China started controlling the World Health Organization more than ten years ago. It was bad, but COVID-19 made it much worse.
by Massimo Introvigne
How China stockpiled face masks
On May 12, Newsweek announced that it had seen a CIA report claiming that China persuaded the World Health Organization (WHO) in January to delay sounding the alarm on COVID-19, giving Beijing time to stockpile medical supplies purchased all over the world. Before the WHO declared a health emergency, on January 30, China had imported from abroad, between January 24 and 29, more than two billion face masks.
The figure comes from China’s General Administration of Customs, and the WHO delay allowed Xi Jinping’s government to emerge as the controlling force in the crucial international market for masks, dictating its prices and distinguishing between friends and foes in a “mask diplomacy” that often amounted to blackmail.
But why, exactly, was the WHO subservient to Xi Jinping? The story is more complicated than many believe. While the world’s attention has focused on the current director general of the WHO, the former Ethiopian foreign minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in fact China’s attempts at controlling the organization started at least ten years before he was elected in 2017.
SARS, organ harvesting, and a Chinese WHO director general
In 2002, SARS hit the world and, well before the current COVID-19 epidemic, the CCP was accused of having delayed the world response to a deadly virus because of its reluctancy to admit it originated in China.
In 2006, the first allegations that the CCP was harvesting organs from Falun Gong prisoners of conscience were published by mainline international media. Former Canadian parliamentarian David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas formed the first commission investigating the issues. All of a sudden, China’s image was tainted by two accusations against its health system: that it had put the world at risk by not sharing information on SARS, and that it was advancing its transplant industry by harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience. On both issues, the role of WHO was crucial, and potentially catastrophic for China.
China reacted timely, and assembled a coalition of countries that in 2007 elected a Chinese officer, Margaret Chan, as the new secretary general of the WHO. She was reelected in 2012 for a second five-year term. She effectively torpedoed any attempt to make WHO investigate the organ harvesting issue or China’s responsibility for SARS.
Chan vs. Taiwan
When in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, perceived by Beijing as anti-CCP, was elected president of Taiwan, Chan terminated the participation of Taiwan as an observer to the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s main decision-making body.
In previous years, Chan and China had maneuvered to exclude Taiwan from the WHA meetings where the most important decisions were taken. Chan also made several crucial appointments, and several of her appointees maintains their positions today.
In 2017, Ghebreyesus was elected, once again, by a coalition where China had a key role. Not only Ethiopia has close ties with China, but Ghebreyesus showed immediately his true colors by appointing the former dictator of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe (1924–2019), as WHO Goodwill Ambassador. Zimbabwe is one of the countries in the world with closest ties to China, but many regarded Mugabe as a criminal responsible of horrible human rights abuses. The international outcry finally persuaded Ghebreyesus to withdraw his controversial appointment.
Ghebreyesus’ praise of China and President Xi Jinping has been consistently extravagant and embarrassing. As late as January 28, 2020, Ghebreyesus was meeting Xi Jinping and praising “the advantages of the Chinese model” in terms of “effectiveness, speed” and, yes, “transparency.”
The virus, WHO, and China
The WHO’s pro-Chinese attitude might have appeared as irritating but not immediately dangerous before the COVID-19 crisis. The WHO’s position on Taiwan emerged as particularly critical. On December 31, Taiwan informed the WHO of the presence in Wuhan of a lethal pneumonia caused by a SARS-like virus. Authorities in Taiwan acted immediately on this information. In the evening of the same December 31, they started checking the health of visitors coming from Wuhan, which saved Taiwan from the worse consequences of the virus. The WHO, however, ignored the information from Taiwan for no other reason that it came from Taiwan. It now claims that the same day, December 31, China also informed the WHO of a “non-typical pneumonia” in Wuhan. Probably, China’s email came after Taiwan’s, but the main point is that it downplayed the problem as minor.
During the month of January 2020, Ghebreyesus consistently resisted suggestions to declare COVID-19 a world emergency. On January 22, he still claimed that “make no mistake, it is an urgent problem in China but not internationally, although it may become international in the future.” He waited until January 30 to proclaim COVID-19 an international crisis, but he specified that “by this declaration, we do not intend to challenge China. On the contrary, WHO fully trusts China that it will be able to contain the epidemic.”
Now, the CIA claims, according to Newsweek, that the WHO did not delay the alert because of mere incompetence, and not to support the CCP’s political propaganda only. The WHO, the CIA believes, was intentionally buying time for China to stockpile masks in anticipation of what will come later.
At any rate, as the French daily Le Monde argued, “China set the tune and the times” of all WHO’s reactions about the epidemic. It is bad enough that the WHO acts as the mouthpiece for a totalitarian regime in normal times. During such a global and deadly crisis, WHO’s subservience to China and the CCP caused the loss of countless human lives. For the international community, reviewing the role of the WHO and its ties to China is something that can no longer be delayed.