Rep. Chris Smith: China's deception on coronavirus – here's how to hold their leadership accountable

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Last December, when it became obvious China faced a deadly disease of historic dimensions, Xi Jinping and his government went into damage control mode.

We are not talking about controlling the terrible damage wrought by COVID-19 among humans, but rather the damage to China’s reputation as an emerging global leader, fearing that a carefully crafted, but bogus image would be damaged as more people around the world succumbed to COVID-19.

That damage control has already cost thousands of lives globally, denying the world the crucial time to get ahead of this outbreak, and continues as China engages in image diplomacy, exchanging medicine for influence in international organizations while threatening to cut off pharmaceuticals to countries, including the United States, that refuse to support its false narratives.

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A recent intelligence community report confirms that disinformation began as early as November, when it misreported the seriousness of the disease. Based on Chinese reports, there was an outbreak of a serious, but not communicable disease that was easily contained in Wuhan.

That was false.

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Then, China misrepresented the seriousness of the coronavirus to the World Health Organization (WHO), which disregarded the more accurate data from Taiwan in December. Placating China’s animus toward Taiwan trumped saving lives, as far as the WHO was concerned. Based on false information supplied by China, the WHO actually advised against travel restrictions until Jan. 31, ensuring that precious time would be tragically lost.

Credible sources state that China destroyed samples of the virus, shut down and punished doctors, detained citizen journalists, even welded people into their homes. When a proper medical response needed transparency, China’s misrepresentation of the facts directly led to the WHO’s disregarding the irrefutable reality.

We should not be surprised. As the former chairman of the House committee on global human rights and as the ranking member of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, I have held more than 60 hearings exposing over and over again how the Chinese government brutally abuses its people and operates in secrecy, instead of embracing a free media and its ability to inform people and hold officials and institutions accountable.

The blame for misrepresenting the nature of the coronavirus to the WHO lies at the highest levels of the Chinese government.

Now we are facing a deadly pandemic and global economic recession that we can trace to China’s misrepresentations and malign influence in international institutions such as the WHO.

World leaders must demand that China respect fundamental rights and recognize that media is a key institution that strengthens the ability of governments to address the critical needs of their citizens.

The blame for misrepresenting the nature of the coronavirus to the WHO lies at the highest levels of the Chinese government. China’s people deserve better from their leaders. Holding them accountable should begin with the WHO investigating this tragic course of events. China has inordinate influence at the WHO and other United Nations' bodies, where China now leads four specialized U.N. agencies. A country that does not adhere to the same norms that apply to other nations cannot be trusted to lead a U.N. agency. The world community must begin reassessing China’s role at the U.N. to begin the accountability process.

Beyond that, Congress must launch serious efforts to curb Chinese influence operations. That means laws with teeth.

To that end, last year I introduced legislation with Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, HR 1811, to counter Chinese efforts to corrupt democratic institutions as well as to suppress information. This bill, co-sponsored by 10 members, underscores the need to differentiate between the great Chinese people and culture – and to ensure Chinese Americans are never unjustly targeted – from the brutal government of the People’s Republic, which all too often moves to intimidate the Chinese diaspora.

I also introduced HR 1542, bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., and 13 other members of Congress, to identify Chinese officials complicit in fentanyl production and its export to the United States. We have discovered that Chinese fentanyl mills also produce pharmaceuticals. As the need to diversity our supply chain beyond China has become glaringly apparent, we must also ensure that suppliers are not also fueling America’s opioid epidemic.

We can use the Global Magnitsky Act, of which I was the primary House sponsor, to hold accountable Chinese public security officials who targeted whistleblowers and members of the press in China. While China has scapegoated low-ranking Wuhan police officials for arresting the heroic doctor Li Wenliang, we can and must go higher on the food chain, such as Wuhan mayor and provincial Deputy Communist Party Committee Secretary Zhou Xianwang.

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In Congress, at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which I co-chair, we will continue to highlight the Chinese government’s systematic and sustained abuse of human rights, including how its abuse of press freedoms and the free flow of information has fueled the current global health pandemic.

When this coronavirus crisis has passed, there needs to be a reckoning. This means overcoming partisan finger-pointing and looking to who bears the ultimate responsibility for the pandemic – the government of the People’s Republic of China.

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