China’s efforts to downplay the coronavirus pandemic in its earliest stages and subsequent disinformation campaign surrounding the disease has cost lives and is hindering the international effort to contain it, MPs in Westminster have warned.
A new report by the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee argues the country where the outbreak began should have taken a leading role in collecting data and sharing its research with other nations to help control the spread of Covid-19, accusing Xi Jinping’s Beijing of engaging in “obfuscation” rather than transparency.
The report also accuses Russia and Iran of refusing to come clean about their experiences of the global catastrophe and calls on the British government to “confront and rebut” untruths from foreign powers.
But the committee, led by Conservative chairman Tom Tugendhat MP, reserves its sharpest criticism for China, which it says “allowed disinformation to spread as quickly as the virus”.
“Rather than helping other countries prepare a swift and strong response, it is increasingly apparent that they manipulated vital information about the virus in order to protect the regime’s image,” Mr Tugendhat’s panel argues.
“The government needs to tackle these lies with a clear and quick response, working with our allies to show a united front in the face of false facts and deadly disinformation.”
The committee’s report cites the tragic case of Dr Li Wenliang, the doctor in Wuhan who first raised the alarm about the new disease and was forced to confess to “making false comments” by the country’s authoritarian communist government before dying from the virus himself in February.
“Such deliberate misleading of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and scientists in other countries obscured analysis in the critical early stages of the pandemic,” the report states.
“Disinformation about Covid-19 has already cost lives. It is essential that the government issues clear and transparent messages at home to confront and rebut disinformation spread by foreign powers.
“It must also work closely with allies to present a united front where possible, and to help ensure that vital international research efforts are not compromised by propaganda and bad data.”
With an eye to preventing future repeats of such crises, it also calls for the founding of a “G20 for public health” to enable co-operation between expert researchers around the world, even in the absence of a unified political leadership.
“It is clear that existing regional and multilateral organisations, including the WHO, are not achieving the international co-operation needed to fight a global pandemic,” the committee writes.
“Although the government is focused rightly on resolving the current crisis, it would be a catastrophic error to de-prioritise learning lessons from this pandemic and implementing them before the next one.”
Right-wing populist world leaders like US president Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro in particular have been in denial about the severity of the virus and reluctant to implement social distancing measures for fear of bringing their respective economies to a standstill.
Mr Tugendhat trailed his committee’s verdicts in an editorial for The Mail on Sunday over the weekend, calling on Britain to reassess its relationship with China in the wake of the outbreak.
“Do we want to import China’s authoritarian value system as well as its products? Or should we work with other free nations and reduce our growing dependence on this dictatorship?” he wrote.
“Like all authoritarian regimes, the Chinese government is essentially weak. It relies on a toxic brew of lies and fear to maintain power and control over its people and this is why it has hidden the truth from the moment the virus first hit.”
“Make no mistake, China is determined to create a new world order with itself at the top,” Mr Tugendhat continued. “While our political energy has been focused on regional squabbles, China’s leaders have planned globally. Desperate to take back control from Brussels, we have ignored the tightening grip of Beijing.”
For all the criticism of its handling of the disaster, China has suffered greatly too, recording more than 82,600 cases and over 3,300 deaths.
The country used its traditional Qingming Festival or “Tomb-Sweeping Day” on Saturday to stage a national “wail of grief” to remember its dead, with citizens bearing carnations bowing their heads in reflection, flags flown at half-mast and air raid sirens and car horns sounded in tribute.
There are now more than 1.2m cases of coronavirus globally and the disease has caused more than 65,000 deaths.