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Chinese President Xi Jinping (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Snapshots of China

The global pushback against China

Governments and individuals around the world want answers—and reparations—from China

How did the coronavirus pandemic begin? Where did the virus originate? Did it jump from an animal to a human at a Wuhan seafood market? Or did it accidentally escape a nearby laboratory known to perform experiments on coronavirus-carrying bats?

Months into the outbreak, with more than 3.6 million infections that have upended almost every society around the world, the answers to these basic questions still remain murky. The reason is China’s unwillingness to allow investigations or inquiry into the virus’s origin, along with an initial cover-up of its existence. 

Some countries around the world are fed up and demand answers: The governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand have called for an impartial investigation into the origins of the virus to prevent another outbreak. Some are calling for reparations or suing China for coronavirus-related damages. Even countries with close ties to China are growing skeptical as they deal with the pandemic domestically.

China has decided to respond aggressively, pointing the blame at others—especially the United States. The Chinese government has also tried to regain goodwill by providing medical gear and testing kits, although several countries complain of faulty equipment.

The reverberations of the pandemic are causing countries around the world to rethink their relationship with China: In an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche,  European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell admitted Europe has been “a little naïve” in its view of China. The Communist country is an economic partner but also a “systemic rival that seeks to promote an alternative model of governance,” he said. Suspicions of China are also leading European countries to rethink their plans to use Huawei’s 5G technology.

The French government summoned the Chinese ambassador after the embassy claimed on its website that France had abandoned residents in nursing homes, leaving them to die. German and Polish governments, as well as the state of Wisconsin, complained Chinese diplomats are asking the governments to thank China for its aid and praise its efforts to fight the virus. 

The German tabloid newspaper Bild published an article claiming China owed $162 billion in reparations for the outbreak. Others are also trying to get China to pay up for the pandemic: The states of Missouri and Mississippi, thousands of U.S. citizens, a group of Nigerian lawyers, and an Egyptian lawyer are all filing lawsuits against China. 

It’s unlikely that any of these suits will end with China paying for its role in the pandemic, since it has sovereign immunity as a foreign government. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt named the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the defendant in its lawsuit, claiming “an appalling campaign of deceit, concealment, misfeasance, and inaction by Chinese authorities unleashed this pandemic.” U.S. courts have never ruled on whether the CCP is responsible for the Chinese government’s actions, yet it will unlikely do little more than embarrass China, according to The Washington Post.

The Nigerian lawyers hope to persuade the government to take state action against China at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, claiming damages of $200 billion for coronavirus-related deaths, economic hardships, and daily disruption. Yet because the court requires states’ consent to participate, China can reject the court’s decision like it did with the United Nations’ tribunal on its South China Sea dispute with the Philippines.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw introduced legislation that would create an exception in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to allow Americans to sue the Chinese government. Other House Republicans are looking into legislation that would require the Government Accountability Office to calculate what China owes the United States in pandemic-related costs.

Even China’s close ties to Africa are fraying after videos of discrimination toward African migrants in Guangzhou went viral on social media, causing leaders of Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and the African Union to meet with Chinese ambassadors about racism toward their citizens. Landlords evicted African migrants, restaurants banned them from entering, and police forced them to undergo COVID-19 testing and mandatory quarantines over fears that foreigners would cause a second wave of infections. 

Especially with the West, China has responded with an aggressive “Wolf Warrior” approach, the term based on two nationalistic blockbuster films in China. The sequel’s tagline: “Anyone who offends China will be killed no matter how far the target is.”

In response to Australia’s call for an investigation, editor of the state-run Global Times compared Australia to “chewing gum stuck to the sole of China’s shoes.” Ambassador Cheng Jingye told The Australian Financial Review Chinese citizens may decide to boycott Australian goods: “Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?” One-third of Australia’s exports go to China.

Australia has said it would not give in to “economic coercion.”

Chinese media has also attacked U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he continues to question whether the coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. State media has called him the “enemy of humanity,” and “evil” for “wantonly spawning poison and spreading lies.” Chinese media claim he is trying to shift the blame to China to deflect from the United States’ delayed response to the virus.

China is also taking advantage of the U.S.’s retreat from leadership within the international community. After President Donald Trump announced the United States would pause funding for the World Health Organization, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that as the United States pulls back, China is stepping in to take its place: “Every inch that the U.S. withdraws from the wider world, especially at this level, is space that will be occupied by others—and that tends to be those who don’t share our values of liberal democracy.”

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AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Police arrest Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, center, who founded local newspaper Apple Daily, Saturday, April 18. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

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Government renews crackdowns in Hong Kong

Mass arrests of prominent pro-democracy figures signal China’s resumed pressure

With global attention focused on the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong authorities arrested 15 veteran pro-democracy figures April 18 for their involvement in last year’s protest movement.

Among those arrested is the founder of the Democratic Party, 81-year-old Martin Lee. Freshly released on bail, the “father of democracy” told media that after seeing so many young people arrested and prosecuted for protests, “I feel proud to finally be able to join the outstanding youth of Hong Kong to continue our path of democracy.”

The round-up also included legislator Leung Yiu-chung and former lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung, Margaret Ng, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Au Nok-hin, Yeung Sum, Sin Chung-kai, and Cyd Ho. Police also arrested media tycoon Jimmy Lai and democracy activists Richard Tsoi, Raphael Wong, Avery Ng, and Figo Chan. They charged the 15 with “organizing and participating in unlawful assemblies” in the demonstrations between August and October.

The conviction of unlawful assembly carries the maximum penalty of five years in prison or, in the case of summary conviction, three years in prison with a $641 fine. A court hearing is scheduled for May.

The Hong Kong protests began last June as peaceful demonstrations against a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to stand trial in mainland China. As public discontent toward the government increased and police brutality became rampant, the protests intensified and grew increasingly violent. The coronavirus outbreak has simmered demonstrations in recent months.

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Bruce Aylward speaks at a press conference about China's response to the new COVID-19 coronavirus. (Sam McNeil/AP)

Snapshots of China

A politicized WHO

The current coronavirus pandemic has revealed China’s growing influence over the World Health Organization

In a viral video clip, Hong Kong journalist Yvonne Tong asked World Health Organization Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward if the organization would allow Taiwan to become a member. On a video call, Aylward pauses uncomfortably before responding “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear your question, Yvonne. … Let’s move to another one then.” When Tong repeats her question, he responds by hanging up the call. 

After Tong called him back and asked about Taiwan again, Aylward deflected, claiming they had already talked about China. 

On Twitter, some joked he was pulling a trick used by students trying to avoid answering questions on Zoom classes by pretending their screen is frozen. Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist living in Australia, drew a picture of Aylward in front of the WHO logo with 100 RMB bills stuffed in his ears and the quote, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear your question.”

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the WHO (an agency of the United Nations) has parroted China’s narrative, delayed declaring the outbreak a public health emergency, and praised China’s response. In a clip shared by Chinese media, Aylward said, “If I had COVID-19, I’d want to be treated in China.” China has also successfully blocked democratic Taiwan and its 23 million citizens from being part of the WHO, with the group’s leaders avoiding mention of the T-word like the plague.

Has China bought the WHO, as Badiucao’s comic suggests? China’s monetary contribution to the WHO has increased by 52 percent from 2014 to $86 million in 2019, but that is still less than 10 percent of what the United States contributed the same year. Instead the communist country’s growing influence around the world has given China enormous sway over the United Nations.

A timeline of WHO’s actions on COVID-19 demonstrate this influence. China first alerted the WHO to an outbreak on Dec. 31 but claimed it “had not found any obvious human-to-human transmission.” Meanwhile officials reprimanded eight Chinese doctors for sharing information about this unknown pneumonia on social media. That same day, Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control alerted WHO about its suspicion the new virus could be spread between humans and asked the organization to investigate.

Instead, two weeks later the WHO endorsed an initial investigation by Chinese authorities that again stated there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. It wasn’t until Jan. 23—three days after Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan backtracked the earlier report—that the WHO followed suit. By then, more than three weeks had passed and the virus had spread throughout Wuhan, China, and the rest of the world. Still, the WHO refused to call the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern until a week later. 

On Jan. 28, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and praised China for “setting a new standard for outbreak control” and praised the government for its “openness to sharing information.” This was as Chinese censors wiped reports about the outbreak from the internet and the government under-reported the number of infection cases and deaths. Rather than offend the Chinese government, Tedros instead urged countries not to close their borders to travelers from China, even as the number of cases ballooned to 17,000 in early February. “China has bought the world time,” Tedros stated on Feb. 20. 

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