I missed this yesterday when it happened. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a gathering in Geneva that he had been subjected to months of racist comments and death threats. He claimed the attacks started in Taiwan and that, despite being aware of it, Taiwan’s government did nothing to distance itself from the attacks. Now Taiwan is pushing back on those claims:
The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said Thursday it “in no way encouraged” any personal attacks and condemned “any form of discrimination.”
If you follow that link about social media criticism of Dr. Tedros, you’ll see it leads to a petition calling for his resignation from Feb 1.
Call for the resignation of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director Generalhttps://t.co/Z50nztpH2F
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) February 1, 2020
And almost immediately (about 15 minutes later) there was an accusation that the photo in the petition was racist from someone seeking to defend China’s honor:
I am the petition starter, the picture is found on google. Maybe you need to talk to @Google about your concerns.
— Osuka Yip (@OsukaYip) February 1, 2020
I don’t think this one interaction is proof of anything, but it does occur to me that there was a concerted Chinese propaganda effort to label the phrase “Chinese virus” racist. That campaign has been incredibly successful despite the fact that it was largely push back against Chinese propaganda claiming the virus originated with U.S. soldiers. Dr. Tedros now seems to be adopting a similar approach to deflecting criticism of himself. And, coincidentally, China’s foreign ministry is decrying the alleged racist attacks against Dr. Tedros:
China opposes politicizing the outbreak&stigmatization, and strongly condemns the personal, racist attack on DG Tedros. WHO has been crucial in coordinating epidemic response&promoting intl cooperation based on facts and science. China supports it in leading global cooperation. pic.twitter.com/dKugtgGyNJ
— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) April 9, 2020
Official statements become official news:
China strongly condemns personal attacks and racist words and deeds against WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a spokesperson for Chinese Foreign Ministry said https://t.co/Kpp9YedRgC pic.twitter.com/AtSqE8xgN6
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) April 9, 2020
Here’s what Dr. Tedros said in Geneva yesterday. As the AP notes, the basis of these claims is all extremely vague. Normally if a high ranking UN official accused diplomats of tacitly engaging in racist attacks, you would expect him to offer some evidence. But not in this case:
“This attack came from Taiwan,” said Tedros, a former Ethiopian health and foreign minister and the WHO’s first African leader.
He said Taiwanese diplomats were aware of the attacks but did not dissociate themselves from them. “They even started criticizing me in the middle of all those insults and slurs,” Tedros said. “I say it today because it’s enough.” The basis of his allegations was unclear.
Underlying all of this is a long-standing dispute over the status of Taiwan. China insists it is a Chinese province while many in Taiwan want independence from China. The WHO has become one of the places where this symbolic battle has played out. And again, coincidentally, China has been pushing back on any suggesting that Taiwan’s situation should change because of the virus:
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday that “we hope the Taiwan authorities will not politicize the epidemic situation or engage in political manipulation.”
He added in written comments after the daily briefing: “Their real intention is to seek independence under the pretext of the pandemic.”
So to sum this all up, Taiwan was an early and frequent critic of Dr. Tedros for his closeness with China and refusal to work directly with Taiwan (at China’s behest). Now, after that criticism was picked up by President Trump, Dr. Tedros suddenly reveals a heretofore unknown campaign of racist attacks emanating from Taiwan with the government of Taiwan’s blessing (he claims). And both Dr. Tedros and China are now denouncing these racist attacks, just as they denounced associating the virus with China as racist (even as they were claiming it originated in the U.S.).
I can’t prove that Dr. Tedros is lying or that China has other motives for pushing this new claim or racism, but it does appear to be a rather convenient way to deflect criticism from both China and Dr. Tedros and redirect it toward Taiwan, a leading critic of both. Here’s the press conference from yesterday queued up to the statement about Taiwan: