On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) spoke during the opening ceremony of this year’s World Health Assembly (WHA). For the first time in the assembly’s history, attendees, including Xi, had to dial in virtually.
Xi made no acknowledgement of the Chinese government’s role in causing the COVID-19 pandemic, nor was there any meaningful apology. Instead, he painted China as a benign force for good and a friend to all nations. Except Taiwan, of course.
The address was a reheated version of the speech Xi gave at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Xi again attempted to step into the US’ shoes and assume the mantle of world statesman, guardian of globalization and protector of the post-World War II international order.
Xi claimed that COVID-19 had caught the world “by surprise,” despite many scientists warning for years of the threat posed by bat coronaviruses, lax procedures at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology and unsanitary conditions at wet markets in China.
He also omitted that his government used the WHO to suppress evidence of human-to-human transmission and attempted to browbeat countries that announced temporary suspensions of flights from China by leveling accusations of racism.
If China had been more transparent at the outset, there would have been no nasty “surprise.”
Xi attempted to dodge culpability for the virus’ spread by framing the debate in terms of high-minded internationalism versus narrow nationalism, saying: “The virus does not respect borders. Nor is race or nationality relevant in the face of the disease.”
Xi turned the dial on his lie-o-meter up to 10, saying: “All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility. We have provided information to the WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion. We have released the genome sequence at the earliest possible time. We have shared control and treatment experience with the world without reservation.”
Xi pledged US$2 billion over two years to assist with the global COVID-19 response, with the majority going to developing nations. Of course, US$2 billion spread across many countries is peanuts compared with the damage the pandemic has done to the global economy.
However, it was a clear dig at the US after Washington suspended its WHO funding. Do not worry, world, China will step into the breach and provide responsible leadership during this time of crisis. Move over, America.
Xi, notably, mentioned Africa 10 times, while the US was not mentioned once. This was perhaps the key takeaway from the speech: Xi is using Washington’s spat with the WHO to airbrush the US out of global politics, position China as Africa’s best friend and further cement his Belt and Road Initiative. Expect more money to be pledged to African states.
The Belt and Road Initiative is designed to secure China’s long-term energy and food supplies, open up new trading markets and secure strategic military bases and ports. Its supporters in Asia, Africa and Europe view Chinese investment as a vital source of finance for infrastructure projects and economic growth.
Its detractors warn of hidden dangers: “debt-trap diplomacy,” corruption, “roads to nowhere” and a funding model that requires loans from Beijing to pay Chinese contractors: China gets paid twice.
Xi’s WHA speech was pure Pravda: A typically bold and brazen attempt to spin China’s narrative.
However, few will be taken in. Taiwan, the US and like-minded democracies must take the threat posed by the Belt and Road Initiative seriously and urgently develop a viable alternative, or face being locked out of many markets.
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