There were two interesting observations to be made from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) meeting with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing on Tuesday last week.
First, Xi was sitting there like an emperor receiving tribute, while Tedros looked like a dog simpering at his master’s feet, desperate to please.
The WHO head hails from the poor African nation of Ethiopia, which is the recipient of a big whack of Chinese foreign aid, and is an “old friend” of China.
It is difficult to know exactly how adept he is at his job, or how much money he has received from China, but the man certainly knows the rules of court etiquette and how to shake hands with Xi, as anyone with any common sense would as the head of a WHO under China’s spell.
Second is the arrangement of the three tables, set side by side, separating the two men. Never before have we seen such an arrangement when a Chinese leader receives a foreign guest.
The visitor might as well have been seated on the other side of the world. Clearly, Xi was feeling a little fragile, scared for all the world that he might get infected with 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
His guest did not come from the epidemic-hit Wuhan region, but it did not matter: He was kept at a safe distance, regardless.
Xi is the great self-preserver, the sheep in wolf’s clothing, the inveterate coward. It is surely too much to expect him to make a personal appearance in Wuhan, to show how he loves all Chinese as he would love his own daughter, a little political street theater for the cameras.
During the meeting, Xi spoke of how he had personally orchestrated the response to the epidemic and had overseen the deployment of resources himself. He assured all who were listening that China has the confidence and ability to triumph over the virus, with its concerted efforts, scientific containment and targeted policies under the robust leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Here, he jerked back control over the anti-epidemic efforts and thrust them firmly into his own lap, as if the work of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), who has been entrusted with the fight against the outbreak, were nothing.
If Xi has been orchestrating the whole response, despite not officially being in charge of the efforts, then surely it will be his responsibility if the whole thing spirals out of control.
Xi’s rhetoric was replete with the lexicon of the battlefield, saying: “For the Chinese people, we are currently locked in a solemn struggle,” and “The strength of the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, developed under the leadership of the CCP, is our precision tactics, and we have the confidence and the capability to win this battle.”
On top of this, the CCP issued an official “Notice on Strengthening Party Leadership, and Providing Staunch Political Guarantees for Winning the Battle of Prevention and Control against the Epidemic,” calling on party committees throughout the land to encourage and lead all party members and cadres to put their all into the battle against the outbreak, to fight with courage and to persevere until the battle is won.
This choice to use military metaphors can be interpreted in several ways.
First, Xi had come to the conclusion following discussion with his inner circle that the outbreak in China was far more serious than the state media reports had tried to make us to believe, and that the situation was comparable to a nation at the brink of war.
Second, the outbreak has called to the fore some of the deep-set divisions within the party, and Xi’s incompetence has given his enemies a justifiable excuse to challenge him.
Third, although the CCP has been in power for seven decades, it has yet to fully make the transition from a revolutionary party to one of government, and it is constantly looking over its shoulder and remains on a war footing.
Of course, all of this would have been lost on Tedros.
Tedros was little more than Xi’s lapdog, and the WHO over which he presides is a mere affiliate organization of the party.
He was fawning to Xi, fearful of incurring the emperor’s wrath, and the result of this has been the WHO’s seriously flawed risk assessment of the 2019-nCoV outbreak.
After dragging its feet for many days, the WHO finally admitted that the risk the 2019-nCoV presents is extremely high, and that it has been raised from a public health emergency of regional concern to one of global concern.
According to the WHO, the flawed assessment in the previous report was due to “procedural errors,” which was clearly an attempt to cover up its handling of the matter.
Could it be that Xi had a hand in writing the original? Since Xi himself has come to see this epidemic as a battle to be fought, why does not the WHO adopt a similar war footing, in line with the CCP’s own unique approach?
Yu Jie is an exiled Chinese dissident and writer.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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