China blasts WHO chief over criticism of Xi’s Covid-Zero policy

BEIJING: China denounced the World Health Organization chief’s criticism of its zero-tolerance Covid strategy, defending a policy that has left it increasingly isolated on the world stage and under pressure from its own citizens at home.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian hailed the merits of China’s lockdown-dependent Covid Zero approach Wednesday in response to criticism from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Tedros had argued a day earlier that the strategy was no longer sustainable, saying that a “shift would be very important.”
“We hope the relevant individual will make objective and reasonable views of China’s epidemic protocol and policy and try to get a better understanding of the facts and refrain from making irresponsible remarks,” Zhao told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing.
The dispute is notable because the WHO, and Tedros in particular, has provided a source of support for President Xi Jinping since the coronavirus was first discovered in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Tedros’s early praise of China’s response prompted then-US President Donald Trump to accuse the WHO of pandering to Beijing. He also threatened to withdraw the US from the world health body.
Tedros was among the world leaders who attended the Beijing Winter Games earlier this year, even as the US and other Western countries waged diplomatic boycotts over human rights issues. The WHO’s decision to skip over the letter “xi” in the Greek alphabet while naming the Omicron variant also fueled claims that it was attempting to protect the Chinese president.
The remarks spurred fresh debate about the Covid Zero strategy on China’s heavily censored social media networks, where videos of Tedros’s remarks were shared and quickly deleted. China’s supreme political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, last week vowed to “resolutely fight any attempts to distort, question or deny” its policy, in a possible sign of internal divisions on the issue.
Former Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin, dismissed Tedros’s criticism in social media posts Wednesday, saying it “doesn’t matter” what the UN body says. “The West thinks this disease is gone, but is it gone? If others don’t know, should WHO know better?” Hu said.
Still, Hu, an influential commentator, hinted at debate over how Covid should be handled. “Currently there’re some disagreements in China. This is the reason the WHO comments caused a stir,” he wrote, adding “we need to overcome these disagreements and form a new consensus.”
Last week, Hu himself cast doubt on China’s strategy and in an article initially posted to his official WeChat account, he said the Chinese capital is facing a make-or-break battle against Omicron and Covid Zero is only worth pursuing when the cost is manageable. The piece was subsequently deleted.
In May 2020, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi defended Tedros from Trump’s criticism by saying the WHO under his leadership had “done a good job” and that countries that “ignored or rejected its advice are paying a heavy price.” Last month, Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said China’s Covid Zero strategy was “consistent with its national realities and the WHO’s guiding principles.”
The WHO has long been critical of lockdowns, advocating a moderate approach that balances outbreak control with their social and economic impacts. The remarks by Tedros were noticeable in that they specifically took issue with a policy so closely associated with Xi.
Some on Chinese social media sardonically said that Tedros had gone from “general secretary” — in a nod to his early support for the Communist Party’s line — to “traitor.” One joke in circulation offered a play on the WHO’s name saying: “Who tells China it’s time to shift away from its Covid Zero strategy?!” The implied answer was “no one.”
On Wednesday, Zhao offered a long defense of China’s approach to the virus, contrasting it with numbers of deaths in places like the US. He cited a Fudan University study that found the country risks a “tsunami” of coronavirus infections resulting in 1.6 million deaths if the government abandons the Covid Zero policy.
“I would like to tell you explicitly that no matter how hard it is, the Chinese people, the Chinese government has every confidence in winning the critical and hard battle against Covid-19 to bring it under control,” Zhao said. “And we have the foundation and capability to achieve dynamic Zero Covid.”

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