China can’t fight coronavirus and the truth at the same time

As the coronavirus spreads around the world, the Chinese government is fighting a war on two fronts: one against the virus itself and one against the truth. Beijing is desperate to protect its own image by shaping the narrative around the virus and its origins. But the time has come for the international community to demand Beijing end its war on the truth so we can work together to contain the epidemic.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, China’s strategy has been to silence critics and minimize reporting about the scale of the threat. In late January, the Chinese government brought massive resources to bear to try to contain the virus’s spread internally, using draconian measures against its own people that it won’t acknowledge. Now, China is focusing on restarting its economy and is therefore claiming the virus is slowing down.

What has been consistent throughout is the Communist Party’s determination to control information for its own political purposes. This political agenda has hindered the international community’s ability to cooperate on a response and properly protect the rest of the world. This week, Chinese scientist Zhong Nanshan, whom the government has put forward as a credible expert on the epidemic, claimed at a news conference that the virus has peaked and should be under control by April. He also suggested the virus may not have actually originated in China.

The idea that infection rates in China are going down must be viewed with skepticism, while the notion that the virus originated outside China is not supported by scientific evidence. But both of these claims fit the Chinese leadership’s political needs while potentially spreading misinformation that hampers urgent efforts to understand how the virus started and how to stop it.

The international group meant to sort through those questions based on scientific evidence is the World Health Organization. But the WHO has instead become an enabler of Beijing’s campaign of disinformation rather than acting to counter it.

“Controlling the story and controlling the narrative continues to be a critical part of the Chinese government’s strategy,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley. “For the WHO to simply repeat the Chinese narrative, if they are at all knowledgeable about China’s political environment, given their responsibilities, is extremely disturbing and damaging.”

The WHO’s track record of praising the Chinese government’s response, despite available facts, is well established. On Jan. 30, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee (a WHO body) issued a statement praising the Chinese government’s “commitment to transparency.” On Feb. 3, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s strategy and credited Beijing for preventing even more cases.

Just this week, as The Post reported, WHO official Bruce Aylward told reporters in Beijing the Chinese government’s response could inform other countries. He called it “impressive,” “stunning,” “extraordinary,” “striking,” “disciplined” and “successful.”

Some believe the WHO is simply unwilling to challenge Beijing, its second-largest donor. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote in the Daily Telegraph that many experts have lost patience with the WHO, “deemed a political captive of Beijing.” Several U.S. senators have publicly called on the WHO to resist Chinese pressure and include Taiwan in its meetings on the epidemic.

In response to questions, a WHO spokesman told me the organization is working closely with Taiwanese officials and that the results of its just-completed joint research mission with Chinese experts and officials inside China will be released in the coming days, including new facts and recommendations.

The WHO may believe it’s doing what’s necessary to maintain its access and cooperation with the Chinese government. But that compromise comes with a cost not only to its integrity but also to the safety of the rest of us.

“At the first stage, they underplayed the danger of the outbreak,” said Xiao. “By repeating the phrases of the Chinese officials, they are lending their credibility to the Chinese government, which it does not deserve, and that is misleading the public opinion as well as the governments of other countries.”

U.S. officials, including President Trump, should also resist the temptation to repeat Beijing’s rosy assertions and ignore the problems with China’s response. The American people should not be given a false sense of security. The truth is, China’s self-reporting simply can’t be taken at face value.

Beijing is also now attacking international outlets that report uncomfortable information about the crisis from the ground. Last week, Chinese media organ Global Times accused the New York Times of encouraging a “panic” for reporting that Beijing’s response is causing suffering among China’s migrant worker population.

The coronavirus response is one of those things on which we must cooperate with China. That means being sensitive to Beijing’s equities and concerns. But it also means pushing the Chinese government to display more transparency and honesty than it is accustomed to.

The virus itself is immune to Chinese government propaganda. It is not aware of Taiwan’s diplomatic status. It does not care if the stock market goes down. Ending our tolerance of China’s efforts to control and manipulate our discussion about the epidemic is a matter of life and death.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He previously worked for Bloomberg View, the Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Congressional Quarterly, Federal Computer Week and Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

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