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WHO has Chinese characteristics?

The WHO’s excessive acclaim of China’s response to the coronavirus is a sign of Beijing’s growing sway over the UN agency, says Thomas Geddes.

As the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared China’s coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, he praised China’s “impressive” leadership for “setting a new standard for outbreak response” and urged “other countries globally to have that kind of political commitment”. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s plaudits were a godsend for a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grappling with one of its gravest challenges since Tiananmen ­– but a blow to the WHO's credibility as an independent and trusted organisation.

For sure, Beijing does deserve some praise. Since its belated acknowledgement of the severity of the problem, its engagement with the international community has been remarkable. Not many countries would have been able to respond to such a crisis the way China has. It has deployed legions of doctors to Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, built hospitals in days and, somewhat controversially, quarantined tens of millions of its citizens. The entire country has slowed down to a crawl, but China seems as if it may be winning. 

The WHO refrained from addressing Beijing’s failings

But there is also much to criticise. Despite Beijing’s belated yet praiseworthy efforts, CCP censorship and stringent controls over the flow of information have led to deplorable results. The government initially silenced doctors, claimed that no new cases were emerging and covered up mounting evidence of human-to-human transmission of the disease. Not until January 20 did the central government start warning its citizens of the seriousness of the outbreak. Only three days later, Wuhan was placed under total lockdown.

But by then the damage had already been done. Some five million people had been allowed to leave the city and the virus was spreading quickly across the country as well as being carried abroad. On January 26, Zhou Xianwang, the mayor of Wuhan, apologised for his mishandling of the outbreak, but stated that “as a local government official, after I get [sensitive information about the spread of a disease] I still have to wait for authorisation before I can release it”. He was saying, in other words, that Beijing was also to blame.

China’s growing influence over the WHO

Yet the WHO has proved unwilling to suggest such a thing. What’s more, on the day of Wuhan’s lockdown, the WHO decided against declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), citing an absence of human-to-human transmission cases outside China. There is now little doubt that China pushed for this decision, fearing that such a declaration would hurt its economy. Only after meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing a few days later did Tedros declare a PHEIC — when the disease had already infected some 10,000 people and spread to at least 18 other countries.

China’s increasing sway over the WHO appears to have affected other officials who should know better, too.  Why else would Michael Ryan, head of the UN agency’s Health Emergencies Program, have sought to defend China on January 29 by claiming, quite erroneously, that “since the very beginning of this, they [the Wuhan authorities] have had red alerts and they’ve been warning the population”? “In fact”, he continued, “I think it’s probably state-of-the-art in terms of the amount of information that’s been published.”

Some observers have rightly argued that criticism of China could have aggravated the crisis by putting the country on the defensive and prompting it to share less information. But was there no middle ground to be found between “face-losing” criticism of China and overblown – and possibly misleading – praise? The WHO did not need to condemn China, but could have refrained from both praising Beijing excessively and making spurious statements.

Compare Tedros’s comments at the outset of the outbreak that the CCP was “completely committed to transparency both internally and externally” and that he would “praise China again and again”, with former WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland’s thinly veiled criticism of China during the SARS outbreak in 2003. “It would have been better if the Chinese government had been more open in the early stages,” she said. “Next time something strange and new comes anywhere in the world, let us come in as quickly as possible.”

“Win-win relationship” with China also comes at a cost for the WHO

Of course, the world has changed over those 17 years. For one thing, China and the international community learned some lessons from the SARS epidemic. But, more importantly perhaps, China has become an economic heavyweight and an expert in dollar diplomacy. In sharp contrast to the Trump administration’s threats to cut global health funding and its effective retreat from a number of UN agencies, China has repeatedly demonstrated its firm commitment to supporting the WHO and, more broadly, the UN. Right now, Beijing may not be the WHO’s largest contributor, but its potential to become a major funder is one which Tedros cannot be insensitive to. Indeed, Chinese contributions to the WHO’s budget are up by over 50% since 2015.

While ties between Beijing and the WHO have been strengthening, cooperation between the two sides has been increasing, be it along President Xi’s “Health Silk Road” or in support of the WHO’s goal of universal health coverage by 2030. China has also become a major funder of independent health projects across the world, many of which the WHO supports. Last year, after lengthy Chinese lobbying, the WHO controversially included traditional Chinese medicine in its global medical compendium.

This “win-win relationship”, as Xi might call it, has come at some cost to the WHO – and to the rest of the world. By waiting to declare a PHEIC, the WHO helped accelerate the virus’s spread; and by lavishing praise on Beijing, it helped legitimise an authoritarian regime whose initial cover-ups are now costing the lives of hundreds of people. The world needs a WHO that can not only be trusted, but also respond to epidemics independently from any political interference. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.