|Chinese Ambassador to Belgium:China has warned sufficently about this pandemic--the transcript of interview with De Morgen|
Q: Can you think of the role of China in helping countries like Belgium in particular in terms of response efforts and acquiring medical supplies?
A: The Chinese and Belgian governments and people have maintained cooperation and supported each other during the fight against COVID-19. Chinese President Xi Jinping had a phone conversation with King Philippe. The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes exchanged letters.
Chinese competent authorities stayed in close contact with the Belgian side, especially over facilitating procurement of medical supplies. Chinese governments at the subnational level, companies and foundations have decided to donate medical supplies to Belgium. All of these are manifestations of the unity and friendship between China and Belgium amid difficult times.
It is worth noting that at the height of the outbreak in China, Belgium and EU also offered China empathy and support.
Q: Did Belgium also donate medical materials besides providing moral support when the epidemic was serious in China?
A: EU donated 12 tons of protective equipment to China. I think Belgium may also have contributed as a EU member. Belgian companies and individuals also made donations.
Q: What is the role of the Embassy in supporting Belgium in the fight against COVID-19?
A: During the whole course of the outbreak, the Embassy acted as a bridge of connection between our two countries with our work focused on the following three areas: maintaining communication and discussing joint response efforts with the Belgian foreign relations and public health authorities; sharing diagnosis and treatment protocols, prevention and control guidelines, travel guidelines with the FPS Public Health, setting up video calls for exchanges between Chinese and Belgian experts; facilitating Belgian procurement of medical supplies from China.
Q: Was the Embassy involved in the donations by Jack Ma and Alibaba?
A: I think that was the decision of Alibaba Foundation and Jack Ma. They also provided assistance to other countries besides Belgium. The Embassy learned the news from the media.
Other Chinese companies and civil societies also have donated to the Belgian side either directly or through the Embassy of Belgium in Beijing. It shows China’s friendship towards the Belgian people.
Q: Do those donations happen in the past, or are they still being planned...
A: Some of them are already done, some ongoing. I know that some provincial and municipal Chinese governments already have plans to help. I learned this morning a Chinese subnational government would like to donate to Belgium .
Q: Do you think that this crisis is making China-Belgium relations stronger?
A: I think so. Mutual support is more valuable in challenging times. I hope our joint efforts against the epidemic will inject fresh impetus into and further take forward our bilateral relations.
Q: Belgian State Security warned this week in a report about “mask diplomacy”. They fear that foreign powers will increase influence in exchange for their relief efforts.
A: “Mask diplomacy” is a false proposition. Such concerns are unnecessary as China bears no such intentions. When the outbreak was at its peak in China, the EU and some European countries gave us much-appreciated support and assistance. Belgian companies also offered to help. What China is doing now is simply reciprocity with no political motivations behind it. When the EU helped us, no one in China suspected “mask diplomacy”. It is unfair to level unfounded accusations against people willing to extend a helping hand. I also wish to point out that donations only constitute a smidgen of the medical supplies that Belgium received from China, the vast majority of which come from commercial purchases.
Q: There have been reports in the media about sub-standard masks made in China.
A: Since the coronavirus outbreak, Belgium has imported large quantities of medical supplies from China, problems only occur exceptionally, due to different medical supply standards between China and EU, and also arising from the procurement channels. We hope as China has further strengthened regulations over export of medical supplies on April 1st, there would be still less cases going forward.
Q: We have a quite high death toll in Belgium. Do you think there are places that Belgium could have done better? For instance in Asian countries people wear masks more often.
A: I think COVID-19 is a brand new and fast spreading virus. It poses enormous challenges to countries around the world. The Belgian government has made tremendous efforts to contain the virus and as people live in Belgium, in Brussels, we hope that the virus will be brought into control as soon as possible. Wearing masks is more prevalent in some Asian countries including China. Europeans’ opinion about the role of oral masks is evolving. Some Belgian experts recently have been saying wearing masks helps. There is a Chinese expert who said that mask is an extension of social distancing. I think he has a point.
Q: How do you think this crisis will affect the relationship between China and the US?
A: China has always attached great importance to China-US relations. As two major countries in the world, both stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation. We hope that the US could view China’s development and China-US relations in the right way. The Chinese government is committed to improving the well-being and livelihood of its people. China never seeks to challenge or even replace the US. We hope that American politicians could stay out of cold war and zero sum game mentality.
In the face of a global public health emergency and prospects of economic decline, major countries like China and the US need to show a sense of responsibility and take real actions to beef up confidence and inject energies into the global endeavour to contain the virus. We should support the important role of the WHO in coordinating international cooperation rather than undercutting its position. The US should work together with China in this fight, rather than attacking China and magnifying the divisions.
Q: While Trump is suspending US funding for the WHO, China is pumping an extra 28 million euros. Some say the US withdrawal is because of China’s growing influence over the agency.
A: WHO has played an important role in coordinating international response. At this critical moment, I think countries should give WHO greater support. Following the US announcement, European countries and the EU have said they want to continue to support the organization. Rightly so. WHO support is particularly important for countries with vulnerable health care systems. Undermining WHO will be to the detriment of those countries. That is why China is donating an additional 30 million dollars, on top of the 20 million dollars we contributed earlier. Besides China, UK and Saudi Arabia among others have also decided to step up support.
Q: You said at a press conference in early February, at the beginning of the outbreak in Belgium, that countries with travel bans for China overreacted. Two months later is it not the case that European countries mainly under-reacted?
A: I think the speed and scale of the coronavirus have caught many people unexpected. At the time of the press conference, you also did not know what the future looked like.
Q: No, but maybe that’s because our models were wrong, due to incorrect figures from China?
A: Not at all. China shares information about COVID-19 with WHO and the international community in a timely and transparent manner. Let’s look at the timeline.
On January 3rd, China informed the WHO about fever cases of unknown causes.
January 4th, the Chinese Disease Prevention and Control Center called the US CDC.
January 11th, China shared the genetic sequence of the virus with the WHO and the world, enabling the US and Europe to start developing test kits and vaccine. Until today China holds a daily press conference updating figures, and sharing plans for diagnosis and treatment as well as scientific results.
Wuhan has been cut off from the outside world since January 23rd. I think this measure was a clear signal. At the time, there were only 9 cases outside of China.
On February 2nd, the first case arrived in Belgium after the repatriation of Belgian nationals from Wuhan. The man came out of the hospital after two weeks in good health.
There is a month between the lockdown in Wuhan and the virus flared up in European countries and the US. What preparations have been made during that time?
Q: We didn’t use our time enough?
A: I think there was enough time for making preparations, but I don’t think I am in a position to judge how other countries have been doing. The timeline mainly shows that the outbreak is not the result of too few warnings from China.
Q: But what about the numbers? Last week, the number of deaths in Wuhan was suddenly adjusted by 50%.
A: Timely correction of the figures shows that China takes accuracy of the figures seriously, and try to be as open, transparent and responsible as possible, to show respect for every victim.
At the start of the outbreak, hospitals were operating beyond their capacity and doctors were preoccupied with treating and saving patients. As a result, there were sometimes late- or under- reportings. We then set up a task force with epidemiologists using big data and other means to cross examine the figures and correct them. Revisions are normal in such circumstances. Not adjusting the figures would be questionable.
Q: How to explain the rise in urn sales in Wuhan? The official death figure is 3800, but 8500 cremation urns were sold.
A: There are people that would die of other illnesses and also aged people that would pass away. COVID-19 fatalities are only part of the total number. I saw figures that show without COVID-19, around 5000 people die every month in Wuhan, .
Q: This week, The Lancet released a study stating that Chinese infections in February may have been 4000 higher than reported. Isn’t that why many countries and the WHO initially downplayed the virus?
A: I don’t know that study, but I doubt if it has concrete evidence. China’s figures are coalesced by the National Health Commission after collecting data from hospitals across the country. They are reliable.
