The Chinese government, while congratulating itself on its extremely “extraordinary” success in handling the COVID-19 pandemic and the quick recovery of its economy, is attempting to control and channel an investigation by the World Health Organization into the origin of the virus, first reported in Wuhan in December 2019.

While much of the world sees 2020 as an annus horribilis — a horrible year — in China’s assessment it was a wonderful year. As the official Xinhua News Agency said in a New Year’s Day commentary, 2020 was “an extraordinary year in history that saw the COVID-19 pandemic bringing an unprecedented challenge to mankind as well as a fast-evolving international architecture” and, as 2021 begins, “China is standing on a new historical starting point.”

That is to say, China’s position in the world has been much elevated as a result of the pandemic, despite criticism that its early missteps and cover-ups made possible the spread of the virus around the world.

China’s new status is in line with the latest projection by the Center for Economics and Business Research in the United Kingdom, which now expects the Chinese economy to overtake that of the United States in 2028, five years earlier than originally expected.

To ensure that the party’s assessment of itself is shared by the rest of the world, China has gone to great lengths to ensure that the investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, which enters a new stage this month with the arrival in China of a 10-member international team, doesn’t poke among the embers and uncover anything embarrassing for China.

As of Jan. 3, WHO has not announced when the team will arrive in China, its length of stay or its itinerary. Presumably, these are all to be decided by Beijing. What is known is that its members will be subject to a 14-day quarantine after arrival.

China strenuously opposed the idea of a probe when Australia called for an independent inquiry. However, support was widespread and the World Health Assembly — the decision-making body of the World Health Organization — last May unanimously adopted a resolution “to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts … to reduce the risk of similar events. …”

Although the mission is couched entirely in scientific concepts — to identify the animal source of the virus that jumped into a human being — any close look at what China did in those days is politically sensitive to China, which at that time had tried to cover up, to deny and to delay. An advance WHO team in July didn’t even get to Wuhan and had to spend its first two weeks under quarantine.

China has sought to divert attention from Wuhan and has played up reports that the coronavirus had been found in waste water in such countries as Spain and Italy before the Wuhan outbreak.

Hua Chunying, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a news conference Nov. 30 said that worldwide reports show “the virus broke out at multiple locations worldwide, which requires international research and cooperation by scientists across the globe.”

While China has accepted that the WHO will begin its investigation in Wuhan, the global health body said in an agreement with Beijing that “the global origin tracing work is … not bound to any location and may evolve geographically as evidence is being generated, and hypotheses evolve.”

Beginning the inquiry in Wuhan is vital from the WHO’s standpoint because that is where the first cases were reported. Presumably, that is where a virus jumped from an animal into a human being, something known as a spillover event. While the virus is believed to have originated in bats in Yunnan — more than 1,800 kilometers from Wuhan — there is likely to have been an intermediary animal that carried the virus from a bat and passed it on to a human. The hunt now is on for that intermediary.

The Chinese campaign at obfuscation, while invoking science, is clearly driven by politics. China is out to preserve the gains that it made in the last year by successfully controlling the coronavirus and being the first major country to return to growth.

President Xi Jinping, in his New Year address, pointed to the country’s growth, despite the virus. China, he said confidently, “is the first major economy to achieve growth,” which he said would reach 100 trillion RMB per year, or $15 trillion.

With China closing in on its goal of surpassing the United States, it is unlikely to allow the international team of experts to uncover anything embarrassing in its search that might jeopardize China’s hard-won political and economic gains.

[bio]Frank Ching is a U.S. journalist based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on China-related issues.

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