Regulations, which were amended in 2005 after China’s previous lack of cooperation and transparency in the SARS outbreak.

Tedros has argued that the WHO needs to moderate its tone to obtain cooperation from Beijing. However, his comments go beyond moderation into obsequiousness, without noticeable gains in cooperation.

After visiting China in late January, Tedros announced that Beijing had set “ a new standard for outbreak control” and praised Chinese actions that “bought the world time, even though those steps have come at greater cost to China itself.” Beijing blocked a WHO expert team visit for weeks thereafter. Worse, the WHO may have facilitated the spread of the disease by ignoring a warning from Taiwan about human-to-human transmission in December because the WHO does not recognize Taiwan due to Chinese objections. 

Such is the corrupting influence of China that the WHO holds it to a different standard than it does the organization’s biggest funder, the U.S. After all, the WHO felt free to criticize the U.S. government for calling COVID-19 a “ Chinese virus” and called on governments not to politicize the disease after President Trump criticized the organization’s credulousness in echoing Beijing. Meanwhile, China, Russia, and Iran orchestrate propaganda and disinformation campaigns asserting that the “novel coronavirus is an American bioweapon.” 

COVID-19 has put the WHO front and center, but China also corrupts other parts of the United Nations system. Under Chinese leadership: 

  • The International Civil Aviation Organization has supported Chinese political priorities, even at the expense of the organization’s mission. This includes denying Taiwanese participation and concealing Chinese cyberespionage. 
  • The U.N. Industrial Development Organization has robustly endorsed China’s Belt and Road Initiative and provided funding and official commendation for China’s response to COVID-19. 
  • The International Telecommunication Union has provided a forum for proposals by China for a “radical change to the way the internet works ... which critics say will also bake authoritarianism into the architecture underpinning the web.” 

In addition, there are numerous reports of Chinese officials intimidating U.N. staff in violation of the body's rules and harassing nongovernmental organizations critical of Chinese policies. 

If there is one benefit to the disastrous COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it has forced governments to confront the implications of Chinese influence in international organizations and its manipulative foreign policy. In recent weeks: 

  • The French foreign minister summoned the Chinese ambassador due to an outrageous blog post that “defended China’s handling of the health crisis and accused Western democracies of reckless behavior, including allegations that French health care workers left old people to die in nursing homes.” 
  • The United Kingdom is reportedly reconsidering its relationship with China, including its willingness to let China’s Huawei participate in the nation’s 5G network. 
  • African governments are outraged over the “treatment of African citizens living in China" and frustrated "at Beijing’s position on granting debt relief to fight against the outbreak.” 
  • China has attempted a public relations coup by publicizing shipments of medical equipment to countries hit by COVID-19, but it has boomeranged as country after country finds out that Chinese equipment is faulty or substandard. 

The experience of China, the WHO, and COVID-19 should leave the world with no illusions. As the saying goes, crisis reveals character. It has become abundantly clear in recent months that China has no interest in supporting the international system, even when such cooperation could have saved lives around the globe. China wants one thing: to undermine, coopt, and reshape the international system to advance China’s interests. If Beijing succeeds, it will not only be the U.S. that suffers.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner