On February 13, 2020, China's ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai had an interview with NPR Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep on fighting against Novel Coronavirus outbreak, China-US relations and more.
Part of the interview was aired on February 14 and a full transcript was published on NPR's website.
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
Steve Inskeep: We have an editor who closely follows China, who regards this as China's worst crisis in years, because it is a health crisis, but also an economic crisis and a political crisis. How severe is this, in your view, compared to other crises that China has faced in recent years?
Ambassador Cui: This is a very big challenge to us. And I think in a sense, this is a very big challenge to the entire international community. As we develop, as our economy grows, how (do) we take care of public health needs, how do we respond to epidemics like this? So this is a challenge for the entire international community and for any government. Somebody is saying that this is (an) unprecedented challenge, and the response is also unprecedented. I think this is quite true. And we are doing utmost to contain and control the virus and provide treatment to the people and reduce its impact on economic and social activities. We are still doing whatever we can do right now.
Steve Inskeep: Has this become a test of the effectiveness of China's governing system?Ambassador Cui: As I said, this could be a big challenge to any government, to any governance system.Steve Inskeep: But it's your government that is facing the test.
Ambassador Cui: Actually, you see, we're at the forefront. Actually long before this outbreak, we already set a goal for ourselves, which is the modernization of our governance system and governance capacity. We believe this should be the overall goal for our reform process. And this epidemic has proved that we have set the right goal. So we have to do our best to reach that goal. But this is an ongoing process, you see, there will always be new challenges, and we always have to make new progress. We should never stop. I'm sure we'll learn more from this outbreak and do a better job.
Steve Inskeep: Set the right goal, you said. And then there's the question of what went wrong that you would like to correct. I know two top officials in Hubei Province, the center of this outbreak, have been relieved of their duties. What went wrong?
Ambassador Cui: First of all, this is a new virus. Actually, nobody knew it very well at the beginning. So there was a process for people to get to know more about it, to identify the virus, to know its qualities, the transmission routes. All this has taken some time. And for everybody, I think there is some kind of a learning process.
Steve Inskeep: I understand health officials will say that China's response has not necessarily been that slow, but something went wrong because two officials were removed. What went wrong?
Ambassador Cui: Everything we are doing now, including all these personnel changes, has one goal--to respond to the call of the people and meet the needs of the people. This is the only goal for everything we are doing now. So naturally, under such special circumstances, people who can do the job better should be given the responsibility to do it. And this is very heavy responsibility.
Steve Inskeep: Is part of it, that there was so much economic damage and also so much public unrest that your government needed to show that it was responding to public unhappiness.
Ambassador Cui: I think it's only natural that some people would be panicking under the circumstances. So we always have, as one of our basic principles, openness and transparency. We believe openness and transparency will give people more confidence, will give them more awareness about the virus, what are the real risks and how to prevent them. And we are providing, you see, all the figures, the numbers on a daily basis, just to make people reassured that we're doing our most to confront it. And this will certainly help us to dispel any fake news, rumors or what people call pseudoscience.
Steve Inskeep: Reassigning the officials, that was part of the reassurance?
Ambassador Cui: As I said, we are doing everything possible to meet the needs of the people. So anybody who can do the job better should be given the opportunity to do it.
Steve Inskeep: Because you mentioned openness and transparency, I need to ask about Dr. Li Wenliang, who was a doctor who sounded the alarm late last year about the coronavirus, was detained by the authorities and made to retract what he had said. This get(s) even more attention after he himself died of the virus. Why was he detained and made to retract what he had said?
Ambassador Cui: No, first of all, he was not detained. I think somebody talked to him, but he was not detained. Otherwise he could not be working in the hospital.
Steve Inskeep: He was questioned right? Then you're saying he was questioned, not detained. Is that correct?
Ambassador Cui: You see, he was a doctor. He was a good doctor. We really, all of us feel really sad for his death. He was a devoted doctor. He was a good professional. And he saw some coming danger from the specific cases he dealt with. As a doctor, he was alerted. Not everybody quite understood and appreciated him at the very beginning, because this is a new virus. Nobody knew anything about it.
Steve Inskeep: You're saying that's why he was made to retract what he had said, because people didn't understand what he was revealing.
Ambassador Cui: Yeah. You see, as a doctor, he could find things from specific cases. But for the government to make any alert, any announcement, they need more evidence. They have to base themselves on scientific analysis. All this will take some time. But now of course, with the benefit of hindsight, everybody knows that Dr. Li was right. And he continued to work in the hospital. It was very tragic for us that he, in his work, lost his life. But I think he was one of the good doctors. There are tens of thousands of them still working at the frontline, still risk(ing) their own lives to save other people.
Steve Inskeep: Does the government owe his family an apology for having made him reverse what he revealed at the beginning?
Ambassador Cui: I think that the city government made some announcement at his passing away. They expressed their condolences. And there was such an expression of condolences and support to the family all over China.
