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China's Coronavirus Spreads Health, Economic And Political Problems


Communist China is facing one of the largest crises of its history. The coronavirus is a public health concern, but it's also economic and political. Whole cities are shut down. And online protests are getting louder. So how is China responding to an outbreak now blamed for more than 1,400 deaths?

Yesterday, Steve Inskeep sat down with China's ambassador to the United States. His name is Cui Tiankai. He is a U.S.-educated diplomat who's been living in Washington for seven years. They met in the Chinese embassy, a building of stone and glass designed by I.M. Pei that showcases China's wealth. Steve asked him about the outbreak that began in China's Hubei province.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: I know that two top officials in Hubei province, the center of this outbreak, have been relieved of their duties. What went wrong?

CUI TIANKAI: Well, everything we're doing now, including all these personnel changes, have one goal - to respond to the call of the people and meet the need of the people. So naturally, under such special circumstances, people who can do the job better should be given the responsibility to do it.

INSKEEP: Is part of it that there was so much economic damage and also so much public unrest that you needed - your government needed to show that it was responding to public unhappiness?

CUI: I think it's only natural that some people would be panicking. So we always have, as one of our basic principles, openness and transparency. We believe openness and transparency will give people more confidence.

INSKEEP: Because you mentioned openness and transparency, I need to ask about Dr. Li Wenliang...

CUI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Who, as you know very well, was a doctor who sounded the alarm late last year about the coronavirus, was detained by the authorities and made to retract what he had said. This got even more attention after he himself died of the virus. Why was he detained and made to retract his statements?

CUI: No, first of all, he was not detained. I think somebody talked to him, but he was not detained. Otherwise, he could not be working in the hospital.

INSKEEP: You're saying he was questioned, not detained. Is that correct?

CUI: You see. He was a doctor. He was a good doctor. All of us feel really sad for his death. And he saw some coming danger from the specific cases he dealt with. As a doctor, he was alerted. But not everybody quite understood and appreciated him at the very beginning because this is a new virus. Nobody knew anything about it.

INSKEEP: You're saying that's why he was made to retract what he had said - because people didn't understand what he was revealing?

CUI: You see, as a doctor, he could find things from specific cases. But for the government to make an announcement, they need more evidence. But now, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, everybody knew that Dr. Li was right.

INSKEEP: Does the government owe his family an apology for having made him reverse what he revealed at the beginning?

CUI: I think that the city government made some announcement at his passing away. They expressed their condolences. And there was such a expression of condolences, support to the family all over China.

INSKEEP: It seems, from the amount of social media criticism that appeared in China after his death, that people saw the specific story of Dr. Li as a symptom of a problem of a lack of openness. Does this story reveal a problem with openness and transparency in China?

CUI: Actually, I think Dr. Li is also part of the Chinese system. He's not alone. As I said, there are tens of thousands, even millions, of healthcare workers, community workers still working on the very frontline. Dr. Li was just one of them. Maybe he was an outstanding doctor, but he is part of the system. Maybe people are not aware he was a member of the Communist Party.

INSKEEP: Does this suggest, though, that the government that he served under was less open to a warning than it should've been?

CUI: You see, we believe in openness. But openness does not mean that you could say anything under any circumstances. The government has to respond in a responsible way. You have to base yourself on sufficient evidence and science.

INSKEEP: Do you think that your government has lost some credibility with its people?

CUI: When you talk about governments, there are different levels of government in China, like in the United States. You have the central government. You have provincial government. You have city government. You have village. So you cannot talk in very general terms - the government. Sometimes, government at a particular level may make some mistakes. I think it's only natural all over the world.

INSKEEP: Have the broader strains in U.S.-China relations made it more difficult for the two countries to cooperate on this issue?

CUI: I think, clearly, there's a need for the two countries to cooperate because this is a challenge to the entire international community. So in the phone call between President Trump and President Xi, they agreed that our two countries should really work closely together to combat this virus. And we appreciate very much the support, assistance given to us by American people, American business. But - there's a big but - for some politician here in this country, maybe for some people in the media, I'm sorry to say that they are not being so helpful.

INSKEEP: Wilbur Ross, the U.S. commerce secretary, made a comment about the coronavirus the other day. And he said he didn't want - you know, any way to be happy about the virus. But he said it, quote, "gives business another thing to consider" when deciding on their supply chains. I understood him to mean businesses have another reason to think about - American businesses have another reason to think about going somewhere other than China.

CUI: After his remarks, I read a lot of comments from American media, from American economists. They have expressed their views. So I have nothing to add.

INSKEEP: Which views do you mean?

CUI: All kinds of views. And many people disagreed.

INSKEEP: With him making that statement?

CUI: Yeah, of course. Yeah.

INSKEEP: He, of course, is talking in a broader sense about the idea of decoupling, about the United States making its economy much less intertwined with China. Do you believe that's happening, whether you would like it to or not?

CUI: I don't think that that should happen. And I don't think that that could happen because we are the two largest economy in the world. We are so interconnected, so interdependent. I think people have to follow the economic and technological logic. They have to follow the law of economics, not any wish of any politician.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of the U.K.'s recent decision to use Huawei 5G equipment in portions of its network despite American requests not to do that. Is that an example of following economic logic, as you see it?

CUI: Well, I don't want to make any comment on people of other country. But I think maybe you should learn something from the United Kingdom. On some of the issues, I think that they made smarter decisions.

INSKEEP: Just one other thing to ask about, Ambassador. I'm sure that you followed the president's impeachment and acquittal here in the United States. And there was a part of this that touched on China. The president was criticized for seeking investigation of a political rival, Joe Biden, in Ukraine. When he was criticized for this, he said that was correct that he sought that investigation, and urged China also to investigate Joe Biden or his son Hunter Biden for investments that he was involved in in China. What did your government make of that remark?

CUI: We'd never get ourselves involved in American domestic politics.

INSKEEP: Does that mean when the president of the United States says China should investigate Joe Biden, China is not going to take that advice one way or the other?

CUI: I don't think this is included in any official communication between the two governments.

INSKEEP: Ah, so if the U.S., through official channels, made a request, China would give that some thought?

CUI: I understand the whole process is part of the domestic political drama, so we are just observers.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

CUI: My pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: Again, China's ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.