The Morning Jolt

World

Forget about Pompeo’s Dog, We Need to Be Watching China

People wearing masks walk past a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street as the country is hit by an outbreak of coronavirus in Shanghai, China, February 10, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

On the menu today: Many countries head into the World Health Assembly wanting the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2; China makes a power grab in Hong Kong; a strange report about the World Military Games held in October of last year in Wuhan; and outbreaks in northern China that are inconvenient for Beijing’s preferred narrative.

If You’re Not Watching China Right Now, You Can’t Understand the World

I suspect that this morning, many other news sources will helpfully inform you that the president of the United States said or tweeted something outrageously controversial, that some Americans in a red state are not following social-distancing recommendations, and that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants a “bipartisan” compromise after the House passed a $3 trillion wish-list stimulus bill on a near-party-line vote. Right now on MSNBC, the top story is that the State Department inspector general was investigating whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo required a department employee to walk his dog. Congress is almost certain to investigate.

Meanwhile, far from Washington, the coronavirus pandemic is driving big and consequential developments, particularly relating to China — but apparently that’s just not seen as interesting or newsworthy in U.S. newsrooms.

The World Health Organization is hosting its World Health Assembly today — everyone is meeting online for quarantine reasons — and one of the first speakers was Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who said his country would support “a comprehensive review of the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic led by WHO after the virus is brought under control.

We can all see the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re living in it. What most of us want is a comprehensive review of where this virus came from and how it jumped into humans so we can reduce the likelihood this ever happens again. Heading into the assembly, sixty countries, including all members of the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, drew up a resolution demanding an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

There is some indication that WHO management beyond director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus are starting to feel some pressure. Some of the staffers around Tedros appear to be offering their own defensive leaks to Reuters, contending that they didn’t think China was doing such a great job in the early days of the outbreak, and tried to warn Tedros, but he refused to listen:

After meetings with President Xi Jinping and Chinese ministers, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was impressed by their knowledge of the new flu-like virus and their efforts to contain the disease, which by then had killed scores in China and started to spread to other countries.

The advisers encouraged Tedros to use less effusive language out of concern about how he would be perceived externally, the person familiar with the discussions said, but the director-general was adamant, in part because he wanted to ensure China’s cooperation in fighting the outbreak.

“We knew how it was going to look, and he can sometimes be a bit naive about that,” the person said. “But he’s also stubborn.”

Tedros knew there was a risk of upsetting China’s political rivals with his visit and his public show of support, according to the person familiar with the discussions — an account backed by a WHO official. But the agency chief saw a greater risk — in global health terms — of losing Beijing’s cooperation as the new coronavirus spread beyond its borders, the two sources said.

“That’s the calculation you make,” said the person familiar with the discussions.

For what it’s worth, the WHO denied the report in German media that Xi Jinping had called Tedros, asking him to delay releasing information about the virus:

The UN agency said a German magazine’s report about a telephone conversation between WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Chinese President Xi Jinping on January 21 was “unfounded and untrue”. Der Spiegel reported that Mr Xi asked Dr Tedros during the call to hold back information about human-to-human transmission of the virus and delay declaring a pandemic.

The magazine quoted Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, BND. Der Spiegel also claimed the BND concluded up to six weeks of time to fight the outbreak had been lost because of Chinese stalling. WHO said Dr Tedros and Mr Xi “have never spoken by phone” and added that “such inaccurate reports distract and detract from WHO’s and the world’s efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic”.

One flaw in the Der Spiegel account is that on January 21, Chinese officials admitted that the virus could be transferred from one human to another. But they also said, “there was no danger of a repeat of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic that killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002-2003 outbreak, which started in China, as long as precautions were taken.” The previous day, WHO stated some “limited human-to-human transmission” occurred between close contacts.

A Pandemic Is a Convenient Time for a Power Grab

There is good reason to believe that the Chinese government sees the global pandemic as an opportunity. With almost every government of every country in the world attempting to get a handle on the outbreak, China is free to make moves that otherwise would bring international rebukes. In Hong Kong, pro-Chinese lawmakers are having their rivals dragged out of the chamber:

. . . Another day of chaos inside the city’s House Committee, a body that helps scrutinize bills, with protesting pro-democracy lawmakers dragged from the chamber by security guards and scuffles between rival camps.

