Authors’ Note: On May 6, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Cui Tiankai, Chinese ambassador to the United States. The article contained a series of factual misrepresentations and omissions, while painting a picture of Communist China as a victim of slander by those who “always blame” the regime for the spread of COVID-19. Cui Tiankai claimed such unfair accusations were a “burden” on China and were “undercutting” the international struggle against the virus. The op-ed is an element in China’s global PR and disinformation offensive aimed at obfuscating the truth about the regime’s willfully bungled handling of the pandemic. In response, we would thus like to present this public letter to Ambassador Cui Tiankai.
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Your article was entitled, “Ignoring the facts to blame China will only make things worse.” While you cited several facts about the origin of COVID-19 and your government’s response, a number of additional facts that can best be provided by Chinese authorities are needed as governments and societies around the world struggle to deal with the virus.
We would thus like to ask for your clarification on a series of key factual problems. We seek these answers not to “blame China,” but to establish what really happened in China, and what that can teach us about responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The American and international public will be deeply grateful for these clarifications.
- When did the top leadership of China first learn about the outbreak, and what information was available to them? The South China Morning Post reported that the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on November 17, 2019. Were governmental and medical authorities aware of it? If so, what was done?
- Why did Chinese authorities on January 1, 2020, order labs that discovered the virus to destroy the samples and stop further examinations?
- Why were Dr. Li Wenliang and seven other doctors reprimanded by the authorities for reporting about the new virus? Why did Chinese Central TV and other state-run media publicly humiliate them, accusing them of propagating rumors and claiming they deserved punishment? What role did top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have in these decisions?
- The National Health Commission did not confirm human-to-human transmission of the virus until January 20, but between January 1 and January 11, at least seven Chinese medical doctors contracted COVID-19, which is clear evidence that the disease can be transmitted between individuals. Were Chinese authorities aware of this, and if so, did they communicate this to the World Health Organization (WHO)?
- On December 31, 2019, Wuhan public-health authorities reported 27 infected cases. But the South China Morning Post, which has close ties to the Communist Party, reported 266 cases. What steps has your government taken to ensure that official data with regard to the pandemic, including the death toll, are accurate?
- When did General Secretary Xi Jinping first learn about the outbreak? What was he told? According to the Communist Party–run journal Qiush, Xi knew about the virus as early as January 7 and gave a comprehensive order to the Politburo for the government’s response. Official Party top publications made no reference to the epidemic or the government’s response until January 20, and the government’s actions during that time were as if the outbreak were not happening at all. In Wuhan, for example, both the city government and the provincial government convened 1,200-plus-people meetings. The local government then organized a 40,000-family banquet to celebrate the Chinese New Year. On January 23, the day when the Wuhan lockdown was declared, the People’s Daily newspaper did not mention the lockdown but instead headlined the news that Secretary Xi Jinping had hosted a grand new-year party, at which he did not mention a word about Wuhan or the virus outbreak.Given normal confidentiality requirements, what can you tell us about this order?
- Americans have seen a video of Chinese vice premier Sun Chunlan’s inspection trip on March 5 to a Wuhan residential compound, where distraught residents shouted to her, “Fake, fake,” “It’s all fake,” and, “We protest.” Can you explain their concerns, and has your government addressed them?
- Why has China, to date, refused international requests, including from the WHO, to undertake on-site investigations into the origin of the virus?
- The Wuhan lockdown was declared on January 23, and Wuhan residents were prohibited from traveling to other parts of China. Why were many thousands still allowed to travel to other countries?
- Xu Zhiyong, Chen Qiushi, Fangbin, and Li Zehua are journalists, activists, and businesspeople. All have disappeared after their critical reporting about responses to COVID-19. Is your government investigating these disappearances? Why are state authorities investigating tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who raised legitimate questions about how COVID-19 has been handled? Why has scholar Xu Zhang Run, whose concerns have been aired in this publication, been silenced? Was Dr. Ai Fen pressured by authorities after her reports on COVID-19?
Your Excellency, we agree: Facts must not be ignored, or obfuscated with propaganda. Global public health depends on respect for truth. We all share the urgent need to bring COVID-19 under control. Honest dialogue with civil society and international cooperation based on scientific integrity and transparency are of paramount importance at this critical time. Thank you in advance for your attention to our questions.
Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. Aaron Rhodes is the human-rights editor of Dissident magazine and the president of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe.