While engaging in destabilizing behavior like trying to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy, China is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to coronavirus. While under well-deserved global scrutiny for his government’s efforts to cover up the coronavirus, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently—and non-coincidentally—announced that China is pledging $2 billion over two years to the coronavirus response. This pledge arrived just hours apart from President Trump saying he may permanently freeze all funding to the World Health Organization, a move that China criticized.
China is clearly trying to paint itself as a global health advocate and benefactor, but we can’t go easy on them. China’s attempts to bribe the international community into keeping quiet about its dangerous behavior—coupled with concurrent efforts to punish anyone who demands answers—are just the latest moves by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to use economic extortion to buy friends and bully enemies.
There is rightfully a lot of attention on Trump’s own disastrous mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. His letter outlining concerns about the WHO, for example, criticized the WHO for praising China’s “transparency” about the virus back in January when Trump himself did exactly the same thing. He even used the word “transparency” in a tweet praising China.
Now, Trump’s been on the double-standard diet for a long time, and if we actually followed the logic outlined in his WHO letter, the complaint box for concerns about his own coronavirus posture would be overflowing.
But two wrongs don’t make a right, and while conducting oversight of Trump’s own dangerous mishandling of the virus whenever feasible, we can’t lose sight of the global picture: namely, that China’s actions since the outbreak began have contributed to the fatal spread of the virus around the world. Plus, China’s efforts to obfuscate the origins of the virus are ongoing.
The need to identify the origins of the virus may be a matter of life and death. Knowing where and how the virus started could help prevent future outbreaks. That’s why more than 100 countries supported a resolution calling for an an “independent and comprehensive evaluation of the global response” to COVID-19 as well as its origin once the pandemic is over.
But China is playing hide-and-seek with the truth and using economic instruments to try to hold onto control of the narrative about the virus.
The Beatles once wrote that “money can’t buy me love,” but the CCP is still trying to use its economic leverage to buy love. Money for pandemic response shouldn’t be used as a bribe, but it sure looks like China is trying to bribe the WHO and the international community into staying silent about the need for actual transparency and CCP actions related to the virus.
When Xi pledged $2 billion toward COVID-19 response to the WHO, he was no doubt deeply aware that the WHO is facing a funding shortage—at a time when more money is needed to confront the virus—because of a U.S. funding freeze and other existing demands on WHO resources. The WHO needs China right now. This $2 billion pledge likely comes with strings attached—namely, buying into the CCP’s rewriting of history on the coronavirus and whatever propaganda they push out going forward.
The CCP has been waging disinformation campaigns since the virus began to recast its image as a global health advocate rather than detractor, and it has sent medical supplies (including faulty tests) around for the same purpose. In addition, any eventual investigation into the origins of the virus will require CCP cooperation.
It’s no secret that the CCP has used economic leverage to extort countries in the past—and in the present. After Australia, for example, called for an international inquiry into the virus, China restricted beef imports from Australia and then slapped tariffs on Australian barley imports.
Australia’s agriculture minister has said that the trade actions aren’t linked to the calls for an inquiry, but China non-coincidentally escalated its trade tantrum against Australia after the latter asked for an inquiry. Trade is China’s trump card in a lot of cases—its willingness and ability to punish countries, companies, and organizations that say and do things the CCP views as inimical to its policy goals or propaganda narrative is clear.
China’s actions against Australia are a clear signal to other countries, including ours, about what China is prepared to do if we up the ante. This is a key point as the U.S. intelligence community works around the clock to come up with an intelligence assessment on the origins of the virus. If that intelligence assessment doesn’t jibe with the CCP’s official line, there could be economic consequences.
China has a long history of using economic extortion. When China was upset after the Nobel Prize was awarded to a Chinese dissident in 2010, for example, it engaged in economic retaliation against Norway and has economically retaliated against countries which host the Dali Lama.
The private sector is not immune from China’s economic bullying. The CCP got major airlines to refer to Taiwan as a Chinese territory or risk consequences in China, the world’s second-largest aviation market. And China has inflicted enormous economic pressure on Taiwan itself for years. In a globalized and interconnected world, China’s position as an economic heavyweight gives it leverage, and the CCP isn’t afraid to use it.
China is trying to buy silence, and whether it’s the WHO or individual countries, we can’t allow ourselves to be bought. Every action has a reaction, and the costs of finding answers and speaking truth to power may be financially costly. But the costs of being bullied by China could be fatal, if we step back from trying to find out where the virus started.