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U.S. Continues To Point Out That China Is Where Coronavirus Began

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

China, of course, is the place where the coronavirus first struck in large numbers, and the Trump administration has been eager to point that out, pinning the blame on China for the spread of the disease. Here is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: The Chinese Communist Party poses a substantial threat to our health and way of life, as the Wuhan virus outbreak clearly has demonstrated. The CCP also threatens to undermine the free and open order that has underpinned our mutual prosperity and safety in the G7 countries.

GREENE: So how has China been handling the crisis now that its own infection rate has declined? Why is the Trump administration choosing this moment to confront China? And how do hard-hit nations that are allies of the United States, like Italy, view all of this? Well, we're joined by three of our colleagues - NPR Beijing correspondent Emily Feng, NPR's State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen and NPR correspondent Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thanks to all of you for coming on and having this conversation.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Morning.

GREENE: Emily, start - let me start with you in China. Can you explain what exactly Secretary of State Pompeo is complaining about there?

FENG: Well, he's referring to this weekslong clash between the U.S. and China over how each country has handled this pandemic. It is indisputable that local officials in China covered up the outbreak in Wuhan for at least four weeks, and so Pompeo and other U.S. officials are blaming China now for enabling a global pandemic.

That tension then escalated when, earlier this month, the senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official accused the U.S. military, without evidence, that they first spread the virus to China. And the U.S. has been able to do nothing but watch as now it struggles with the coronavirus and China has been able to use the outbreak to boost its soft power by sending millions of sometimes-faulty test kits and medical equipment to Europe.

GREENE: Michele, what is the view from here in Washington in terms of what Secretary Pompeo is doing here, banging on the Chinese?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, he doesn't want U.S. allies to buy into the Chinese propaganda. Here, State Department officials have been warning countries to be careful about accepting aid from China, warning that it often comes with strings attached or makes countries indebted to China. And as you heard Emily say, some of these test kits have been, actually, faulty.

But U.S. partners don't really see the need to name and shame China at this point. After that G7 meeting where you heard Pompeo speak, he was talking about the Wuhan virus, but there's - there was no joint statement because he wanted those words in it, and other members really were focused more on the need for international cooperation rather than confrontation to counter this pandemic.

I should also point out, David, that while the U.S. has given aid to countries like Italy and other places, the State Department has also been asking diplomats to look for medical supplies that it can buy from Europe, which, of course, is also, you know, struggling and in need of supplies.

GREENE: Of course, and one of those countries struggling is Italy, Sylvia, where you are - I mean, so much suffering there. It's been a terrible toll from this virus. And maybe Italy has to take some risks getting whatever medical assistance it can, some of it coming from China. So what is China providing there, and how has it been received?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, Italy first appealed to its European partners for the protective clothing and equipment, but they didn't come through, and then China sent masks ventilators and medical teams. We saw these aid shipments with the Chinese flag and the words, the friendship road knows no borders.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio - he's a euroskeptic who leads the maverick Five Star Movement - said, we will remember those who were close to us in this difficult period. And the Chinese president told Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that China is willing to contribute to a health Silk Road. That's a reference to China's huge Belt and Road Initiative, which - under Di Maio's insistence - Italy last year signed onto. It's the only G7 country to have done so.

GREENE: I mean, that's interesting. Could this be a way that China is buying more long-term influence in the country? I mean, Italy is a member of NATO. It's a partner in the G7 of major industrialized democracies. But it's quite a moment here.

POGGIOLI: Well, I think it's too soon to predict a shift in, you know, some kind of geopolitical alliances. But, you know, there's very little illusion here that China could replace NATO. As Emily and Michele pointed out, much of this equipment has turned out to have been tarnished, defective. And, you know, Italy had also paid for some of these supplies, and they weren't just gifts. Aid also came from Russia, but nobody here thinks that Beijing and Moscow are motivated by altruism. Most Italians have been really impressed by tiny Albania sending in a medical team as a sign of thanks to Italy for its past assistance.

There was a cartoon a few days ago in a major daily that I think suggests that many Italians are wary of China and Russia bearing gifts. It said, the masks from China and Russia have one small defect; when the pandemic is over, you can't take them off.

GREENE: Michele, what a moment for a geopolitical confrontation. I mean, does the United States really want that, or is it seeking it with China at a moment when the world, including the United States, is so incredibly vulnerable? I mean, we've already had a trade war with China.

KELEMEN: Yeah, and the administration hasn't shown signs of - that it's willing to lift those sanctions or other - those tariffs or other sanctions on other countries. Well, I'd say that, you know, in some quarters in Washington, we really are seeing a doubling down of this tough rhetoric against the Chinese Communist Party, describing the Chinese system of government as a threat to global order. You have a State Department team that's pushing back against Chinese disinformation campaigns.

But it's hard to say where President Trump ends up in all of this because, you know, while he does have quite a few Chinese hardliners in - China hard-liners in his administration, he often talks about how he has good relations with President Xi, and he's often been quite transactional in his approach to other world leaders.

GREENE: Emily, what is the reaction in China to this pressure and these kinds of attacks coming from Secretary Pompeo?

FENG: Consistently angry. China's taken particular umbrage that President Trump and Pompeo for weeks insisted on calling COVID-19 the Wuhan virus. And here in Beijing, the Foreign Ministry has repeatedly told the U.S. to essentially take care of its own outbreak before it turns around and criticizes China for how it handled COVID-19. China has shown itself to be very, very sensitive to criticism over its containment efforts, and last month it even expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters based in Beijing because of an offensive headline run by the paper's editorial pages that called China the sick man of Asia.

But the good news is there's been sort of a break in the clouds in this tension. Three days ago, President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping talked on the phone. They promised to work together to combat the pandemic. Trump tweeted later that China had a, quote, "strong understanding of the virus." And so, hopefully, we will see more cooperation and fewer angry words between these two countries over what has been a global public health issue.

GREENE: And Sylvia, just to finish with you, what is the latest in Italy? I mean, what - it's so hard hit by this virus.

POGGIOLI: Oh, it's really bad. The numbers are huge. It's - I think has the largest number of deaths of any country right up to now. And the last two days, though, they say the increases in both in the number of deaths and in cases are slight declines. So they're optimistic that maybe the lockdown measures are beginning to work.

GREENE: Wow. Sliver of hope.

POGGIOLI: Yeah.

GREENE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome, NPR's Michele Kelemen in Washington, NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing - thank you all so, so much.

KELEMEN: Thanks for having us.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

FENG: Thanks, David.

POGGIOLI: Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE'S "WHILE YOU'RE FADING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.