How China wrested control of the WHO

Part 1: Trust WHO?

Part 2: Who the hell is Tedros?


There is nothing new about nations or groups of nations gaining control of UN bodies in order to further their own interests.  For example, the US has tried to exercise control over the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to ensure it finds in Syria just what America wants it to find.  They managed to kick out a former OPCW director general when his approach conflicted with US plans to invade Iraq.

The US once dominated the WHO to such an extent that controversies led the Soviet Union to walk out, from 1949 to 1956.  When it rejoined, it cooperated with the US and the WHO to help eradicate smallpox.

With its growing power, China has been seeking to extend its own influence across many domains, and part of this effort has included a push to increase its control over traditionally Western-dominated, international agencies.  One of those it targeted was the World Health Organization.

Why the WHO?  This is asking the wrong question.  China is pushing its soft power everywhere, including by promoting its captive media, offering infrastructure loans through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and using its weight in institutions like the World Trade Organization.  There is nothing special about China’s growing influence over the WHO except that it has been unusually successful there.

In some cases, such as the BRI and the AIIB, China is seeking to sideline existing, Western-dominated institutions like the World Bank.  In the case of the WHO and other agencies, China has aimed at taking over the institution itself.

China seeks to control UN bodies in order to ensure their polices suit its own interests.  Of the 15 specialized UN agencies, four are now headed by Chinese nationals.

There are two main ways a nation may exert influence over a multilateral organization.  The first is by controlling its funding.  The second is to control who is appointed to it, especially its director general.  The United States has used both these approaches over the years.  China, being both poorer and more parsimonious that the West, has favoured the latter strategy.

It is much more efficient to exert influence over many small, corrupt Third World countries than it is to outspend the US and its allies in UN donations.  And if you’re searching for a handy, fifty-odd votes in a malleable continent, look no further than Africa.

China in Africa

China has been extending its soft power in Africa for some time now.  Before we list the ways, it is important to remember that this has not been primarily intended to get control of the WHO or other agencies.  China wants reliable sources of energy, minerals and agricultural products.  It wants to extend its hard power, especially its network of naval bases in the Indian Ocean.  In addition, China wants African support on various issues.  Control of the WHO was one goal among a crowd of others.

How does China domesticate all those African governments?

– China funds infrastructure in Africa, together with string-free loans and donations for other projects like building universities and the headquarters of the African Union. Other projects include sports stadiums, railways, highways, skyscrapers, and hydroelectric dams.  Unlike Western donors and lenders, the Chinese will not insist upon bothersome stakeholder assessments, institution building, or strict accounting standards.  African leaders know where their bread is buttered.

Many Chinese have moved to Africa as part of these projects, but their presence probably does not count as a form of influence.  In fact, it tends to cause friction.

– The Chinese have have established many Confucius Institutes.  These offer Chinese language courses to foreigners, kind of like the Alliance de Francaise, but they also defend CCP policy and can be used to coordinate spying and harassment of enemies, especially within universities.  They play a role in monitoring any open-mined Chinese students who go off the reservation while studying abroad.

– China has set up institutions like the China-Africa Think Tank Forum, which help to promote Chinese policy and influence African policy.  This is to counter the intellectual influence, if you could call it that, of the Western education of many African leaders and academics.

– China has also launched a TV channel in Africa, called Star Times.  Officially it is privately owned, but is clearly supported by the CCP given the praise it has received from CGTN, and the fact that it received funding from the Import-Export Bank of China that may have led Zambia into a debt trap.  In addition, both CGTN and Xinhua are putting down roots in Africa.  These organizations are explicitly tied to the CCP and are expected to push the Chinese propaganda.

– China has been bringing African officials to China for training, which has had the noticeable impact of making African policies look more Chinese in nature.  This is particularly so in Ethiopia, where heavy state involvement in the economy is favoured.

– Finally, China has been increasing its diplomatic presence in Africa, building massive new embassies with extremely high security.

An unintentional factor in China’s influence in Africa is that its energy and mineral-hungry economy makes it the main export market for almost all African countries.

Together, these initiatives and connections have been very successful.  Many Africans  viewed China warmly, until recently.  Where feelings are not so warm, leaders are nevertheless beholden to China for trade, ongoing infrastructure projects, or the debts that they have accrued.  African-style leadership is a patronage network.  The Big Man must keep the sugar coming to his supporters, or he will lose power.  At the moment, the sugar is coming from China.

How much influence does China have in Africa?  An insane amount.  Two examples will suffice to illustrate:

First, during a conference on blood diamonds held in Perth, Australia in 2017, African delegates hollered along with their Chinese counterparts to nosily disrupt the conference in order to get the Taiwanese observers kicked out.  Here is one of those charming Taiwanese infographics about the incident:

If you think the Africans might had some principled objection of their own to Taiwan’s presence, please stop reading this blog.

The second, more recent incident shows how much China’s influence has grown since then.  The Chinese government was deflecting blame to foreigners, as usual, this time for new virus outbreaks, so laowai were being mistreated.  Common problems included restaurants, shopping centres, and even hospitals refusing entry to anyone who did not look and sound Chinese.

After a Nigerian tried to escape quarantine by biting a Chinese nurse’s face, life got particularly tough for for Africans.  Venues like McDonald’s were openly banning blacks, and Africans were being kicked out of their homes and rounded up for quarantine at their own cost, even if they had not left China, and even if they had tested negative to Covid-19.

Many, many videos showing blacks being maltreated quickly permeated throughout Africa.  It seems there was a downside to all those Huawei networks and cheap, Chinese phones.

African diplomats, normally obsequious to their benefactors, finally demanded that China cut it out.  Chinese officials, accustomed to deciding what is true and what is not, claimed that there was no mistreatment of Africans.  That didn’t work in the face of mountains of contrary evidence.

China’s immense weight became apparent shortly after, however, when the African protests promptly stopped.  China claimed that this ‘discrimination’ business was all US hype to break the deep and meaningful connection between China and Africa.  African leaders backed down.  One can imagine what stern words they were told behind closed doors.  They now accept that Africans may be mistreated in China, or in Africa, while any Chinese citizen not treated like ubermensch anywhere in the world will attract a fierce and costly CCP backlash.

Africans were reminded of their place in this ‘relationship’.

Ordinary Africans, especially the young, are disgusted by this.  However, they are not in charge, and they are not the ones receiving the rivers of gold that flow from the East.  As Chinese rulers have long known, it is good to be both loved and feared, but if you must choose one, fear is best.  In this case, it is African leaders’ fear that they may lose Chinese markets and sugar, which would damage their personal wealth, or even result in them losing power.  In Africa, that can mean a grisly end.

China pays and the Big Men play the tune.

To put all this in perspective, imagine (if you are not African) that your country’s delegates were commanded by China to scream like banshees and make an embarrassing spectacle of themselves whenever Taiwan is represented at an international conference.  Imagine your government backing down and making no protest while your citizens are being specifically targeted by the Chinese government for official harassment.

Even some countries noted for their dependence on China, such as Australia, would not stoop so low.  This shows how intensely China dominates the African elite.

China’s growing influence in the WHO

Before we come to Dr. Tedros, we need some context to show China’s growing influence in the WHO leading up to his appointment.  The previous director, Margaret Chan, was once the Director of Health in Hong Kong.  She was accused of initially playing down the bird flu outbreak.  During the SARS outbreak, the HK government criticized her for being too slow to react and too willing to believe nonsense data coming from the mainland.

Ringing a few bells?

As head of the WHO, Chan started the movement towards the WHO’s recognition of Chinese traditional medicine (TCM) in its global medical compendium, which helps Chinese exports of cruel and unscientific animal products and enhances their prestige.  China now claims 85% of its corona patients are being treated with TCM, including injections of bear bile.  They are generously passing on this technology to other countries.

During her tenure, Chan also raised eyebrows by praising the North Korean health system and commending the Norks for their country’s lack of . . . obesity.

Obviously, Maggie answered to China.

The CCP could not maintain their influence over the WHO by forever appointing ethnic Chinese to the role.  When it came time for a new director general, they needed a suitable puppet.  This time, for the first time, the director general would be chosen by an open vote among all WHO member states.  Those hard-won African relationships were about to pay for themselves.

Enter Dr. Tedros.

To be continued on Thursday.

Part 4: How does Tedros manipulate the WHO?

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