China defends the WHO after Trump — and others — say it is deferring to Beijing

Key Points
  • Trump blamed the WHO last week for getting "every aspect" of the coronavirus pandemic wrong and threatened to withhold funding from the international organization.
  • He also said the WHO is "China centric" even though the organization is largely funded by the U.S.
  • The WHO chief, China, Taiwan and U.S. State Department have all weighed in on issues surrounding the health organization's handling of information in the pandemic.
  • The back-and-forth reflects how the public health emergency has evolved into a geopolitical dispute among stakeholders including China, which seeks to dominate the global narrative.
WHO warns against politicizing coronavirus following Trump's attack

The World Health Organization has come under intense scrutiny for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic with U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, China and Taiwan locked in a tussle of words.

Trump last week blamed the WHO for getting "every aspect" of the coronavirus pandemic wrong, and he threatened to withhold funding from the international organization. He also said on Twitter that the WHO is "China centric" even though the organization is largely funded by the U.S.

The latter comment echoes many of the top critiques of the WHO, such as too readily trusting information reported by China.

Japanese deputy prime minister and finance minister Taro Aso said in parliament that some have started calling the World Health Organization the "Chinese Health Organization," NHK reported.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned global leaders against politicizing the Covid-19 outbreak "if you don't want to have many more body bags."

Taiwan v. Tedros

Tedros also lashed out at Taiwan for what he said were months of racist, personal attacks ⁠— a claim Taiwan said was "baseless" and demanded an apology for.

Taipei then released what it said was an email that had signaled human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus as early as Dec. 31⁠ — a claim the WHO has contested. The U.S. Department of State piled on, asking why the WHO did not act on Taiwan's information, the AFP reported.

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The back-and-forth is the latest episode in Taiwan's campaign to gain access to the WHO. The United Nations and WHO do not regard Taiwan as a sovereign nation, disqualifying it from inclusion. The Taiwanese government said its exclusion imperils the lives of its citizens.

The dispute reflects how the public health emergency has evolved into a geopolitical fight among various stakeholders. China is one of the major parties seeking to dominate the narrative around global efforts to fight the virus as it offers aid and donates medical supplies.

Beijing defended the WHO in its squabble with Taiwan, which China claims as its territory. The Communist Party of China has never ruled over the self-governed Taiwan.

The WHO led by Tedros has been "actively performing its duties and upholding an objective, science-based and impartial position," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a news conference Thursday, according to an official transcript.

Zhao also accused Taipei of politicizing the issue and pushing for independence.

A China 'advocate'

The WHO has also come under fire for inaction in the early stages of the outbreak when the coronavirus was spreading in the mainland. 

An online petition calling for Tedros' resignation is nearing 1 million signatures and cites the WHO's delay in labeling the pandemic as a public health emergency of international concern.

Critics also hammer the WHO for not pushing back when China silenced whistleblowers in the city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged late last year.

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China reported the outbreak to the WHO in late December but confirmed human-to-human transmission only days before the Lunar New Year holidays in late January. By the time Wuhan was locked down on Jan. 23, millions had already left the city for other destinations within and outside China.

Tedros has been an "outspoken advocate" for the Chinese government's Covid-19 response, Michael Collins, a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a February blog post. Tedros met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in January, Collins noted, and praised China's top leadership for its openness in sharing information with the WHO and other countries.

At the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, Tedros said "China has bought the world time." In contrast, he "has been quick" in criticizing other countries for their responses to the outbreak, Collins added.

Rare acknowledgement of Taiwan

Taiwan would be a side issue except that it has won international praise for containing the outbreak despite exclusion from the WHO.

Taiwan, whose population is about 24 million, sits just across a narrow strait from mainland China. And despite vastly different political systems, the two share extensive business and people ties.

But so far, the island has reported under 400 cases and six deaths, while neighbors Hong Kong has reported about 1,000 cases, Japan over 7,000 and South Korea more than 10,000.

The WHO, in a rare statement about Taiwan last month, said it was closely following the development of the coronavirus outbreak there and taking lessons from them. It also said it was working closely with Taiwanese health experts. "The Taiwanese caseload is low relative to population," the WHO acknowledged.

"Ironically, Taiwan's status as a 'Chinese province' means its own information was officially ignored," Francoise Godement, senior advisor at Institut Montaigne in France, wrote in a March blog post.

Godement said explanations are required for why such a large U.N. agency with some of the world's most extensive experience of epidemics and emergency responses "fell into this trap."

— CNBC's Dawn Kopecki and Berkeley Lovelace Jr. contributed to this report.