Sir Iain Duncan Smith writes for The Telegraph
China, we all know, is run by an autocratic, dictatorial regime which brooks no dissent and is highly secretive about the problems and challenges the country faces. That has been the case for very many years. However, although its behaviour does seem to be getting worse, logic would nevertheless still dictate that when faced with the outbreak of a novel disease the Chinese government would work hard to contain it. That was certainly the case in 2002, when China responded to Sars by working with the World Health Organisation to bring the disease under control.
So why, when Covid-19 was discovered, did China instead respond with what many believe to be cynical lies and denials?
The Chinese authorities were alerted to the threat the outbreak posed when human-to-human transmission was confirmed in early December, just as they were about to sign a trade deal with the USA ending the damaging standoff between the two countries. Was the reason that the government closed down any mention of the outbreak through December and January to protect this deal?
Phase 1 of the deal was set to lift tariffs on about $200 billion of Chinese exports. However, if the deal hadn’t been agreed on December 15 then the US intended to impose wider sanctions on Chinese exports. As it happened, the deal was agreed on December 15 2019 and then signed exactly a month later on January 15. This was a critical period. Any indication in this time that China had a serious health crisis which may have pointed the finger at their biological labs and/or their appalling wet markets could have led to wider sanctions being applied.
During this vital period, the Chinese authorities systematically suppressed whistle blowers. Dr Li Wenliang, who first publicly raised the outbreak, was silenced and later died, but he was not alone. He had been reporting observations made by Dr Ai Fen earlier in December 2019 and there were others who observed the human-to-human nature of transmission, a vital fact denied by the Chinese authorities at the time. According to The Lancet medical journal there were at least six known human-to-human cases before December 15 and strong indications this had happened in November. Yet it wasn’t until December 31 that it was first reported to the WHO.
All the while, China’s President, Xi Jinping, publicly maintained that everything was under control and only on January 28 did he meet Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO. This meeting led to a public health statement of “an emergency of international concern”. Yet at the same time, inexplicably, Dr Tedros applauded the Chinese authorities, saying, “We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak … and the transparency they have demonstrated.”
It looks as though the Chinese state placed achieving a trade deal with the US ahead of ensuring the proper systems were in place to manage the outbreak. Yet this is, it seems, a normal pattern of behaviour from a state growing in economic and military power. Just look at the strategic way that China set out to dominate areas of the world which have important raw materials. At present, China owns nearly 20 per cent of Africa’s debt with a combined loan total of $152 billion to 49 African governments. This is one tactic among many that has secured China’s control of around 85 per cent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals, which go into the production of all electronics.
Whether it is ripping off technology from Western countries, driving other businesses out of the marketplace by aggressive and state-backed bidding or even economically colonising countries in Africa, China believes, rightly as it turns out, that the West has become too weak for it to fear. Nothing demonstrates Chinese arrogance or disregard of us better than its handling of coronavirus.
The problem is that the West has blithely assumed that access to our free markets would lead China to democracy and increased freedoms. Yet instead of free trade causing the country to open up, as its dominance of the world marketplace has expanded, China has instead tightened up with greater central control and more abuses of human rights. Pathetically, after years of Project Kow Tow, we rarely if ever confront it about its behaviour.
It is vital that we change all that and break our dependence on this terrible regime. The Government now needs to set up a commission with experts and senior politicians to examine how we can change and rebalance our relationship with China as we emerge from this crisis. There will be a need for financial reparations for the damage it has inflicted. We also need to ensure that China doesn’t exploit its economic power to avoid taking responsibility for this appalling pandemic. Working with other allies, we have to ensure that we never allow such an autocratic regime, one that abuses human rights and ignores the rules-based international order, to become so dominant again.