Rubio, McCaul Question China's Influence Over WHO Leader

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The coronavirus is apolitical. It is an unthinking infectious disease that crosses international borders as easily as the wind. A global pandemic, it presents the need for a global response. Enter Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He leads the fight against COVID-19 as the director-general of the World Health Organization, the closest thing humanity has to a global surgeon general.

He is not a medical doctor but does have training in infectious diseases. He’s worked tirelessly, getting on the ground where the virus started and sounding the alarm about its severity and marshaling the resources of the United Nations to fight the pandemic. But that has not been enough to save Tedros from criticism. Republicans question his ties to, and praise of, China and worry that his response to the coronavirus has been co-opted by that nation. Roll tape, they say, and look at what the WHO has been saying in the past couple of months.

The organization has praised the Chinese Communist Party for its “transparency.” It said that the CCP was showing “leadership” at a moment when the world was watching China arrest doctors and exile reporters. It dragged its feet, some complain, in declaring that China had a public health emergency on its hands, and, later in labeling this scourge a “pandemic.”

All of this, Marco Rubio told RealClearPolitics, is “deeply disturbing.” The Florida senator and China hawk passed along a statement, one that included hyperlinks to the long career of the WHO leader.

“In January, the WHO parroted the Chinese Communist Party’s lie that there was no evidence coronavirus could be spread from person to person, blocked Taiwan – which had been warning about person to person transmission – from an emergency health meeting, and failed to quickly declare the outbreak a public health emergency,” Rubio wrote.

“The actions of the Chinese Communist Party exacerbated the public health crisis plaguing the international community, and instead of prioritizing global health, Dr. Tedros and the WHO played favoritism to China,” he continued.

Whether or not Tedros has been playing international favorites is open to debate. That he tacitly embraced the CCP’s One China policy by allowing Taiwan to be barred from participating in the World Health Assembly is a fact.

The tiny island nation had been allowed to observe WHO proceedings since 2003, though China has long blocked its full participation in the United Nations. Tedros became WHO’s director-general in 2017. A year later, the U.N. allowed China to block Taiwan from participating in WHO forums. Taiwanese leaders asked the United States to intervene on their behalf. It didn’t work. They blamed Tedros.

“I think the secretariat of the World Health Organization was not moved,” Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters after the disinvitation. “We sent our good friends, especially our American friends, to speak with him to see why he doesn’t want to send letter to us. He said it’s because of China. Very clearly, he says, it’s China. China doesn’t allow him to send letter of invitation to us.”

A spokesman for the WHO declined to comment on the matter, but told RCP that “throughout 2019, Taiwanese experts were invited to attend WHO technical meetings.”

“WHO is collaborating closely with Taiwanese authorities through the International Health Regulations (IHR) mechanism in response to the new Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak,” spokesman Tarik Jašarević told RCP. “WHO has received vital information from Taiwanese authorities and will be reporting back through established channels.”

This response did not satisfy the ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Rep. Michael McCaul told RCP that China “has launched a shadow campaign to gain and wield influence at the United Nations” and, he continued, the WHO has fallen victim to those efforts. He noted how the CCP covered up the coronavirus, and he complained about how China has tried, through disinformation campaigns, to blame the United States for manufacturing the virus in a lab.

“Now, hundreds of thousands are sick, and thousands have died. That does not deserve accolades from the WHO,” McCaul said. “It deserves condemnation.” The Texas congressman continued: “WHO Director-General Tedros’ poor handling of this crisis shows a severe lack of judgment and certainly raises several red flags about his integrity serving in this important post.”

Rubio and McCaul note that before he was the face of WHO, Tedros was foreign minister of Ethiopia. Between 2012 and 2016, when he held that post, China invested $13.6 billion in that African nation. The money went to a railway to connect Ethiopia to Djibouti. It was spent on building a six-lane highway. The funding funded a metro system and a skyscraper and then another one and another one. Politico documented how that Chinese cash transformed the skyline of Addis Ababa long before Tedros was at the helm of a global response to a pandemic.

The cash flow is part of an established pattern of Chinese efforts to gain influence, says Derek Scissors, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It was done for explicitly diplomatic reasons, and that’s the whole point,” he told RCP.

“We all have periods of time that have affected our view of the world,” Scissors continued. “And the only period that he is foreign minister is a time of intense of Chinese activity, not just in Ethiopia but around the world.” Of course, he said, “you would think of China as this very helpful actor because that is your experience.”

How that experience has influenced the way Tedros has chosen his words or deployed WHO resources is now a flashpoint in GOP circles. At least one former opponent says he is up to the job, even if he has been deferential to China.  Lawrence O. Gostin, the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, told RCP that he campaigned against Tedros when he applied for the top WHO role and the Chinese were actively backing him, but added that he “is a good man and a good leader. He has got integrity and so much caring and compassion.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci concurred. “Tedros, outstanding person,” he said when asked about WHO at the daily White House briefing, noting that he had known the agency’s leader for a long time. “Obviously, over the years, anyone who says that the WHO has not had problems has not been watching the WHO,” Fauci added. “But I think that under his leadership, they’ve done very well. He has been all over this.”

President Trump himself seemed to be of two minds.

“I think that a lot of people feel it has been very unfair, it’s been very much sided with China,” President Trump said when asked by RCP about the WHO on Wednesday. But he continued that the director-general “seems fine.”

“But the fact is that I have heard for years that that is very much biased towards China, so I don't know,” he concluded.

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