Covid-19 pandemic: Legal, political and environmental questions for China

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The outbreak and worldwide spread of COVID-19 is bound to raise questions about where and how the infection originated and turned into a global pandemic, what legal and political implications this may have and how a recurrence can be prevented.  Despite the rather farfetched allegation that “the US army might have brought the epidemic to Wuhan” and the sobering assertion that “we may never know where this deadly coronavirus originated,” there is general consensus that the disease originated in China where it had been confined to animal hosts before turning into a human killing pathogen.

The actual mode of spread of the disease has been in dispute with prominent figures in the American administration claiming incompetence in ensuring safety in a Chinese virology center. The least contentious view, however, is that the initial medium of transmission was contaminated flesh of wild animals sold for human consumption in a wet market in the city of Wuhan in central China.

This is not the first zoonotic epidemic to surface in China and spread to other parts of the world. Although never before on such devastating scale, previous epidemics were also serious enough to prompt warnings about causing “significant public health concern” and “considerable socio-economic problems globally”.  It is for the World Health Organization (WHO) as an independent international body entrusted with protecting the health of the world population to investigate and ascertain the origin of the illness and its human outbreak. If necessary, the organization should be expected to advise and intervene in order to prevent a repetition.

Doubts have also been cast on the reliability of official Chinese reports of the time of the outbreak of the illness, its progression into an epidemic and the extent of the ensuing infection and fatality in that country. It has also been suggested that the reporting may not have been entirely transparent, and this may have adversely affected preventive planning by other countries.

Despite sings of diplomatic reticence in view of China’s upper hand in supplying medical materials needed by other countries to combat COVID-19, allegations have been made by the US Secretary of State that “China didn’t report the outbreak of the new coronavirus in a timely fashion to the WHO” and that “even after the CCP did notify the WHO of the coronavirus outbreak, China didn’t share all of the information it had” (Pompeo, 24 April 2020). As regards information supplied by the Chinese, too, suspicion has been voiced by France’s President Macron that “there are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about”.

In response, the Chinese authorities have vehemently denied any coverup and have even offered additional explanations about the apparent discrepancies between the impacts of the virus there and in other countries. To resolve the conflict and provide a clear picture, it is again the responsibility of the WHO, as an impartial institution in charge of international exchange of vital medical information, to investigate these allegations and if verified, decide on the appropriate response.  

From the legal point of view, too, there is the need for expert opinion on whether there should or should not be international consequences for China if the country is proven to be the origin of the pandemic. Assuming that the source of the infection was contaminated meat, it has to be ascertained whether the meat was on sale in an authorized and regulated market in Wuhan, in which case Chinese officials in charge of food hygiene and consumer safety may be liable for criminal negligence. Or, as suggested by some sources, it had been smuggled and sold illegally, which would intimate professional incompetence on the part of the country’s law enforcement agencies.

It is up to international lawyers and legal entities to determine whether either or both cases constitute grounds for domestic and/or international litigation against the Chinese state or its functionaries, as was, for example, in the case of the contaminated blood scandal of 1980s or are only matters for internal disciplinary action for the Chinese government to pursue.

Less urgent, but perhaps more significant implication of the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 for the future of international relations are possible reasons behind the Chinese government’s long-running neglect of the need to take serious action to stem the insalubrious trade in wild animals, including endangered species. In a country where the state keeps a watchful eye on citizens and has firm control over many aspects of their lives, lax attitude of the officialdom toward the destruction of wildlife cannot be put down to lack of information or want of power to intervene. Rather, it has to be seen as part and parcel of politics in a country where political development has lagged far behind the impressive transformation and colossal progress of the economy.

Before the People’s Republic of China gradually opened its economy to the outside world from late 1970s, the country was under an ideological regime obsessed with economic autarky and political regimentation at home and a belligerent, isolationist stance in foreign relations. Thanks to two decades of ideological compromise over the economy, China entered the 21st Century as a fast-growing economic power and has remained the singularly most impressive example of success of an emerging economy.

What has changed little over these decades has been a totalitarian, one-party political system that “sees human rights as an existential threat” and denies the citizens many of the rights and freedoms taken for granted in democratic countries. The Chinese officialdom may present the ossified one-party rule in the People’s Republic of China as essential for “political stability” but in fact, not only it is no guarantee against internal political instability, it can pose a serious threat to world economic and political security.

