Exclusive: Senior China diplomat concedes challenge of coronavirus, slams ‘overreaction’

FILE PHOTO: German FM Maas and his Chinese counterpart Yi meet in Berlin
FILE PHOTO: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi holds a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin, Germany, February 13, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

February 14, 2020

By Alessandra Galloni and Ryan Woo

BERLIN (Reuters) – A top Chinese official acknowledged on Friday that the new coronavirus is a deep challenge to the country, but defended Beijing’s management of the epidemic while lashing out at the “overreaction” of other countries.

In a wide-ranging interview with Reuters in the German capital, State Councillor Wang Yi, who also serves as China’s foreign minister, urged the United States not to take unnecessary virus-response measures that could hamper trade, travel and tourism.

“The epidemic overall is under control,” he said. “This epidemic is truly sudden. It has brought a challenge to China and the world.”

“We’ve taken such complete prevention and control efforts, efforts that are so comprehensive, that I can’t see any other country that can do this,” Wang said, adding that any leader in another country would find the challenge very difficult.

“But China has been able to do this.”

The virus, coming on the back of a disruptive trade war between the United States and China, has again exposed underlying tensions on multiple fronts between the world’s two biggest economies.

It has also posed one of the toughest challenges for President Xi Jinping since he assumed power in 2013.

During the roughly 90-minute interview, on topics ranging from the coronavirus to Hong Kong, and the Middle East, Wang repeatedly pinned blame on Washington.

Beijing has criticized the United States in particular for taking drastic measures on coronavirus, which have included travel curbs on visitors from China. The United States was the first to announce it was evacuating citizens from Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the virus outbreak.

“Some countries have stepped up measures, including quarantine measures, which are reasonable and understandable, but for some countries they have overreacted, which has triggered unnecessary panic,” he said.

“I’m sure that those countries are reflecting on this as the situation evolves and the epidemic is gradually brought under further control,” he said. “They will gradually release such restrictions. Because at the end of the day, these countries need to interact with China.” 

The U.S. State Department and Treasury Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment, while the White House declined to comment.

Wang rejected the idea that China was not transparent enough in its initial handling of the outbreak. Top Communist Party officials in Wuhan and Hubei province, where the city is located, were sacked this week.

“From the beginning, we took a very open and transparent manner in releasing information to the international community’s cooperation on this effort,” he said, noting that fewer than 1% of global cases have been reported outside of China.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 64,000 people in China and killed more than 1,300.

“We’re not just defending the life, safety and health of Chinese citizens, but also making our contribution for global public health, and that should be recognized,” he said.

Beijing has urged countries to ease travel restrictions and resume flights after numerous airlines stopped flying to China.

“Only under the leadership of President Xi can we control this sudden epidemic, which has spread so quickly. This is not only to defend the health of the Chinese people, but also will prevent the rapid spread of this epidemic in the world,” he said.

“We have taken the most correct, the most rigorous and decisive measures to fight against the epidemic. Many measures went beyond international health regulations and the WHO recommendations,” Wang said.

‘IMMORAL’ TREATMENT OF HUAWEI

In the far-ranging interview, Wang said he did not understand why the United States was using its power and trying to get its allies to attack a private company like China’s Huawei [HWT.UL].

On Thursday, U.S. prosecutors accused Huawei of stealing trade secrets and helping Iran track protesters in its latest indictment against the Chinese firm, escalating the U.S. battle with the world’s largest telecoms gear maker.

The United States has been waging a campaign against Huawei, which it has warned could spy on customers for Beijing. Washington placed the company on a trade blacklist last year, citing national security concerns.

“We don’t know why this superpower country is using its state power, and moving its allies to attack Huawei, which is a private company,” Wang said.

“Why can’t a Chinese company succeed based on its own efforts? Why can’t America accept that other countries’ companies can also display their talent in the economy, in technology?” he said.

“Perhaps deep down, it doesn’t hope to see other countries develop. It doesn’t want to see that other countries can become big and strong. It even resorts to rumors to defame other countries’ companies,” he said.

He called U.S. attacks on Huawei “immoral” and said there was no credible evidence that the company has a so-called back door that harms U.S. security.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that U.S. officials believe Huawei can covertly access mobile phone networks around the world through “back doors” designed for use by law enforcement. Huawei denies the accusations.

PHASE 1 TRADE DEAL INTACT

Wang also said he does not see a need to revisit what was agreed in the Phase 1 trade deal reached with Washington, after questions have arisen as to whether China would be able to fulfill its commitments to make vast purchases of U.S. goods due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“As we implement the Phase 1 trade agreement, we will accumulate experience and then we can consider when we should start Phase 2. I think this is a reasonable approach,” he said.

Still, he decried U.S. curbs on movement of people between the two countries.

“Objectively, this will bring some difficulties to implementing this agreement,” he said.

Wang noted that U.S. President Donald Trump has praised Xi’s leadership in China’s battle to contain the virus, and that his administration has said it stands ready to spend up to $100 million to assist China and other countries affected by coronavirus.

(Reporting by Alessandra Galloni and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Huizhong Wu and Lusha Zhang in Beijing, and Alexandra Alper in Washington; Editing by Tony Munroe and Alistair Bell)