Steve Inskeep: It seems from the amount of social media criticism that appeared in China on Weibo and other sites after his death, that people saw the specific story of Dr. Li as a symptom of a problem with China's system of a lack of openness, of a lack of transparency. Does this story reveal a problem with openness and transparency in China?
Ambassador Cui: Actually, I think Dr. Li is also part of the Chinese system. He's not alone. As I said there are tens of thousands, even millions of healthcare workers, community workers still working on the very frontline. Dr. Li was just one of them. He was an outstanding doctor, and he is part of the system. Maybe people are not aware, he was a member of the Communist Party.
Steve Inskeep: So you would like the Party to have credit for what he called out. I can respect that, but does it suggest that...
Ambassador Cui: I think he is a good member of the Party.
Steve Inskeep: Does this suggest, though, that the government that he served under was less open to a warning than should have been?
Ambassador Cui: You see, we believe in openness, but openness does not mean that you could say anything under any circumstances. The government has to respond in a responsible way. Whatever action the government is taking, whatever announcement or alert it is issuing, you have to base yourself on sufficient evidence and science.
Steve Inskeep: One of the social media statements that was made in recent days after Dr. Li's death, in this moment of unusual criticism of China from within China, was a response to an official in Hubei Province acknowledging they don't really know the scale of the problem, they don't truly know how many people have been infected with coronavirus, and someone wrote on social media, it's been over a month, and finally a truthful sentence. That suggests that the government has lost some credibility with the people. Do you think that's true?
Ambassador Cui: I'm not in a position to explain everything on the social media. And I don't think I should do that. People have their freedom to express their views, but I'm not responsible for their views.
Steve Inskeep: I understand. But can you answer that question? Do you think that your government has lost some credibility with its people?
Ambassador Cui: When they talk about government, there are different levels of government in China, like in the United States. You have the central government, you have provincial government, you have city government, you have village people. So you cannot talk in very general terms about the government. Sometimes government at a particular level may make some mistakes. This is possible. This is, I think, this is only natural all over the world. But you cannot say the whole government in China is making mistakes. This is not true.
Steve Inskeep: In this instance, are you suggesting that local officials may have made mistakes, but the national officials did something different from them?
Ambassador Cui: I think the officials all over the world could make mistakes, including here in the United States.
Steve Inskeep: What role is President Xi playing now...?
Ambassador Cui: A leading role, he is taking such a strong leadership.
Steve Inskeep: In what way?Ambassador Cui: He set up the central government mechanism to fight this virus. And he made (an inspection) tour in Beijing, visited communities, encouraged people and gave people good hope. Without his strong leadership, the nationwide efforts would not be that strong. And he also talked with foreign leaders, many of them, including President Trump on the phone. They had a very good conversation on the phone last week.
Steve Inskeep: Is China prepared to welcome American health experts into China to help with this?
Ambassador Cui: Of course we welcome them. We welcome experts of all countries to come to help us. But you see, first of all, the World Health Organization is sponsoring such expert groups. They have already sent an advance team to China. They are working in China. Secondly, people have to understand right now people in China are so preoccupied with their work to combat this virus, so we have to have some ordered manner to have experts from other countries. And also there's a real risk that they might be exposed to the virus. We have to take good protection of them.
Steve Inskeep: Will American experts from the centers for disease control specifically be let into the country?
Ambassador Cui: I think they have recommended a list of names to the WHO and this is all under the consideration in our communication with the WHO.
Steve Inskeep: But not yet that.
Ambassador Cui: I don't know the latest progress, but the WHO is doing a good work in this regard. They have an advance team already in China, making all the necessary arrangements. And actually some American experts, (including) a professor from Columbia University, Professor Lipkin already visited China, and he is now back in New York. He has been working with the Chinese counterparts for many years ever since SARS.
Steve Inskeep: When Americans look at China's effort to face this crisis, it is natural, I think, for some to compare the U.S. system to China’s system and ask how things would be different if the crisis were here. Americans might say it is impressive that China can shut down an entire city to try to stop the spread of a virus. That would not very likely happen in the United States. But they will also argue that the American system is more open and would be a little more free about sharing information and trying to get reliable information to the public. That is the way that an American might look at strengths and weaknesses of China’s system compared to the United States. How would you make that comparison?
Ambassador Cui: Well, as a diplomat, normally I don't compare the government of China and the government of the United States. But you can have your own views because you also have had things like disasters, emergencies here, like Hurricane Katrina some years ago, and you did not shut down the city, but there was total disorder in the city. I visited Louisiana. People told me all kinds of stories. So we are shutting down some of the cities, especially Wuhan, to stop the transmission of the virus, to protect more people. We are doing all this of course at a high cost. But we are doing this in the larger interests of the entire world. If we fail to stop the virus, it could spread to other countries. Then this would cause an international crisis. So this is, I believe, a real example of one-for-all, all-for-one situation. We are doing this for the world. And we appreciate that the world is helping us.
Steve Inskeep: You mentioned the high cost. There is a high economic cost, among other things, for China to shutting down major cities. Is there a point at which China's government might have to decide the cost is too high? That this is a disease, it's endemic, some people will die, but you need to reopen cities and resume economic activity?
