Writing in the South China Morning Post on March 14, Wang Xiangwei called on Beijing to allow an authoritative and independent special commission to investigate the causes of the COVID-19 outbreak. Indeed, there must be answers as to why, when Communist Party officials knew about the virus in Hubei province in late November or early December, was it kept secret for more than a month. Why were doctors and whistle-blowers, who tried to alter the world about this looming catastrophe, silenced or worse? How could Beijing cover up a public health crisis for the sake of its own reputation, allowing it to become a global pandemic? For Xiangwei, such an investigation would restore public trust in the Chinese government.
But instead of a special commission setup by Beijing, which would be feeble and duplicitous, we need an independent, international commission to investigate exactly how Chinese government allowed this virus to become a global pandemic. It could be overseen by the United Nations or another international body – or perhaps even a whole new body, to rival the increasingly corrupted and politicized World Health Organization. Independent investigators from across the world should demand that Beijing turns over all requested information, the minutes of secret party meetings and talks between Beijing and provincial bosses in Hubei that took place since late November. Asylum should be offered to whistle-blowers, especially Chinese doctors, who come forward with vital information. But we shouldn’t demand convictions and prosecutions; think of an international commission instead as a truth-and-reconciliation forum, not an international court. Transparency and answers are what matters, not criminal guilt, so we can hopefully never have a repeat of this catastrophe.
Either we are to have truth or we are to have propaganda. Even as his people were dying in their hundreds each day, Xi Jinping told a Politburo Standing Committee on February 3 that the party should be “taking the initiative to influence international opinion”. Through hook and crook, Chinese propaganda is now trying to convince the world that either COVID-19 was a biological weapon designed by China’s enemies (a ludicrous conspiracy theory parroted by China’s Foreign Ministry and which shows how low in the gutter China’s propagandists are willing to sink) or that China sacrificed itself for the rest of the world. Both are lies, and blatant lies, but the propaganda appears to be convincing many people around the world.
Indeed, this propaganda is accompanied by a soft-power putsch as Beijing, which now sees its new cases of COVID-19 grind to a halt, tries to win over other countries fighting the virus through aid and donations, “an aid blitz that is giving China the chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis,” as the New York Times wrote this week.
So either Beijing is allowed set the narrative, and it learns no lessons from its calamitous mistakes, or the international community must come together once the crisis is over and demand serious answers from the Chinese government. Answers to how this happened can, indeed, prevent another similar crisis in the future. We were lucky that the SARS outbreak didn’t become a global crisis, although it, too, was allowed to spread because of the failures and mendacity of the Chinese government. 16 years on, and after Beijing learned no lessons from that experience, COVID-19 came along and did become a global pandemic. In another decade, is the world again to be plunged into darkness and confinement, and a global recession, because the Chinese government refused to learn from both the SARS and COVID-19 outbreaks?
How many more times can the world suffer because the Chinese Communist Party jealously guards its power, is antithetic to openness and transparency, and puts its own reputation above the interests of its people? And how many more times will the Chinese people suffer because other countries refuse take Beijing to task, to demand responsibility and transparency from one of the world’s most powerful governments. We failed to do so after SARS, and COVID-19 is the result.
If Beijing wants to be treated like an adult at the table, to actually have a say in how the international community functions – and not just throw tantrums – it comes with responsibilities. If any other country – say, Russia or Iran or even Germany – was responsible for a global pandemic, the rest of the world would naturally demand an honest appraisal of how exactly it happened.
Beijing should count itself lucky if all that the rest of the world demands are answers and transparency. Because of the Chinese government’s lying and secrecy, the world has now been plunged into economic and social recession. Unemployment will rise. Businesses will crumble. It will take years for countries to recover. Some economies won’t. And it is possible that many more people will die because of the economic downturn than the COVID-19 outbreak. If the rest of the world was vengeful, it could ask for reparations from China. If this is a war, as many global leaders have insinuated in their rhetoric, then the culprits typically pay dearly in the aftermath. But truth is more priceless, especially if it helps to avert another similar disaster in the future. Beijing won’t voluntarily offer up the truth; we must all demand it.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain, after previously covering Asian politics from Southeast Asia for five years. He reports on Asian geopolitics and European foreign policy, especially Europe-Asia relations. He is a columnist for the Diplomat and a correspondent for Asia Times.