China Brief

The WHO Investigation Shows Beijing Still Pulls the Strings

The World Health Organization team that spent weeks in Wuhan ended up giving Chinese authorities a propaganda victory.

Chinese officials arrive for meetings with the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 29.
Chinese officials arrive for meetings with the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 29. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: What to make of the WHO investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, the Biden administration announces a comprehensive review of U.S. strategy toward China, and how the pandemic may have affected China’s birth rate.

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Who Pulls the Strings?

A weekslong World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the origins of the coronavirus came to a spluttering end this week. The investigators simultaneously dismissed suspicions that the virus could have originated in a laboratory leak and endorsed Beijing-backed conspiracy theories about possible origins beyond China.

The investigation was a propaganda victory for the Chinese authorities and a bizarre misstep by WHO, which botched early information about the pandemic while pandering to Beijing and has faced frequent criticism for being too close to China. The Biden administration was quick to express skepticism, with good cause.

All indications are that the coronavirus originated through zoonotic transfer, most likely connected to China’s largely unregulated trade in wild animals. But numerous theories have hypothesized that the virus emerged from one of Wuhan’s laboratories, one of which was conducting research on bats. The only evidence for this is sketchily circumstantial—despite leaks from the Trump administration pushing the story.

But WHO’s investigation of the issue was hardly thorough. Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO team leader, said he had questioned lab personnel extensively: “They’re the best ones to dismiss the claims and provide answers to all the questions.” But this isn’t true, especially in an autocratic system that often scapegoats people for accidents: Lab personnel would have every reason to cover up the story.

The WHO investigators also gave cautious approval to the idea pushed by Beijing that the virus could have been brought to China by cold goods carried from Europe or the United States. Every study shows that the coronavirus transmits by airborne droplets. “There’s no evidence for this epidemiologically preposterous theory that it was exported to Wuhan,” the global health expert Annie Sparrow told Foreign Policy. “China didn’t import it. It incubated it.”

The investigation’s progress seems to have divided the team itself. WHO team member Peter Daszak launched an attack on the Biden administration after it questioned the results of the investigation. Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance project was a funder of the Wuhan labs, and he has consistently defended WHO’s position on China. But another team member, Thea Kolsen Fischer, complained of a refusal to provide complete data, and still other team members spoke privately of uncooperative officials and intense political pressure.

“The Chinese government is just trying to its divert attention away from Wuhan, where the outbreak began and where they discovered the new coronavirus last December. Beijing has concocted this fomite-spread-by-frozen-food theory to avoid being held accountable for their own deadly cover-up and causing yet another pandemic,” Sparrow said. “And now we’re going to see this mission embark on a global wild-goose chase with Beijing in remote control.”


What We’re Following

Pentagon review. The Biden administration has announced a comprehensive review of U.S. strategy toward China. The review will be led by a team headed by Ely Ratner, the special assistant to the U.S. defense secretary on China—and a smart, careful hawk. After the incoherence of the Trump years, such a review is needed, but approaching it purely from a military perspective isn’t enough.

The United States has never before faced a strategic opponent that is also its biggest trading partner, and comprehensively rethinking trade, strategy, and economic policy will require action and coordinated strategy across the government on an unprecedented scale. Of course, China policy can’t be led by the military and the intelligence community alone.

But the river of congressional cash flows through the Defense Department, and diverting it to the places it’s more needed may be tricky.

Mongolians under threat. Following the crackdown on protests against the end of Mongolian-language education, authorities in Inner Mongolia have introduced “ethnic unity regulations.” Judging by precursors in Tibet and Xinjiang, the rules signal much worse treatment of Mongolian culture and possibly of Mongolians themselves.

Inner Mongolia, which was settled by Han Chinese in the 19th century, has a long history of resistance to state power. Today Mongolians are generally well integrated into Chinese society; they are considered a high-status minority and don’t face the bigotry that Uighurs or Tibetans do. But as Han ethnonationalism grows, that could change.

Graying early? New government figures show that China’s birth rate fell by 14.9 percent between 2019 and 2020—a stunning drop likely prompted in part by the insecurity of the pandemic. China’s birth rates have worried government planners for years, leading to the end of the one-child policy in 2016.

With parenting increasingly expensive in cities, however, most urban families are still choosing to have one child at most—undermining government ambitions to increase the “high-end population,” as official documents term university-educated urbanites, while reining in rural births. Given the lack of immigration and an aging and still mostly poor population, time may catch up with China’s rise more quickly than pundits have anticipated.


Tech and Business

Growing debt. In the wake of the crackdown on Alibaba’s Ant Group, microloans made through mobile apps are likely to be Chinese financial regulators’ next target, as peer-to-peer lending was in 2020. That’s a good thing. As Protocol’s Zeyi Yang reported this week, microlending is out of control—even food delivery apps offer to lend their users money.

Chinese law restricts such lending to a 36 percent annual percentage rate—a fraction of the cost of U.S. payday loans but still higher than credit card or bank rates. Otherwise, these now nearly universal ventures, seen as a gold mine by Chinese firms, have been largely unregulated. China’s central bank has already warned that there is almost no room for household debt to expand. Urban migrants from the countryside often juggle loans from multiple sources to make ends meet.

But in the long run, sustainable credit needs to be made available. Before online loans, many people turned to loan sharks and quasi-legal lenders such as pawn shops, which still lend out hundreds of billions of yuan at high interest rates a year.

Racialized surveillance. Following numerous reports of Chinese firms, including Huawei, singling out Uighurs in facial recognition, a Los Angeles Times/IPVM investigation found that Dahua, the world’s second-largest security camera manufacturer, provides Chinese police with “real-time warning for Uighurs” and informs them of “Uighurs with hidden terrorist inclinations.”

In many parts of China, being Uighur is now effectively criminalized, with the few remaining Uighur residents of cities outside Xinjiang reporting routine harassment by police. The arrival of Uighurs, even mothers with children, in a new city or town prompts the arrival of the police and actions ranging from warnings to stay in their hotel or apartment to deportation back to Xinjiang.

Dahua is rolling out its race-based systems to other countries, which may have their own least favored minorities to target.

Inflation divergence. The latest inflation figures point to a sharp divergence in the Chinese economy, with commodity prices pushing up producer price inflation while the consumer price index sees slight falls. It’s no surprise that consumption remains depressed: Even in the wake of China’s victory over the coronavirus, unexpected lockdowns are still relatively frequent, and families are more cautious about spending.

But the government is likely hoping for a boost from the Lunar New Year, which starts on Friday and usually sees a week of vacations and spending.


That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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