China has been using the WHO as a key propaganda tool to influence the West
When I toured my animal-loving English cousin around Guangzhou a few years back, we stumbled on a zone, in the corner of a vast market, that teemed with tiny cages containing all manner of animals — cats, dogs, civets, pangolins, squirrels, rabbits, lizards, snakes, rabbits, ferrets and even a few monkeys.
Swiftly moving her on, I explained that China’s burgeoning middle class now eagerly sought pets. I don’t think she bought it.
This week the World Health Organisation came under fire for saying wet markets, as crucial sources of food, should be allowed to reopen, or continue trading, in China.
“With adequate facilities, proper regulation and good hygiene practices it is possible to have safe food sold in wet markets,” it said.
The WHO’s stand was excoriated by Scott Morrison as “unfathomable”. It’s not. It fits extremely explicably within the pre-COVID-19 direction of the WHO, one that many health experts view as dangerous. But the broad category of wet markets — so called because vendors water their products to try to keep them fresh — is not the core culprit.
A high proportion of families in China, as in Asia more broadly, buy daily the food for that day. Many buy “dry” foods — rice, noodles and other grocery basics — in supermarkets and non-frozen fruit, vegetables, meat and fish in wet markets, which resemble a more grassroots version of farmers markets.
All wet markets sell chickens and cuts of pork, and in a few devotees also can buy “live wildlife” — most of them bred in captivity — of the sort my cousin and I encountered in Guangzhou. They are costly and bought mostly by purveyors of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or consumed by followers of traditional beliefs that parts of such wild animals can counter sickness or increase sexual potency or fortify their bodies more generally.
Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market includes such “wild” animals. Of the initial 41 virus patients admitted to hospital in Wuhan, 27 had visited it.
John Fitzgerald, one of Australia’s leading China experts, writes in an essay published online by Crikey that “TCM is not quite the grassroots cultural practice that it might appear to outsiders. It is deeply embedded in the (ruling Communist) Party’s management of daily physical health in China, where it is allocated a respected place alongside evidence-based medical practice, or ‘Western medicine’, as it’s known in China.”
Modern healthcare in China can be of the highest quality. But it is expensive, and it can be difficult to access. There is no broad program of primary care, so people must queue lengthily at hospitals to see specialists. Instead, many self-diagnose with TCM.
Vitally in terms of the intersection of TCM, the WHO, China and “live wildlife” markets, President Xi Jinping has become the global champion of TCM which, as Fitzgerald states, has been actively promoted along the route of the Belt and Road Initiative. The TCM trade along the Belt and Road has surged more than 50 per cent in a single year, with international sales overall expected to reach $680bn this year.
Fitzgerald says TCM is “a potent weapon in the party’s ongoing struggle with universal values and human rights”, which Xi is replacing — overseas, as at home — by “his own brew of national values blended with national folk science and culture”.
When Xi visited the WHO’s HQ in Geneva in 2017, as Beijing was playing the key lobbying role to install Ethiopian epidemiologist Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as director-general, he presented a statue highlighting acupuncture.
Last May, the WHO provoked controversy among global experts by endorsing traditional medicines in a chapter of its guide of recommended health practice, the International Classification of Diseases.
The magazine Nature described this support for practices not scientifically tested and potentially harmful as “unacceptable”.
Last month, a Chinese official said that as the “Chinese solution” to COVID-19 unfolded, Beijing would “let more countries get to know Chinese medicine, understand Chinese medicine and use Chinese medicine”.
Influential analysis and strategic advisory firm China Policy says “with pharmaceuticals in ever shorter supply, 85 per cent of all COVID-19 patients in China have been treated with various TCM remedies”.
The party, it says, has cast TCM as intrinsic to its “China solution” to all global threats, and which “together with Confucian values and dynastic governance”, underpins the eagerly claimed “rejuvenation of the nation” under Xi.
China Policy says modernising the TCM industry — such as new legislation seeking to ban wildlife trading and consumption, whether caught or farmed — “may help its image, but framing it as a national emblem sits uncomfortably with China’s aspiration for recognition of its scientific credentials”.
Tedros sought to appoint Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador for the WHO, and claimed “racist slurs” against him originated in Taiwan, which the WHO treats as a mere province of China despite it being seen as a model for combating COVID-19.
He also publicly praised the “speed and scale” of China’s response to the virus as due to “the advantage of the Chinese system”, from which he said other countries could valuably learn.
The WHO’s leadership, while not unfathomable, is certainly not unquestionable.
Rowan Callick, twice a China correspondent for The Australian, is an industry fellow of Griffith University’s Asia Institute.