Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior writer and columnist at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as head of the Chinese bureau. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist Award for International Reporting.
TOKYO – At the end of each year, as China prepares for the next 12 months, people get a glimpse of President Xi Jinping’s magnificent office. Surrounded by mahogany shelves filled with books, the chef speaks into the camera, reflecting on the wonderful year that has passed.
The office, like those of many global CEOs, is decorated with photographs of his family and memorable places he has visited.
The difference is that these photos are carefully chosen and strategically placed, all together to portray a certain image.
Some have been there since Xi’s first year in office, such as the photo of him helping his father, Xi Zhongxun, in a wheelchair.
This year’s new crop of photos includes scenes from Xi’s visit to parts of China as well as scenes from the path of remembrance, as he and his wife, singer Peng Liyuan, posing in front of the large fountain of the ‘former Beijing Summer Palace, while the two were much younger.
A seemingly innocent photo among the collection, however, holds the key to understanding why for nearly a year China refused to accept a full-scale field investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
On a shelf to his left, as he read his 2021 New Years speech on December 31, was a photo showing Xi surrounded by boys and girls from the Wa ethnic minority in southwestern Yunnan Province. from China. Dressed in traditional red clothes, children sing a song and greet the chief in Tengchong on January 19, 2020. The city was one of the stops on Xi’s inspection tour of the province.
At first glance, it looks like any other heartwarming photo of Xi on a local inspection visit. But the key is the date, January 19, 2020. Xi was on that day in Yunnan province, nearly 3,000 km from Beijing.
At 6 p.m. the next day, Xi, from Yunnan, gave his first important order to Chinese authorities to deal with the spread of a new coronavirus.
It was also on January 20 that an authoritative Chinese medical expert who played a key role in tackling the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s for the first time admitted that the new virus was spreading “from man to man ”.
As the virus that caused COVID-19 spread at breakneck speed in and around Wuhan and began to spread beyond the country, Xi was not in Beijing.
The president visited Myanmar on January 17 and 18, then traveled to neighboring Yunnan province, where he enjoyed the festive atmosphere ahead of the Chinese New Year for three nights.
In retrospect, this was a crucial time frame in which China could have prevented the virus from spreading to the rest of the world. But Xi was away for five days, and it wasn’t until January 21 that he finally returned to the capital.
The first case of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan is believed to have emerged in early December 2019. The Chinese government locked down the central Chinese city on January 23, and the World Health Organization declared the epidemic a global health emergency seven days later. .
Hypothetically, if a WHO investigation into the origins of COVID-19 makes it clear that the coronavirus has indeed started in China, it will inevitably highlight the Chinese leadership’s inability to take effective action for nearly two months.
Until Xi’s first order on January 20, the Chinese government had not recognized the likelihood of human-to-human transmission.
China’s biggest diplomatic mission of the past year has therefore been to push back against any international argument that the country is responsible for a pandemic that is still plaguing the world.
“Wolf warrior diplomacy” has been deployed, including unprecedented pressure on Australia in response to that country’s call for an independent international investigation into the origins of the virus.
Finally, Thursday, after a year of dragging its feet, China is expected to receive a WHO investigative team.
The photo with the Wa children from Yunnan was of course placed there for another reason.
It is the first to be shown among this year’s photos on an interactive web page of Central China Television. The second shows Xi visiting a Yunnan border military camp on the same day.
These Yunnan inspection photos showcase one of Xi’s most important achievements in 2020: eradicating poverty in remote areas and improving the livelihoods of ethnic minorities. And the history of China gives them significant significance.
They are also just as important as the following photo, which shows Xi inspecting Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, on March 10. This photo is here to highlight another achievement of 2020: the triumph over the scourge of the coronavirus.
Surrounding himself with ethnic minorities was a favorite ploy of Mao Zedong, the founding father of Communist China.
At an art exhibition held in Beijing in 2019 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a painting titled “The Great Unity of the Nation” was on display, depicting Mao surrounded by jubilant people. various ethnic groups.
Xi’s placement of the Wa boys and girls photo draws heavily on Mao’s playbook. It was also essential that it be in Xi’s office in early 2021, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, as Xi seeks to follow in Mao’s footsteps to become “president for life.”
But the political significance of the photo relates only to domestic consumption.
To the countless people suffering and fearing COVID-19 around the world, this photo and the other photo of Yunan are symbols of China’s failure in its initial response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Wuhan is a city of 11 million people, of whom around 5 million at the time were leaving the city for domestic and overseas vacations before the Chinese New Year.
Along with people from other parts of the country who were able to have contact with them, hundreds of thousands of people left for Europe, the United States, Japan and the rest of Asia.
The tricky feature of this virus is that infected people without visible symptoms can pass it on to others. Millions of seemingly healthy tourists traveling around the world may have been the harbinger of disaster.
Had China banned overseas travel by the end of 2019, or at the latest in the first half of January this year, it may have been possible to significantly slow the rate of the virus spread.
WHO is not without blame.
At an emergency committee meeting held on January 23, 2020, the agency did not declare the epidemic a global health emergency. At the time, the WHO concluded that it was too early to issue such a statement, based on information received from China. Person-to-person transmission, the WHO concluded, primarily affects family members and medical personnel, and not quite at the stage of a global threat.
Thinking back to the timeline, it wasn’t until January 21 that Xi returned to Beijing from Yunnan. Had the WHO declared a global health emergency at this point, before Xi fully took the reins of China’s coronavirus control efforts – and based on information received from China in Xi’s absence – the Chinese leader would have lost face.
It was something that China wanted to avoid. But the WHO’s misjudgment allowed other countries to let their guard down, and the situation worsened in the months that followed.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has always taken China into consideration. But earlier this month, when the investigative team was barred from arriving in China, even it grew frustrated, saying he was “very disappointed” with Beijing.
The high political barriers that opposed the WHO investigation were built because an investigation could shed light on the Beijing leader’s absence in the early days of the pandemic. There is also a theory that the first case of the coronavirus in Wuhan actually emerged much earlier than early December 2019, as claimed by the Chinese government.
The political barrier was recently exposed when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave an interview to Xinhua News Agency and China Media Group, which was published on January 2.
“We ran against time and were the first country to report cases in the world,” Wang said. “A growing body of research suggests that the pandemic was likely caused by separate epidemics in several places around the world.”
The origins of the pandemic do not fall within the competence of the Foreign Ministers; these are scientific questions, not diplomatic.
While the WHO team has not yet started its investigation, China is trying to define the parameters of what it can conclude.
Coincidentally, Yunnan provides great habitats for bats that are believed to harbor a virus whose genome sequence is similar to that of the new coronavirus. WHO experts have stressed that a field investigation in Yunnan and elsewhere is crucial to find the origins of the pandemic.
Xi said in March that the origins should be scientifically researched. Hopefully he stays true to his word.
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