It is natural to sympathize with people living under totalitarian regimes as victims of tyrannical rule, but in a wider picture, authoritarian rulers themselves are unwitting victims of their own tyranny. Of course, it is they who deprive their citizens of basic human rights and political freedoms because they are conscious of their own lack of political legitimacy and consensual authority and live in constant fear that without political and social control, the undercurrent of public discontent and frustration may erupt into open rebellion and subvert the regime.

Yet, by suppressing freedom of expression and repressing open dissention, the authoritarian state fosters a political culture of disingenuous acquiescence and false conformity which deprives the rulers of reliable means of identifying and responding to people’s expectations and grievances and assessing their genuine opinion of the actions of their government. Moreover, unlike democratic countries where people assume ultimate responsibility for the actions of the state by virtue of the right to elect and dismiss their government, the authoritarian regime alone bears the blame for failing to recognize and respond to people’s expectations, legitimate and rational or otherwise.

In this atmosphere of mutual fear and distrust, state politics and policy is governed by a bizarre rationale. Having deprived citizens of many of their legitimate rights and freedoms, the authoritarian regime is reluctant to put into effect measures that are likely to add to limitations already imposed on people’s lives even if such limitations are clearly in the public interest. In choosing between restrictions that protect the regime against public frustration, and those that serve public interest, the authoritarian ruler prefers to forgo the latter because of the fear that people’s limit of forbearance may be reached and the fragile veneer of political and civil compliance give in to conflict and confrontation.  

The Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 epidemic reveals the mindset of a political establishment fearful of further antagonizing a nation that lives under controlling, authoritarian rule. It is alleged that official acknowledgement of the outbreak was delayed because the state did not wish it to interfere with public celebration of the Chinese New Year.

The tendency to understate the extent of the fatalities, in contrast to largely transparent public awareness campaign by democratic governments, can only point to a regime that is wary of citizens’ accusing fingers even in the case of a natural disaster. The whole episode is symptomatic of a regime uncertain of its popular-based legitimacy and suggests a fundamental rift and lack of understanding between state and citizen in the People’s Republic of China.    

This atmosphere of mutual mistrust must also be blamed for the Chinese government’s failure to prevent this global tragedy in the first place by persistently turning a blind eye to the harm done to wildlife by a section, perhaps only a small section of its population. These are people who continue to kill even rare species not to satisfy their hunger, but to gratify antiquated gastronomic obsessions or practice superstitious pseudo-medical rituals. The Chinese authorities’ neglect of the need not only to strengthen and seriously enforce legislation on prohibition of consumption of wildlife but more importantly, their hesitation to take the necessary corrective cultural steps can only speak of concern about further alienating a people already deprived of many democratic rights and freedoms.

Today, China’s political stagnation can no longer be overlooked as an internal matter because it can have wide-reaching global consequences. An authoritarian regime is inherently unstable. Instead of free consensus of the people, its survival depends on successfully manipulating some into acceptance and coercing others into submissiveness. In this age of global communication and globalization of ideas, neither can ensure but a fragile existence.

The problem is that China is no longer a reclusive, isolated country on the fringes of world political and economic stage with a population on the breadline. As the rapid spread of COVID-19 outside China showed, the country interacts extensively with the rest of the world and has extensive worldwide connections and contacts. Political turmoil in a major economic and military world power and home to nearly one-fifth of humanity is certain to entail grave ramifications for the political and economic security of the world in the same way that its rich market for rhinoceros horn, tiger body parts, bear paws and elephant tusk can drive endangered species to the brink of extinction.

The Chinese rulers may consider it too costly and unsettling to set in motion the necessary political reformation in the interest of long-term national and international security, but they can act upon their declared commitment to wildlife and environmental protection  to redeem themselves.

The People’s Republic has the propaganda machinery to advocate faith in the blessings of single-party rule, the facilities to “re-educate” doubters and the apparatus to detect and suppress dissent. It is hard to accept that it is incapable of promoting universal values of the modern age among those in the population who are still unaware of their country’s newly gained international status and the responsibilities that go with it.

Hamid Elyassi
Hamid Elyassi
Hamid Elyassi is Regional Research Director of Namaya Consultants, London, UK. He specializes in political economy of developing countries and emerging economies.

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