It was the second time in two weeks that clashes have broken out as pro-democracy supporters try to kill a bill that would ban insulting China’s national anthem.

The committee has been without a leader since October, meaning no bills have made it to the legislature for a vote, including the national anthem bill.

Pro-democracy lawmakers have used filibustering to stop voting for a new chair.

On Monday, the pro-Beijing camp installed its own committee chair, armed with an external legal opinion saying they had the power to end the deadlock.

But the pro-democracy camp said the move was a coup, citing the legal opinion of the legislature’s own lawyers.

In another demonstration of growing Chinese power in Hong Kong, “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday he believed China had threatened to interfere with the work of U.S. journalists in Hong Kong, and warned Beijing that any decision impinging on Hong Kong’s autonomy could affect the U.S. assessment of Hong Kong’s status.”

There is no word on who was walking Pompeo’s dog at the time.

A Curious Report about October’s World Military Games in Wuhan

Back on April 22, I wrote about the World Military Games, an Olympic-style competition, that was held in Wuhan and began October 18 and ended October 27. I concluded the piece, “as far as we know, no athletes who participated in the games in Wuhan have been diagnosed with coronavirus — and that’s not the sort of information that could be easily suppressed simultaneously by lots of militaries around the world.”

For what it is worth . . . some German, French, and Italian athletes who competed at the games have told the U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail that they came home sick after the competition. This could be non-coronavirus illnesses, and memories influenced by the power of suggestion; it would probably be a good idea to see if these competitors have coronavirus antibodies in their systems. (Note that even if the antibody tests come back positive, it is possible that these competitors caught the virus sometime after they returned from Wuhan.)

But if a significant number of athletes who competed in Wuhan, and who have avoided contact with potential carriers since then, test positive for antibodies . . . that would strengthen the argument that the virus was floating around Wuhan much earlier than we currently believe.

And that would be particularly intriguing in light of the report that there “was no cellphone activity in a high-security portion of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from Oct. 7 through Oct. 24.

Meanwhile, in Northern China . . .

How is China’s fight against the virus going, as far as we can tell through state-controlled media? Nowhere near as bad as the initial outbreak in Wuhan, but not great:

Jilin city, the second-largest city in Jilin province, saw bus and rail services halted and residential compounds closed off last week after the discovery of six new cases of infection. Recently reopened schools were closed again.

These six people had contact with another cluster in the adjacent city of Shulan, which was earlier put under lockdown, suggesting that some amount of undetected spread has already taken place before.

Overall, at least 22 infections spread across three cities in two provinces — Jilin city and Shulan in Jilin province, and Shenyang city in Liaoning province — have now been linked, making it one of China’s biggest clusters that has emerged in months.

No doubt, leaders in Beijing would like the world to believe that their heavy-handed quarantine methods are the most effective. (They unleashed the problem upon the world, and they get to show the world the best solution.) Sure, China’s methods may look draconian . . .

Residents of the province’s Jilin city must show certificates of health, including a recent negative nucleic acid test, if they wished to leave the city, state media reported.

In Shulan county, which is under the city’s jurisdiction, train service has been halted until the end of the month.

The industrial city of Shenyang in neighboring Liaoning province is requiring visitors from Shulan county to undergo a 21-day quarantine on arrival, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

. . . but if draconian methods keep people alive, who’s to complain, right?

Of course, if those draconian methods don’t really stop the spread of the disease . . . then the Chinese government is giving its people the worst of both worlds. Orwellian surveillance, sweeping restrictions on daily life, welding apartment doors shut for those found to have had the virus . . . and they still are at risk of contacting the virus.

ADDENDUM: Sometime when I wasn’t looking, my Twitter followers surpassed 100,000. (I suspect Twitter will purge another batch of bots soon and probably knock me below that threshold again.) If you’re one of them, thank you for following . . . except for the trolls. I can only imagine how frustrated the folks interested in politics are by my pop-culture thoughts, and how bewildered the people who want more information about the labs in Wuhan are when I react to news about the New York Jets.

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