Scapegoating China

As the COVID-19 death rate spikes and the economy tanks in the United States, Donald Trump and his advisers target China and the World Health Organisation with an eye to winning the forthcoming presidential election.

Published : Jun 01, 2020 07:00 IST

Chinese  President Xi Jinping at the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at Beijing on May 21.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at Beijing on May 21.

IT has been apparent for some time now that the Donald Trump administration, in order to cover up for its failure to effectively combat the COVID-19 pandemic, is going all out to target China, where the first cases were detected. Under Trump’s watch, the United States has recorded more than 1.5 million cases by the third week of May, with the death toll surpassing 90,000. According to the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the death toll will cross the 1,00,000 figure by June 1. Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have not let facts stand in the way as they ratchet up their accusations against China.

The U.S. has accused China of letting the virus spread to the rest of the world by either suppressing or withholding information after the first infections were detected in Wuhan in end 2019. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has once again reiterated that there is no scientific evidence to prove that the new strain of the coronavirus was created in a lab. “Everything about the stepwise evolution over time indicates that this virus evolved in nature and then jumped species,” Fauci told the National Geographic news channel in a recent interview.

Trump announced in the last week of April that his administration was conducting “serious investigations” into Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. The U.S. administration also spearheaded calls for an international probe. China said that an inquiry into the origins and spread of the pandemic could wait until the crisis subsided. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has always maintained that if there should be an investigation it should be “scientific based” and not politically motivated. The WHO has pointed out that the U.S. has so far not sent any data to back up the allegations by the U.S. President and his Secretary of State.

The first major diplomatic broadside by the U.S. administration openly targeting China came in April when Trump announced that his administration was withholding its annual contribution of $550 million to the WHO. Trump virtually accused the WHO of misleading the international community about the origin and the spread of the virus during its early stages, in cahoots with the Chinese government. The Trump administration has also tried to portray WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as an incompetent administrator who is only interested in doing China’s bidding.

Mike Pompeo has been taking to the airwaves claiming that his administration has proof that the COVID-19 virus had its origins in a Wuhan lab. Trump has not shied away from making similar accusations, suggesting that the virus accidentally escaped from a Wuhan biological weapons lab. U.S. intelligence agencies themselves have concluded, like most of the international scientific community, that the virus in all probability had leapt from an animal to a human in a non-laboratory setting, much like the Ebola, HIV and the SARS virus. Pompeo, however, continues to insist that the onus is on Beijing to prove that the virus did not originate from a lab. The virology institute in Wuhan targeted by the Trump administration of the lapse has received training and funding from U.S. institutes and scientists.

Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser and well-known anti-China hawk, went a step further and accused the Chinese government of deliberately spreading the virus.

He announced on prime-time television: “The virus was spawned in Wuhan province. Patient zero was in November. The Chinese behind the shield of the World Health Organisation, for two months hid the virus from the world, and then sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York, and around the world to seed that.”

Another of Trump’s close advisers on China, Michael Pillsbury, has suggested that the U.S. should demand $10 million for each coronavirus death from the Chinese government. Trump has said that his administration is seriously contemplating claiming very substantial reparations from the Chinese. There is even talk of the U.S. President using his emergency war powers and defaulting on debts to China.

The accusations and rants against the Chinese by senior Trump administration officials continue to fly despite the Office of the Director of National Intelligence releasing a statement in the last week of April, which said that the U.S. intelligence agencies concur “with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified”. Trump and his advisers want to make China the core issue in the presidential election as the death rate spikes and the economy tanks. They seem to be willing to go to any extent to win the election.

Interestingly, until March this year, Trump was all praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the crisis. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” Trump had tweeted on January 24. “It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American people, I want to thank President Xi.”

Pompeo, meanwhile, has been busy working the phone lines to persuade countries like India to follow suit and target China for the outbreak of the pandemic. Pompeo has had several conversations with India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

The latest was a conference call initiated by the U.S. Secretary of State in the second week of May. The other Foreign Ministers participating included those of close allies like Australia, Israel, Brazil, Japan and South Korea. Pompeo openly lobbied for support for the Trump administration’s confrontational stance against Beijing. The U.S. State Department spokesperson said that Secretary Pompeo discussed “the importance of international cooperation, transparency and accountability in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and in addressing its causes”.

As the pandemic spreads, relations between India and China have encountered some turbulence. There have been two instances of brief physical skirmishes between soldiers of the two sides along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in early May. While the Indian side played down the incident, China accused India of “trespassing and illegally building defence facilities” in the Galwan valley area in the disputed Aksai Chin area. Then came the statement by the Indian Army chief, Gen. M.M. Naravane, that “a third party” was instigating the Nepal government to take a hostile stance in its border dispute with India. Both the Nepal and the Chinese governments were angered by this insinuation.


