World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Tuesday and expressed confidence in the measures China has taken to control the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus.
Ghebreyesus said his organization is advising foreign countries that evacuating their citizens from Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province is unnecessary. Chinese state media eagerly promoted his remarks in a bid to control the political fallout from the outbreak.
The South China Morning Post reported that several countries are proceeding with evacuation plans despite Ghebreyesus’ recommendation:
South Korea said it planned to send chartered planes to Wuhan on Thursday and Friday to fly out its citizens stranded in Wuhan.
“We will voluntarily take action, such as sending planes on January 30 and 31 for South Koreans living in Wuhan who wish to come back,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany was considering evacuating its citizens from the affected area in China, while Spain is working with China and the European Union to repatriate about 20 of its citizens still in Wuhan.
Japan was sending a plane to Wuhan on Tuesday to begin flying out its citizens, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said.
The United States is using a chartered plane to evacuate consulate staff from Wuhan to California and will allow some private citizens who pay for seats to join the flight.
“This capacity is extremely limited and if there is insufficient ability to transport everyone who expresses interest, priority will be given to individuals at greater risk from coronavirus,” the U.S. State Department announced. The plane will have enough room to carry a little over 200 of the roughly 1,000 Americans believed to be living in Wuhan.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi acted quickly to capitalize politically on the WHO director’s comments.
“With the strong leadership of comrade Xi Jinping and the advantage of the socialist system, as well as the experience from SARS, we are more resolute in tackling this epidemic with more forceful and quicker action. We are totally confident that we have the ability and resources to defeat this epidemic,” he said.
Chinese dictator Xi Jinping also met with Ghebreyesus in Beijing. “The virus is a devil and we cannot let the devil hide,” Xi declared, according to Chinese state media.
“China will strengthen international cooperation and welcomes the WHO participation in virus prevention,” he said. “China is confident of winning the battle against the virus.”
Reporting on Xi’s confident statement, Reuters delicately noted WHO is “reluctant to antagonize or ostracize countries dealing with epidemics for fear of undermining future willingness to report cases of infectious disease outbreaks.” Many observers believe this reluctance factored into WHO’s decision not to declare one of its rare international emergencies over the Wuhan virus.
China’s state-run Global Times subtly stressed the importance of refraining from statements or actions perceived as insulting to the Chinese Communist Party:
Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi told Ghebreyesus at their meeting on Tuesday that China appreciates WHO’s objective and fair response to China’s measures in fighting the infectious disease. China is willing to enhance cooperation with the international community in an open and transparent manner, said Wang.
Xia Guohan, a Beijing-based research fellow with the Chinese think tank Grandview Institution, said that although foreign countries are free to evacuate their citizens, it is not a wise move and could have unforeseen consequences.
“If foreign governments decide to evacuate their nationals, it shows that they lack confidence in the Chinese government’s fight against the coronavirus. But since the 2003 battle against SARS, all levels of government have ability to handle the spread of an infectious diseases,” Xia told the Global Times Tuesday.
Xia also said that the evacuation may cause public opinion in foreign countries to exaggerate the problem.
Chinese officials labored to flip the narrative of bureaucratic paralysis and institutional negligence during the early stages of the Wuhan virus by insisting no other country could fight the contagion as effectively as China has done:
On Tuesday, Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu held a briefing on the epidemic with foreign embassy representatives. Ma emphasized that in the face of the severe and complicated epidemic, the Chinese government has adopted strong and difficult measures, which no other country could do, and will implement them more resolutely and forcefully, according to a statement on the official website of the ministry.
Considered the strong scientific and technological material foundation accumulated by the People’s Republic of China over 70 years, the Chinese government has the determination, confidence, and ability to win the battle against epidemic prevention and control, Ma said.
China’s state-run Xinhua news service laid the political spin on thick, asserting twice in the span of four paragraphs that WHO and the international community “speak highly of and fully affirm the decisive measures the Chinese government has taken.”
The South China Morning Post on Tuesday found Chinese diplomats “scrambling to contain the impact of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus on foreign relations,” largely by ringing up their counterparts in countries from Europe to Japan and giving assurances the disease will be taken seriously from now on, with fewer political cover-ups and more transparent information-sharing.
Contrary to the Chinese government’s confident boasts about handling the SARS epidemic two decades ago, the SCMP noted everyone outside the Chinese Communist inner circle remembers the “poor handling” of that outbreak, “which was marked by cover-ups and a reluctance to share information that delayed the emergency response.”
“Diplomatic observers said there was more of a sense of urgency to contain this outbreak as China sought to portray itself as a major power, and ahead of key gatherings with foreign leaders in Beijing,” the SCMP reported, quoting observers who expected Beijing to wait as long as possible before canceling any of those crucial summit meetings.
In fact, some of the SCMP’s experts thought China’s heavy emphasis on WHO’s “no need to evacuate” message was a way of signaling nervous foreign governments that the summits will proceed as planned.
At the other end of the confidence spectrum, this week reportedly brought the first mutterings among China’s elite that the National People’s Congress in March might need to be delayed, which would be a politically cataclysmic event.