Ambassador Cui: First of all, people's wellbeing, their health, their safety, their life are the most important thing for us. So we'll do our best to protect people's wellbeing, in a sense, at whatever cost. At the same time, people also need economic development. They have to have the economy grow and more normal social life. So we are also trying our best to restore normal economic and social activity.Steve Inskeep: How soon might that happen?
Ambassador Cui: It will depend on how soon we can control the virus.
Steve Inskeep: So you're going to continue this effort until the virus is controlled. There is not a point at which you would say, this is just too costly. We need to go on.
Ambassador Cui: I think, we are working on two fronts. On the one front, we are doing our utmost, and this is a nationwide effort to fight the virus. At the same time, we're doing whatever we can, to the extent we can, to maintain some normal economic and social life. For instance, people's daily necessities have to be provided. And some of the companies and factories have to resume their work after the Lunar New Year holidays and we are looking at when and how schools could be reopened.
Steve Inskeep: Shortly before we spoke, Chinese authorities dramatically increased their reported number of coronavirus cases, which was an adjustment because of the way that the counting is done, not necessarily an increase in the number of cases. But that leads to a question. Are you confident that you now know a reliable number of how many cases there are and have an idea of the full scope of the problem?
Ambassador Cui: I think it's extremely important to have reliable numbers. That's why we're updating the numbers every day. And as you said, there was a dramatic increase, but because of the change of the diagnosis criteria. This is absolutely necessary. To use the words of some experts: “This is an attempt to widen the net”. So everybody who needs, who require(s) medical treatment will be included, will be covered. That will help us to get to the bottom.
Steve Inskeep: Do you now have the bottom? Do you feel confident that you...
Ambassador Cui: I think this is a question for the specialist to answer, but I certainly hope that we'll get to the bottom very soon.
Steve Inskeep: Do you think that you might have this crisis in hand in a matter of days, weeks, months? How long might it take?
Ambassador Cui: For me, it's the sooner, the better. But it would depend on our efforts, whether we are working in the right direction, whether the methods, the tools we are using are effective. But we are doing our utmost. I have confidence in our scientists, in our doctors and in our medical workers.
Steve Inskeep: Have the broader strains in U.S.-China relations made it more difficult for the two countries to cooperate on this issue?
Ambassador Cui: I think clearly, there's a need for the two countries to cooperate, because this is a challenge to the entire international community. In the phone call between President Trump and President Xi, they agree that our two countries should really work closely together to combat this virus. And we appreciate very much the support and assistance given to us by American people, American businesses, American non-governmental institutions, and many others.
Steve Inskeep: Do you think that collaboration is the same despite the difficulty in relations overall?
Ambassador Cui: I think as far as people-to-people cooperation is concerned, I don't see any difference. People-to-people cooperation is still very effective and very genuine. We are so impressed by the goodwill of the American people. But, there's a big but. For some politician(s) here in this country, maybe for some people in the media, I'm sorry to say that, because you're also from the media, they are not being so helpful. Some are trying to take advantage of other people's suffering. I don't think this is a very good thing.Steve Inskeep: What's an example of what do you mean?
Ambassador Cui: You could read the media, and you'll find out.
Steve Inskeep: Wilbur Ross, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, made a comment about the coronavirus the other day. And he said he didn't want in any way to be happy about the virus. But he said, (and I) quote “gives business another thing to consider when deciding on their supply chains.” I understood him to mean American businesses have another reason to think about going somewhere other than China.
Ambassador Cui: After his remarks, I've read a lot of comments from American media, from American economists. They have expressed their views. So I have nothing to add.Steve Inskeep: Which views do you mean?
Ambassador Cui: What kinds of views? As far as I know, many people disagree.
Steve Inskeep: With him making that statement.
Ambassador Cui: Yes, of course.Steve Inskeep: He of course is talking in a broader sense about the idea of decoupling, about the U.S. making its economy much less intertwined with China. Do you believe that's happening, whether you would like it to or not?
Ambassador Cui: I don't think that should happen, and I don't think that could happen, because we are the two largest economies in the world. We are so interconnected, so interdependent. This interdependence has worked in the interests of both countries. Both economies, both peoples have benefited a great deal from such growing economic ties. Why should anybody try to cut them off to have this so-called “decoupling”?
Steve Inskeep: Does this mean that the Trump administration's efforts to, for example, push back against Huawei or other Chinese companies, or get American companies to turn to Vietnam, that those efforts ultimately are not going to succeed in your view?
Ambassador Cui: The good news is that we have concluded the phase one trade agreement. This is evidence that there's intention on both sides to solve our economic problem and maintain and develop our economic relations. There's a good attempt on both sides. At the same time, I think people have to follow the economic and technological logic. They cannot do anything against the logic. For American businesses, for American companies, they have to weigh the pros and cons. They have to aim at the most efficient allocation of resources and their production. They have to follow the law of economics, not any wish of any politician.
(Source: website of Chinese embassy in the US)