The Trump administration wants countries like India to side with Taiwan as it seeks international recognition for its independence. As part of the efforts, the U.S. is pushing for Taiwan to be granted “observer status”, and eventual full membership, in the WHO. The current Taiwanese government has pursued an aggressive anti-unification position, unlike its immediate predecessor. India has so far been supported a “one China” policy and, despite New Delhi’s strategic embrace with Washington, is unlikely to give up on the long-held foreign policy principle.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu made conference calls to Indian journalists and succeeded in making many leading Indian newspapers highlight the issue of Taiwanese independence on its front pages and op-ed columns.

Joseph Wu blamed the WHO for putting roadblocks in the cooperation between the two countries in the fight against COVID-19. The WHO chief Ghebreyesus had complained in April about racist tweets against him emanating from Taiwan and had blamed the country’s Foreign Ministry for orchestrating a month-long social media campaign against him.

India will take over the rotating chairmanship of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the WHO, for a year. The Trump administration has made the restoration of Taiwan’s observer status a priority issue, but despite the intense lobbying the overwhelming majority of the United Nations member states have refused to be pressured on the issue. Taiwan announced on the first day of the 73rd WHA conference held from May 17-19 that it was keeping its bid for “observer status” in abeyance for the time being.

The Ministry of External Affairs has not commented so far on the issue. Beijing is closely watching India’s moves at the WHO. Taiwan is being praised by the West as an exemplar in the fight against COVID-19, with the claim that Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, had recorded only 350 cases and five deaths, and should therefore be accorded special treatment in the WHO. However, the fact of the matter is that 179 of the 183 member states of the U.N. do not recognise Taiwan’s statehood.

At the conclusion of the annual WHO meeting, the member states agreed to support an “impartial, independent” examination of the WHO’s role in coordinating the global response to COVID-19. There is no mention in the resolution about looking into the origins of the pandemic as demanded by the Trump administration. The WHO members, as well as officials from China, Russia and the European Union (E.U.), were critical of the heated rhetoric from the White House. The E.U. spokesperson said that “it was a time for solidarity, not finger pointing”. There was widespread agreement that Trump’s attitude and decisions were seriously hampering the WHO’s capabilities in effectively combating the virus.

The WHO chief welcomed an independent enquiry saying that “every country and every organisation must learn from its response and experience”. Ghebreyesus also emphasised the fact that the WHO had declared the coronavirus infection “a global health emergency”, its highest level of alert, on January 30. At the time, there were fewer than 100 cases outside China.

In the following weeks, the WHO repeatedly warned that there was a narrowing “window of opportunity” to prevent the virus from spreading globally. The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11 after it sparked epidemics in South Korea, Italy, Spain and Iran.

The WHO’s seven-member internal oversight body in a report said that the organisation “demonstrated leadership” in the way it handled the pandemic crisis. The report was critical of the “rising politicisation of the pandemic response”, a not-too-subtle dig at the Trump administration.

China was quick to welcome the resolution calling for an inquiry. Xi Jinping said China supported the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 and added that the review should be conducted in “an objective and impartial manner” under the scientific leadership of the WHO.

Xi, in his address to the extraordinary virtual meeting of heads of state and health experts from around the world, offered to provide $2 billion to further bolster the fight against the pandemic. The amount promised is a substantial increase from the annual $43 million China used to contribute.

Xi also announced more financial support and medical help for African governments in their fight against the pandemic. Xi said that China had set up a “global humanitarian response depot and hub to ensure the operation of anti-epidemic supply chain”. The Trump administration was quick to characterise the Chinese offer as “a token to distract from calls by a growing number of nations demanding accountability” from the Chinese government.

Even as the WHO meeting was in progress, Trump, to the surprise of the delegates and scientists present, threatened to permanently cut off its funding if the organisation did not “show substantive improvement” in the next 30 days. He cast aspersions on WHO’s integrity once again, stating in a letter to the WHO chief “that the only way forward for the WHO is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China”.

Trump’s four-page letter to the WHO chief contained a litany of allegations. The British scientific journal The Lancet said in a statement said that Trump had falsely attributed quotes from the journal. The Lancet pointed out that it had not published any report of a virus outbreak in Wuhan in December as claimed by Trump. The journal clarified that the first report it had published about the virus outbreak in Wuhan was on January 24.

When almost all national leaders and health ministers have praised the WHO for its handling of the pandemic, U.S. Secretary of Health Alex Azar struck a discordant note, criticising the WHO and China. Azar said: “We saw that the WHO failed at its core mission of information sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith.” It is obvious that targeting China, and the WHO, will be the main campaign plank of the Republicans as they seek to cover up their epic mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Antonio Guterres, the U.N. Secretary General, in his address at the WHO conference, said that the pandemic should serve as “a wake-up call” for the international community. “We have seen some solidarity, but very little unity, in our response to COVID-19. Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory strategies, and we are paying the price,” he said. He warned that the virus was now spreading to “the global South, where its impact could be even more devastating”.

In South America, the infection rate had reached almost 5,00,000, with more than 23,000 deaths in the third week of May. Brazil, the worst affected country, has around half the cases and more than half the deaths. Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, however, remains unperturbed and continues to rail against social distancing measures and wants Brazilians to continue with their normal lives even as the health care system there is teetering on the verge of collapse.

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