Irwin Cotler is the chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, emeritus professor of law at McGill University, and former justice minister and attorney-general of Canada.
Judith Abitan is the executive director of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.
There is authoritative and compelling evidence that if President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had intervened and reported on its coronavirus outbreak three weeks earlier, transmission of COVID-19 could have been reduced significantly around the world. One study, from the University of Southampton, even suggested transmission could have been reduced by 95 per cent.
For 40 days, Mr. Xi’s CCP concealed, destroyed, falsified and fabricated information about the rampant spread of COVID-19 through its massive state-sanctioned surveillance and suppression of data; misrepresentation of information; silencing and criminalizing of dissent; and the disappearance of whistleblowers – all of which reflect the breadth of criminality and corruption in the party.
In late December 2019, Dr. Ai Fen, director of the emergency department at the Central Hospital of Wuhan, shared the lab results of a patient suffering from “SARS coronavirus” with relevant departments in her hospital and with a former medical school classmate; her information was then disseminated in medical circles. For this, she suffered an “unprecedented and severe rebuke" two days later.
Dr. Ai also detailed efforts to silence her in a story titled, “The one who supplied the whistle,” published in China’s People (Renwu) magazine in March. The article has since been removed – and Dr. Ai has herself recently disappeared.
After Dr. Ai initially shared the information, eight doctors were arrested, including Dr. Li Wenliang, now regarded by many in China as a “hero” and “the awakener.” They were reprimanded for spreading rumours and summoned to sign statements admitting to making false statements that disturbed the public order. Dr. Li died of COVID-19 on Feb. 7, prompting national outrage. The fate of the other seven people remains unknown.
On Jan. 4, Dr. Ho Pak Leung, the president of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection, indicated that it was highly probable that COVID-19 spread from human to human and urged the implementation of a strict monitoring system. But for weeks, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission continued to declare that preliminary investigations did not show any clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. On Jan. 14, the WHO reaffirmed China’s statement.
On Jan. 22, the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, even praised the CCP’s handling of the outbreak, commending Mr. Xi and Premier Li Keqiang for their “invaluable” leadership.
On Jan. 23, Chinese authorities announced their first steps to quarantine Wuhan, but by then it was too late. Millions of people had already visited Wuhan and left during the Chinese New Year, and a significant number of Chinese citizens had traveled overseas as asymptomatic carriers.
Yet the CCP continued its crackdown on dissent. On Feb. 23, Ren Zhiqiang, a real-estate tycoon and long-time critic of the CCP, wrote in an essay that he “saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown stripped naked who insisted he continue being emperor.” He spoke of a “crisis of governance” and criticized the strict limits on free speech, which he felt had magnified the COVID-19 epidemic. Mr. Ren has also gone missing, and it was reported only recently that the CCP has opened an investigation against him.
The world would have been more prepared and able to combat COVID-19 were it not for Mr. Xi’s authoritarian regime’s widespread and systematic pattern of sanitizing the massive domestic repression of its people.
The CCP’s 40 days of silence and suppression resulted in Italy – the epicentre of Europe’s COVID-19 pandemic – having a death toll of 12 per cent, more than double that of China’s, followed by Spain with a mortality rate of 10 per cent. At time of writing, the United States – where presidential leadership has been wanting – has become the pandemic’s new epicentre, and there is heightened concern about what could become of dense, developing countries such as India, and countries with large immunosuppressed populations, such as South Africa.
Indeed, as a New York Times editorial reported yesterday, “the global coronavirus crisis is poised to get much much worse… (spreading) through countries ravaged by conflict, through packed refugee camps and detention centers in places like Syria or Bangladesh…,” or deeply packed urban centers in fragile states without health systems.
In South Korea, health workers pioneered using COVID-19 testing centres to collect swabs from more than 15,000 people a day before quarantining the infected immediately thereafter – one of the only precedents and case studies to date for a situation in which the number of infections and deaths have significantly fallen. That had also seemed to be occurring in China in recent weeks, but various intelligence agencies and reports have suggested that Beijing failed to accurately report its data. There have now been reports of a second wave, but also reports of the CCP censoring scientific findings and related publications.
Attention should also be drawn to the CCP’s massive surveillance and suppression of data juxtaposed with its misrepresentation of information. China’s enormous data-collection efforts, through approximately 200 million CCTV cameras, not only precipitated the highest-tech epidemic control ever attempted by the CCP, but also underpinned the seriousness of its repression.
The CCP’s infodemic – in addition to its intense spinning of solidarity on social media and its framing of a “people’s war against the virus” – gave the farcical illusion of a coming-together in China. The extent of the CCP’s self-promotion and its portrayal of Mr. Xi as a hero ready to save the world, all while making Western democracies look grossly incompetent if not responsible for the virus, is as shameful as it is duplicitous.
Simply put, Mr. Xi’s government exacerbated the world’s COVID-19 health and systemic crises, which has paved the way for one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history.
The world is now watching. People in China no longer stand alone. Many are no longer fearful. They have already started publishing first-hand accounts of the CCP’s orchestrated cover-ups and monumental failures, revealing its rotten core.
In defending the struggle for democracy and human rights in China, the international community must stand in solidarity with the people of China in seeking to unmask the CCP’s criminality, corruption and impunity.
The Community of Democracies must undertake the necessary legal initiatives – be it through international tort actions as authorized by Treaty Law, or the utilization of international bodies such as the International Court of Justice – to underpin the courage and commitment of China’s human-rights defenders. This is what justice and accountability is all about.
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