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China pledges additional $30 million funding for World Health Organization

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, left, with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Jan. 28. (Pool New/Reuters)
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SEOUL — China has committed $30 million to the World Health Organization one week after President Trump halted U.S. funding to the U.N. agency that has emerged as a battleground for influence between the two powers.

Trump last week announced his intention to freeze U.S. contributions after slamming the global body as having “failed in its basic duty” to respond quickly to the coronavirus outbreak, because of deference to Beijing.

In announcing the donation Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang defended the WHO and said the agency under the leadership of Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been “actively fulfilling its duties and upholding an objective, scientific and impartial stance.”

With the gift, Geng said, China was “defending the ideals and principle of multilateralism and upholding the status and authority of the United Nations.”

U.N. officials, including Tedros, have asked Trump to reconsider last week’s decision, which could be reversed after 60 to 90 days, for the sake of global public health in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic and “to save lives.”

But a reversal appears distant after administration officials doubled down on their public criticism of the organization this week. National security adviser Robert C. O’Brien called the WHO “a bit of a propaganda tool” for Beijing, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined in a Fox News interview to rule out the possibility of the United States seeking Tedros’s removal as a condition for resuming funding.

Trump’s move against the WHO is latest twist in a shifting policy on China

The barrage of U.S. criticism and the support from China highlighted the bitter lines that have been drawn across the WHO, a body that has not been at the center of such intense political controversy in recent memory.

Pressure could further mount on the organization at its May member meeting, when Australia is expected to push for an international investigation of the pandemic’s origins, a probe that China has fiercely opposed.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has appealed for support from France, Germany and the United States to press for an inquiry, and he could seek to expand the WHO’s remit so its inspectors have the power to immediately enter a country in the event of an outbreak, Reuters reported Thursday.

“If you are going to be a member of a club like the World Health Organization, there should be obligations and responsibilities attached,” Morrison told reporters.

Geng, the Chinese spokesman, said the proposal to form a WHO inquiry amounted to “political manipulation and interference in the international collaboration” to counter the pandemic. “Since the outbreak of the epidemic, China has always maintained an open, transparent and responsible attitude, disclosed information and cooperated with the outside world,” he said.

Central to the U.S. criticism of the WHO has been its handling of the outbreak in the early weeks of January, when it echoed Chinese statements that the coronavirus showed limited human-to-human transmission. WHO experts, who did not enter China until mid-February, later praised China’s medical response and avoided addressing the performance of Taiwan, which has been shut out of the body at the behest of China, further compounding the accusations of its pro-Beijing bias.

But U.S. allegations that the WHO withheld information during the most crucial period in January have been undercut by the presence of American researchers at WHO headquarters in Geneva. They were reporting real-time developments in China back to the United States, The Washington Post reported this week.

China’s $30 million donation — its second such contribution in as many months — is significant relative to its past giving but small in the context of the organization’s roughly $5.6 billion biennial budget, which consists of membership dues plus a much larger category of voluntary gifts.

During the 2018-2019 two-year period, the U.S. share came to about $893 million in assessed dues and voluntary contributions, while China paid $86 million, according to publicly available WHO data.

Despite its status as the world’s No. 2 economic power, China has historically contributed far less than donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Kingdom and Germany.

In early March, China announced a $20 million donation to the WHO to fight the coronavirus as it unfurled a worldwide diplomatic and propaganda push, seeking to cast itself as leader in the worldwide recovery by sharing medical equipment and expertise.

Amid the self-promotion, Chinese diplomats have rejected questions about their culpability in their handling of the outbreak when it emerged in Wuhan and instead have questioned whether the pathogen in fact came from the United States. That charge, part of a coordinated disinformation campaign, provoked a furious response from Washington.

In recent weeks, Chinese officials have sharply dialed back the fringe narrative that pinned the virus on the United States, while U.S. officials have been more openly floating the possibility, without firm evidence, that the pathogen may have escaped from a biological laboratory in Wuhan.

In a major piece Thursday, the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, cited a WHO spokesperson as saying the coronavirus was not lab-manufactured.

“The new pneumonia outbreak is a natural disaster, a sudden attack by unknown viruses on humans,” the editorial said. “The fallacies and conspiracy theories that accompany the global epidemic are not only not helpful for countries to fight the epidemic, but also breed mistrust, and eventually dissolve global joint epidemic efforts and disrupt the overall world solidarity.”

Trump announces cutoff of new funding for the WHO over pandemic response

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