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China push for COVID-19 praise backfires in US amid rising WHO criticism

World Health Organization logo (Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker/Flickr)
April 18, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A campaign by Chinese consular staff to press the legislature of the U.S. state of Wisconsin to pass a resolution praising China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak – written by China – backfired spectacularly, inspiring a motion that says Beijing “deliberately and intentionally misled the world.”

Even before the U.S.-China spat intensified last month over the coronavirus outbreak that started in China in January, Chinese officials were pushing a counter-narrative from Beijing to weeks of reports about cover-ups and delayed sharing of vital information with the World Health Organization (WHO).

The request to sing China’s praises directly from Beijing’s script had the opposite effect on Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth, who was so angered by e-mails on Feb. 26 and March 10 that he drafted a harsh resolution condemning China’s handling of COVID-19 and a litany of well-known human rights abuses.

“I was mad as hell,” Roth told RFA’s Mandarin Service.

“The awkward truth is, this request almost certainly didn’t only go to Wisconsin,” he said.

“The Chinese embassy felt completely comfortable doing this because it often works. Even when it doesn’t, people rarely go public, so there’s no downside to trying,” added Roth.

Roth’s resolution, which has yet to be voted on, records the Wisconsin Senate’s acknowledgment that “the Communist Party of China deliberately and intentionally misled the world on the Wuhan Coronavirus.”

The motion also notes Chinese pressure to “pass a resolution — written by the Chinese Consulate — including propaganda and falsehoods such as ‘China has been transparent and quick in sharing key information of the virus with the WHO and the international community, thus creating a window of opportunity for other countries to make timely response.’”

China has encouraged its diplomats to take to social media to spread its version of events and attack its critics, a drive that has gathered pace amid the high-profile spat between Washington and Beijing.

“As the narrative of COVID-19 solidifies within China, we are going to start seeing embassies and consulates in various places start to adapt that in their external communications efforts,” said Rui Zhong of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Trump hits at WHO

She said that the fact that the Wisconsin uses the term “Wuhan Coronavirus” that is anathema to Beijing suggests “it was a long shot by the Chinese consulate in the first place unlikely to pay any symbolic dividends.”

At the U.S. national level, China faces a slew of proposed legislation that would condemn, seek responsibility or sanction China over its response to the coronavirus outbreak, including blocking the release of information about the early days of the outbreak and being slow to share data with the WHO.

On Tuesday Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced the “Ending Chinese Medical Censorship and Cover Ups Act of 2020,” legislation to sanction Chinese officials over suppression of medical experts, journalists, and political dissidents.

“Had the Chinese government acted responsibly, the coronavirus outbreak might not have turned into a global pandemic and hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of jobs, and trillions of dollars could have been saved,” Cruz said in a statement.

“As we’ve seen over the last several weeks, China’s censorship and suppression are now not only a threat to human rights in China and around the world, they are a direct threat to U.S. national security and our economy,” he said.

A resolution introduced last month by Republican Sen. Josh Hawley calls for an international investigation into China’s handling of the outbreak and calls on China to “provide compensation for the harm, loss, and destruction their arrogance brought upon the rest of the world.”

U.S. lawmakers are also calling for investigations into the WHO and its relations with China, following President Donald Trump announcement Tuesday that he was halting U.S. funding for the U.N. organization.

“The WHO failed to investigate credible reports from sources in Wuhan that conflicted directly with the Chinese government’s official accounts,” Trump said.

“The outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death,” he said.