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 UN 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 UN, 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 UN 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 UN 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, UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres has called China’s efforts “remarkable.”
The combined failure of the UN 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 EU 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 EU 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.
Now, Australia, the EU, 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 UN 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 UN 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 UN specialized agencies, despite Beijing’s long record of violating diplomatic norms. As Human Rights Watch reported, Chinese officials have intimidated UN staff in violation of UN rules and harassed non-governmental organizations critical of Chinese policies on UN property. In addition, Beijing instructs Chinese nationals working in international organizations to advance its national interests, although UN 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.