Since the outbreak was first reported in the city of Wuhan last year, the coronavirus has killed over 300,000 people and infected over 4.5 million worldwide.
The British government has said that questions that need to be answered about the origin and spread of the new coronavirus. But so far it appears to have fallen short of doing what is required to properly examine the causes of the global health crisis.
At the crucial World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting on Monday, a coalition of 120 countries including Britain had mustered together an initiative to back a joint Australian-EU motion for an independent inquiry into the Covid-19 outbreak. Britain had signed up but notably, the EU-led motion makes no mention of China or Wuhan specifically. While China objected to it before then agreeing to a post-pandemic review, the motion illustrates that political leaders have grown sluggish – if not browbeaten – in their response to the awesome powers of the Chinese state. They are failing to observe how the pandemic has already begun to reshape the China-led global order.
But as the government observes diplomatic niceties, senior Conservative MPs in the China Research Group have begun demanding that China provide access to the WHO to investigate. They call on Beijing “to stop bullying countries that ask perfectly reasonable questions about its handling of the crisis.” The group identify that the ruling Chinese Communist Party has many questions to answer as its secretive and repressive system has contributed to disaster for the world.
Yet beyond the loosely-drafted WHA motion, Britain’s inability to push for a transparent review of the origins and spread of the virus in the global pandemic reflects a set of unworkable governing assumptions on China. The UK has long regarded itself as China’s “best partner in the West”. As a result, the government now seems unable to confirm or deny questions that it had given China assurances about the way it refers to the pandemic and its cause.
This becomes more pressing given that we are now faced with the political consequence of the US administration ceasing funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) and conducting “serious investigations” into Beijing’s handling of the outbreak.
And in the last twenty-four hours, the Australian government, one of the first countries to call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, has borne the brunt of Beijing’s backlash. China has subsequently imposed of punishing tariffs on barley and beef imports.
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As these events have unfolded in recent weeks, my think tank, Civitas, has published a new report by Dr Niall McCrae and Professor M.L.R. Smith, calling for China and the WHO to be investigated for their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic particularly in the early stage of the contagion.
The conditions that gave rise to the UK’s diplomatic quietism on China arose, say McCrae and Smith, from the assumptions of globalist thinking in the West. They argue that unchallenged orthodoxies on international trade have underpinned extraordinarily poor policy choices. In the absence of proper accountability, their report shows, international organisations like the WHO have become captured by the interests of authoritarian states. Beholden to Beijing, the WHO was complicit in failing to pass on adequate warning of the seriousness of the pandemic.
The pandemic has exposed the underlying flaws of globalisation. Institutions such as the WHO, the report maintains, could be pressed now into redeeming their contemporary roles by enquiring into organ harvesting in China and clearly stating that such human rights abuses cannot be tolerated. There must now be intense scrutiny regarding the role of WHO and the general complacency of the international order. The Covid-19 disinformation peddled under pressure from the Chinese government are but one aspect of several global power imbalances that need to be addressed.
The report’s authors argue that British economic relations with China should surely be guided by the need to maintain key values of national security and humanitarian ethics. Given the mounting regional scepticism towards the actions of Beijing, we need to look for closer relationships with China’s neighbours in south-east Asia.
Domestically, given the UK response during the pandemic, the government must ensure that our capacity to manufacture vital medical supplies and pharmaceuticals is now treated as a national security issue – while incentives should be provided for the broader repatriation of manufacturing capacities to the UK.
In order to sustain a genuinely multilateral liberal international system, government must also consider introducing counter-interference laws similar to those in Australia. These force politicians and private bodies (including media companies and universities) to register all links with, and funding received from, foreign entities. The government might also consider that commercial contracts/buy-outs by foreign registered companies should be based on reciprocity, so that foreign companies cannot take over enterprises or bid for contracts in economic sectors if they present a security threat, or if they endanger free markets and free speech.
In this context, Britain will need to ramp up its position to investigate a WHO so beholden to Beijing that it has failed to protect us from a devastating health emergency. In the long run, a blanket motion calling for a generic investigation alone seems unlikely to cut it.
Jim McConalogue is editorial director at the think tank Civitas and author of “The British Constitution Resettled: Parliamentary Sovereignty Before and After Brexit”, published by Palgrave Macmillan.