It doesn’t make sense to blame WHO for the outbreak of the virus. Some countries may do this for political reasons. Nor do I think it is fair to blame China for not providing information in time. China shared the genetic code of the virus early and has kept the WHO and other countries posted about the latest developments. Timely, strong and effective measures by China have won more time for other countries to enhance preparedness. After China shuts down Wuhan, several countries still said this was just a flu. We have done our part. Some countries blame China to deflect responsibility for their inadequate response. But one does not elevate himself by smearing others.
Q: A whistle blower like Li Wenliang, the doctor who warned about the virus in December and who has since died, was visited by the authorities at the time and had to sign a statement that he had committed “illegal behavior”. Doesn’t the doubts about transparency make sense?
A: Li Wenliang was a dedicated and respectable medical professional. We regret his passing and that of all front line medical personnel around the world. Li Wenliang was not the first to report this virus on December 30th. Doctor Zhang Jixian from Hubei Hospital of Integrated Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine informed the municipal CDC center and triggered epidemiological investigations, three days before Doctor Li Wenliang shared related information on Wechat, a social media platform. Every country has rules and procedures for examining whether a new pathogen has emerged and they should be followed.
Q: Isn’t this also a matter of freedom of expression?
A: Announcing a new virus is the responsibility of a country’s disease prevention and control system. The role of the hospitals and that of the CDC are different. This is also the case in many other countries.
Q: NGOs are saying that approximately 5000 people were arrested for sharing information in the first weeks of this outbreak. This might have also cost a lot of time.
A: I highly question the credibility of your source. There are much false information being disseminated on the Internet. I suggest media dedicated to serious reporting conduct careful screening and verification.
Q: Speaking of reliable sources, The Washington post, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, those are considered very reliable sources. At the same time we see that journalists from these three media were expelled from China for the reporting of corona crisis. That doesn’t give a very good image.
A: Those are countermeasures against moves taken by the US on Chinese media outlets. I think the root lies in the measures initiated by the US State Department and related persons against Chinese correspondents in the US. I suggest you look up information in this direction.
Q: Some question whether the virus escaped from Wuhan laboratories？
A: I think that tracing the origin of a virus needs meticulous scientific study supported by evidence. It should be left to the scientists rather than coming from speculations or conjectures. But some politicians are more vocal than scientists, and they even from where I see it, purposely disregard scientists’ opinion. This can only be explained by political motivations. WHO experts and many foremost scientists have rebutted the notion, saying that all available evidence suggests the virus has an animal origin and is not manipulated or constructed in a lab. Belgian virologist Emmanuel Andre also agreed that the virus is from nature and there is no evidence suggesting otherwise.
Q: There’s also a rumor in Belgium about an art troupe bringing it from Wuhan to Belgium.
A: A rumor indeed. An art troupe traveled from the city of Wuhan to Belgium for the Chinese new year celebration from January 16th to 19th. The Embassy followed their health conditions. All members stayed healthy before, during and after the visits. We published this information on our website and also shared with Liege municipal government.
Q: I hear normal life is starting again in China? Also in Wuhan after lockdown was lifted.
A: Life and work are returning to normal in Wuhan after 76 days of lockdown. It has not been easy. The entire country has respect for what the city has managed to pull off. China has made notable progress in the fight against the COVID-19 and the epidemic has been brought under overall control . However it allows for no slackening of efforts because we must guard against domestic resurgence and imported cases.
While we maintain control over the virus, the country is working to resume production and restore economic activities. I learned good news from Belgian companies operating in China. Umicore, Solvay and UCB among others have restarted their production sites.
The pandemic is a common challenge for mankind. No single country could claim the final victory unless the virus is defeated everywhere. While keeping up domestic prevention and control efforts, China will continue to be actively engaged in international cooperation to defeat the virus. We look forward to working together with the Belgian government and also with the EU to support the WHO playing a more important role in coordinating international response.