Politics involves criticism, sometimes justified and sometimes unfounded. Rationality, on the other hand, involves fixing accountability. The adverse impact of COVID-19, the infectious disease that originated in the Wuhan city of China, is out in the open. Recalling a time when the world halted as it is currently is not easy. Passenger airplanes are grounded in most of the parts of the world, cities are under lockdown and the engines of economic growth- people- are confined to their homes. These are, as they are calling it in most of the debates on coronavirus, unprecedented times. The global political leadership has found a consensus on helping each other at this time of need. Indeed, this is a welcome step. But should it end here? Most importantly, should a country or agency, directly responsible for such vast spread of COVID-19 owing to its intention or negligence, escape retribution?
The world is an open society today. Borders have diminished, thanks to the globalization wave. We in India have at least one product in every household that comes from Chinese factories. The US and Europe is dependent on pharma goods shipped from India. In such a scenario, where every country is profiting from export of goods and services, any lapses on the part of any constituent of this global supply chain must be brought to book. Data suggest China is the top supplier to India, US, European nations and many other regions. The king of global supply chain is in fact the one that disturbed the flow. And the disruption has been such that the global economy is staring at a recession that is set to upset lives of people across the world.
Is China’s culpability a mere conspiracy theory?
One can easily disregard China’s guilt in fueling the spread of coronavirus as a figment of imagination of overenthusiastic conspiracy theorists. This, however, will not serve any purpose. Consider this. Hundred Chinese scholars have written an open letter decrying ‘politicization’ of coronavirus pandemic. They have stated that China, like other countries, is a ‘victim’ of virus and countries must cooperate than point finger on someone. China’s crackdown on activists and human rights lawyers is in the news and we shall discuss this later in this article. The need for these hundred scholars to persuade the international media, political leadership and civil society to change course arose as things are becoming increasing upsetting for China.
Taiwan, the island state over which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or China claims sovereignty, had in as early as December 2019 warned the World Health Organisation (WHO) about the ‘suspected human-to-human virus transmission’ having originated in China. Of course, China was quick to deplore this revelation, however, Taiwan countered by bringing in the public the document that it shared with WHO. This single piece of evidence can be enough to bring China as a party in the International Court and begin a comprehensive and unprejudiced trial over the blameworthiness of the communist nation. President Donald Trump has unequivocally stressed upon the need of investigating both China and WHO for their role in coronavirus becoming a global crisis from being a local outbreak.
In this light, we have to understand that China’s culpability is to be determined with respect to whether the country could have acted in the desired manner so as to save the global society and economy from such widespread disorder. Nobody here is suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic finds its origin in release of a biological weapon gas that was being readied in any Chinese laboratory. What is rather being suggested is that the global community has to act responsibly to fix accountability and reach to the bottom of the allegations that are coming from reliable sources.
What are these voices?
That China has been under one-party rule since decades is a subject that has drawn praise and criticism from various quarters. The phenomenal economic growth of the country under communist rule has been attributed to centralized control of country’s affairs. As a rule, the common man steers clear of having any opinion on the standards of governance, let alone any condemnation of Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of Communist Party of China. But all this could not silence voices of a long list of critics who have advocated for greater transparency in China’s political affairs. Let’s know how these voices have laid bare the guilt of China in plunging the international community into darkness. Li Zehua is one name in this list.
A former employee of the Chinese state-owned broadcaster CCTV, Li, began reporting facts about the Chinese politics in 2018 through his channel, Disobedience TV. A proponent of free speech, Li, has suddenly disappeared from the scene, thanks to his demand for an investigation into the coronavirus crisis. Li went to Wuhan and was regularly urging the youth to stand up to the might of the CPC before he discovered that ‘two large guys’ were at his door. Since then he is missing.
The most prominent name in the list is that of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was one of the first responders to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and then turned into a whistleblower to let the world at large know how China inflicted all the pain by downplaying the emergency. Wenliang was employed with the Wuhan Central Hospital and understood in the very beginning that the infection wasn’t any regular flu but was pretty similar to SARS. It was on December 30, 2019 that Li had shared his concerns over various forums regarding likely resurgence of SARS. Had his warning been heeded at the higher levels, the pandemic would have been nipped in the bud. But Chinese authorities acted in their usual manner and charged the young doctor with ‘making false comments’. The charges are akin to inciting the public and the police arrived at his door to warn him. Li eventually lost his life only a month after this. He is said to have contracted the disease while working in the hospital.
Another university student, Zhang Wenbin, who was highly critical of the communist party, has also gone missing. In his video, Zhang demanded that Xi Jinping must resign from his office. He cited many of the CPC failures in governance and talked at length about his gradual disenchantment with the party owing to how the government was silencing democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan. There is a growing chorus of voices that have demanded his release as he is believed to be in detention.
The UN and China
The United Nations had a big and definitive role to play in the current state of affairs. WHO, a specialized agency of UN, is also under scanner for its siding with the Chinese authorities instead of responding to the outbreak of a deadly disease in an unbiased manner. The agency, which was expected to be proactive in its role as a first responder to such calamities, was barely active before January 24, 2020 when it duly acknowledged human-to-human transmission of COVID-19. Countries including India had spurred into action much before March 11 when WHO recognized the disease as a pandemic. The guiding force that was being looked upto by various countries, both developed and developing, was literally siding away with China in delaying a targeted, wide-ranging action plan to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Consider this now. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who has remained outspoken on how minorities’ interests are being sidelined in many parts of the world, has not voiced his opinion on the treatment of Uighur Muslim population of China. There have been many ground reports from reliable news outlets on how this section of population is being confined to camps and their human rights being violated by the Chinese administration and ground level authorities. In the wake of what has happened and citing WHO’s failure in its response to COVID-19 pandemic, US President Trump has announced that his country’s financial contribution to this agency has been halted.
A Case for China’s culpability
Unambiguously, there is a strong case against China. And this cannot be marginalized as any ‘conspiracy theory’. The supplier of a variety of goods to all other countries, whose factories have now shifted to mass producing face masks and sanitisers, cannot and should not be spared of a legitimate enquiry. Where are the activists and rights lawyers who have gone missing in China after having questioned the government’s role? Was the WHO, advertently or inadvertently, siding with China’s stance on the spread of coronavirus beyond the borders of the communist nation? Should disruption in global supply chain not be attributed to China’s inaction during the early phase of outbreak? Who shall be held accountable for a looming danger of many countries plunging back into poverty and losing any socio-economic gains made in past decades?
The US, European countries and other players including India, Japan and South Korea have much to deliberate. At this present time, all countries are battling the spread of the deadly virus and are left with little room to initiate any comprehensive inquiry into the role of China in making a local outbreak a global pandemic. Once the dust settles, they have to forge an alliance and hold the culprit accountable for its misdeeds. Rationality so demands.
PS: There is little data to this day about any link between the outbreak of n-coronavirus in Wuhan and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) that is in close proximity to the seafood market of the city. It is for this reason why it will be premature and superficial to discuss this. Yet, President Trump has been talking much about this lately and an interesting development is The Washington Post’s revelations based on info acquired from diplomatic cables. It says that diplomats had warned the US about safety concerns at WIV. That the lab was undertaking research on bats and it could likely result into a SARS-like pandemic was also indicated by these officials. More comprehensive information on this is awaited, and hence this can be debated at length later.
(The article “China’s Culpability Is Real, It’s Not China’s Criticism” published in “Business World”)