There are plenty of actions that Canada should be taking immediately, in coordination with our allies and partners, in direct response to China’s lethal COVID-19 coverup, write Charles Burton and Brett Byers. 

By Charles Burton and Brett Byers, May 26, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, it is clear that it has already caused untold economic and human suffering. While battling the present crisis must be the priority at this point, soon there will be a need to hold accountable those whose actions allowed the novel coronavirus to spread from Wuhan last fall to grow into a global pandemic by January of this year.

As evidence mounts and the timeline becomes clearer, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the government of China knew what was going on with this disease early on and chose to cover up, obfuscate, and suppress the truth about COVID-19. Authorities in Wuhan were informed about the human-to-human transmission of COVID-19, including to its medical personnel, and the exponential increase of infections in the province as early as December 2019 – and for political reasons they chose to ignore and consistently refute such warnings.

Indeed, Taiwan, a country whose successful management of the crisis is so far without parallel, had also determined that there was human-to-human transmission in Wuhan as early as December of 2019. Taiwan reported this to the World Health Organization (WHO) despite being excluded from even observer status in the WHO due to Beijing’s political demands to shun Taiwan at the UN. Taiwan was able to act almost three weeks before China publicly admitted there was human-to-human transmission.

Rather than moving to contain the crisis, local Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials were far more concerned with arresting and forcing false confessions from doctors and journalists who raised alarm bells. They also interfered to prevent hospitals from notifying Central health authorities about the seriousness of the outbreak.

Indeed, China had created an infectious disease reporting system after the SARS crisis to prevent such political meddling. Yet it abjectly failed its very first test. This should not be surprising given the realities of Chinese Communist rule, specifically the “natural inclination for party officials at all levels to bury negative information and censor dissenting views.”

It was also not solely the fault of the Hubei provincial government. Even after it was informed of the seriousness of the outbreak, China’s National Health Commission had reportedly  “ordered institutions not to publish any information related to the unknown disease, and ordered labs to transfer any samples they had to designated testing institutions, or to destroy them.”

Due to this official silence, millions were able to leave Hubei before the belated government lockdown, thereby helping to spread this virus throughout China and globally. The world was left in the dark on both the scale of the COVID-19 epidemic in China and its broader dangers.

The fact is, China lied in an aggressive, systematic, and pervasive fashion. Every lie told to the WHO and the world at large only reduced the ability of governments around the world to adequately prepare and respond to the crisis leading to massive rates of unnecessary deaths from COVID-19

There is evidence that, had China taken concrete action when Taiwan started acting, global infections (and therefore deaths) could have been reduced by 95%. China’s culpability for the initial spread of the virus and its role in fostering an ill-prepared global community is beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The world’s governments must hold China to account.

Some caution is advised given that reparations have a troubled history in China. There is the precedent of the crippling reparations demanded by 11 foreign powers after their military intervention to suppress the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion of 1900. By 1940, China had turned over 37,000 tonnes of silver to clear the Boxer Indemnity. The Boxer Protocol was one of the “unequal treaties” that led to the Chinese Communist Party’s xenophobic popular rise to power.

Extraction of COVID-19 reparations, whatever their form, would certainly be taken by the CCP as a domestic opportunity to stoke the flames of anti-Western fervent nationalism, strengthen the arguments of hardliners within the Politburo, and further entrench the false narrative that the regime in Beijing stands up for the interests of Chinese people against a racist and hostile West. We must also ensure that any punishment imposed on the Chinese regime is not borne by the Chinese people who are as much the victims of the CCP’s lies as the rest of the world.

In any event, the case against the Chinese regime in international bodies or courts will take time to develop. What can we do now?

There are plenty of actions that Canada should be taking immediately, in coordination with our allies and partners, in direct response to China’s lethal COVID-19 coverup.

First, Magnitsky sanctions should be considered for those officials who are found to be responsible for lying about COVID-19. These sanctions are designed to financially target specific individuals who are responsible for human rights abuses. As the WHO’s constitution states, “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being,” meaning a case can be made under Magnitsky legislation.

Second, Canada should also support Taiwan’s observer status in the WHO, its participation in the World Health Assembly, and its meaningful involvement in all manner of other important international fora, including trade agreements like the CPTPP. Taiwan has proven itself to be a valuable, constructive global partner. We should no longer allow China’s political preferences to supersede international cooperation with Taiwan. And, had the world acted in accordance with the China-skepticism embodied by Taiwan, perhaps this crisis would have never become such a disastrous pandemic.

Third, countries should reassess their economic reliance on China and should actively encourage supply chain diversification away from China, particularly with regard to medical supplies and strategic resources like rare earth elements. Countries should consider divesting from the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and should seek to provide alternative development financing for countries that otherwise might be swayed by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

There can be no question that the Government of China must be held accountable for the spread of COVID-19. This is by no means an exhaustive list of available tactics that would be effective in undermining Beijing’s strategic interests in a major way and send a clear message to China that its flouting of the international rules based order has serious consequences.

Charles Burton is Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad. He is a former counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. Brett Byers is the Communications and Digital Media Manager at MLI. 

MLI would not exist without the support of its donors. Please consider making a small contribution today.