China’s rapid rise on the world stage hit a stumbling block in the form of Covid-19. Newsroom spoke to Helen Clark about how its handling of the pandemic will affect its status at home and abroad – and whether we should be worried about its response.

With the rest of New Zealand’s “team of five million”, former prime minister Helen Clark has been closely following the spread of Covid-19 throughout the world.

Unlike most of us, however, her experience in foreign affairs and global politics gives her a greater understanding of the areas in which we are ignorant – particularly when it comes to China, the origin of the virus. 

“As always, we are dealing with a country that isn’t transparent, so we don’t know what we don’t know, really.”

When, in 2008, Clark’s government approached Chinese officials to share a whistleblower’s information on the Sanlu infant formula scandal, she and her ministers formed the view that the country was in the dark “because in this kind of political system, people don’t want to be in a bad light with Beijing so they do not necessarily report anything up”.

“So I rate it as a real issue. When did Beijing know [about Covid-19]? Did it know three weeks before, did it know two weeks before, did it know a week before?”

Even when the highest reaches of Chinese officialdom agreed there was a significant public health risk associated with the virus, it took them another seven days to institute the Wuhan lockdown and other public health measures.

Once China did act, it acted decisively and authoritatively, she says – but it is the gaps up to that point that need to be filled in.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given her time with the United Nations, Clark feels the much-maligned World Health Organisation’s response has been unfairly targeted by those “who basically hate multilateral organisations anyway”.

“He said, ‘There is a narrow window of opportunity to avert a pandemic, but I just don’t seem to be being heard’.”

While it did take some time to confirm human-to-human transmission, that was because it lacked the evidence from China to make such a declaration.

The organisation also received ample criticism for failing to swiftly label Covid-19 a pandemic, but Clark says the term holds no official meaning within the WHO lexicon; instead, countries are meant to sit up and take notice when it declares a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’, or PHEIC, as it did on January 30.

In Geneva for global health engagements, Clark spoke to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at both a private and public event where he made his feelings clear.

“He said, ‘There is a narrow window of opportunity to avert a pandemic, but I just don’t seem to be being heard’…

“He used the ‘pandemic’ word, I believe, because he thought, ‘I’ve got to do something that’s going to jolt people’. It’s not that it had an official meaning or higher level of action from the WHO – it doesn’t – but it’s a word that when people hear it, it’s like, ‘Fire!’ ”

The WHO may not have criticised China for its initial response, but nor does any multilateral organisation criticise a member state when it lacks powers of coercion.

“You have to bite your tongue, because you have no power to make states do anything – you can only act with their cooperation.”

Helen Clark says Western nations have not covered themselves in glory in their response to Covid-19. Photo: Getty Images.

The Western world can hardly pat itself on the back either, Clark says, with the United States, United Kingdom and many others doing little if anything to prepare despite the scenes playing out in Asia.

“If we’re looking for some underlying issues here about who in the end had more successful responses, it was those who were actually closely watching what the WHO was saying, but who eventually realised … that you had to put the flu pandemic plan in the bottom drawer and deal with it as something that we’ve never dealt with before.”

Clark was Prime Minister during the 2002/03 SARS outbreak, and believes its relatively limited geographical spread allowed complacency to set in about the potential reach of a deadly virus.

“If we rewrite the record, wouldn’t we think that a major difference between 2003 and now is China’s global connectedness? When I was PM in 2003, it was nothing like the relationship that the West and the neighbourhood has with China today.

“There were almost no visitors except the official delegations, the trade connectivity was far less – you just didn’t have a Chinese middle class that can … get on a package tour and go to Paris for a week, or 10 days in New Zealand.”

While China is not entirely to blame for the spread of the virus, Clark says its international reputation has nonetheless suffered.

“That’s why you see China’s response is to try and say, ‘Well look what we’re doing, we’re putting $2 billion up to the WHO, we’re doing this, we’re doing that’.”

“The [US-China] trade war has had a depressing impact on the global economy; if the aggro moves into that sort of security and defence realm, then be afraid, be very afraid.”

But there is plenty more for it to do – most critically, providing genuine debt relief to the many lower-income countries to whom it acts as a major creditor.

“As we’ve seen in our own country, if the economy stops for four weeks and five days, a lot of people get pretty close to the line.

“Well, what if you’re Sierra Leone, what if you’re Lesotho? People get thrown into abject poverty.”

Clark says it is very much in China’s own interests to write off some debts, so the economies it relies on for raw commodities and as export markets do not collapse.

Then there is the complication of Great Power rivalry, an already strained relationship between the US and China put under further pressure by the pandemic and its origins.

“The trade war has had a depressing impact on the global economy; if the aggro moves into that sort of security and defence realm, then be afraid, be very afraid.”

That is one of the reasons she holds concerns about Beijing passing new national security laws giving it greater powers to crack down in Hong Kong, Covid-19 providing a useful smokescreen while the world is distracted.

Repositioning in a new world

While that may seem a distant problem to New Zealanders more focused on when the country will move to Level 1, Clark says there are some universal lessons Kiwis should take on board.

First among those is the need for greater diversification of export markets – somewhat ironic given Clark’s role in overseeing New Zealand’s free trade deal with China in 2008.

“Whether it’s in the export of goods or the export of services, whether they be tourism or education, don’t get too dependent on any one market – you don’t want to be a Mexico as vis a vis the US right? You have to broaden the base of everything.”

That may seem easier said than done to companies desperately trying to recover lost revenue from domestic shutdowns, but Clark says the pandemic could act as a genuinely transformative moment for countries, changing everything from environmental protections to support systems for the most vulnerable in society.

“Take Singapore, which was regarded as early success, but its response somehow forgot it had a million migrant workers living in not very good conditions – and whoops, the second wave went right through the dormitories where they are.”

The inclination to rush back to life as it was is understandable, but a mistake, Clark says, with her eponymous foundation already speaking to similar organisations within New Zealand about how to start a conversation that rises above the usual partisan politics.

“Regardless of who’s in government, governments need help – public service capacity is not what it was. And so I think what will be important at the political level across parties, is to be open to ideas and debate about how New Zealand could be repositioned.”

Helen Clark and Washington Post Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield will discuss China’s role in a post-Covid world in a webinar June 4. Click here for more details.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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