Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the US, took an interview on April 3 with Ian Bremmer at Gzero World. Ian Bremmer is the president and founder of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
This interview has been broadcast on various platforms of PBS. Below are some excerpts from the interview.
Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the US, takes an interview on April 3 with Ian Bremmer at Gzero World. (Screenshots by Embassy of China in US)
Ian Bremmer: The US and China now have a series of very significant challenges to work on, even getting beyond this phase one trade deal implementation. What's the nature of your bilateral relations been with America? Would you say it's been suitably open? Has it been at the right level? Has there been enough of it? Are we building a level of trust? And how would you describe it?
Cui Tiankai: I don't think I could describe all this in one sentence or even a few sentences. This is such a complex and comprehensive relationship. But fortunately at the top level, our two presidents have maintained good communication between them. Just last week, President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump had another phone call, and it was very long, very constructive phone call. They agreed that our two countries should really work together. This is the time for solidarity and cooperation.
As far as we are concerned in the embassy, we are doing basically three things, maybe more than three. First, we have to facilitate cooperation between our two countries to combat the virus, to contain the pandemic and to save people's lives. Whether it's about medical supplies, or about technical cooperation between the CDCs, research institutions, we in the embassy are doing our best to facilitate such communication and coordination between us. Actually, last Sunday, our two CDCs had another video conference between themselves of a very technical nature.
Second, as agreed by the two presidents and as agreed by the leaders of the G20 at a special summit, we have been really making good efforts to stabilize global markets, boost global economic growth, and protect people's jobs and livelihoods. This is, I think, one of the priorities for us.
Then maybe as important as all these things for me and for the embassy, honestly, we have to make sure that we have a supportive public opinion for cooperation between our two countries. This is maybe as difficult as the previous two, but this is crucial.
In addition to all this, we have to take care of the overseas Chinese here, the students, and my responsibility would also include to take good care of my colleagues in the embassy and their families.
Ian Bremmer: There is a lot on your plate. No question. There're so many things I want to ask you about. Maybe I will start broadly, about the fact that China has, of course, been looking down the barrel of the most serious crisis that we've experienced since World War II. You started with the initial explosion. We're now facing it in the United States and about to see the kind of numbers that we never thought we would have to. Tell us a little bit to start. How you think China looks right now domestically in terms of the response to the virus? What does it feel like for you when you're talking to the Chinese?
Cui Tiankai: I think maybe everybody in the world was caught quite unprepared by this pandemic, by this virus, because this is a new type of virus. Very few people, I don't think anybody knew anything about it just a few months ago. So it was a painful process of discovering more, learning more about this virus and knowing how to deal with it. I think this is a challenge for all of us. We are one of the first to handle this critical situation. And we made tremendous efforts at a very high cost.
Now things are getting better in China. We have very few cases. We still have about 3,000 cases, confirmed cases. People are still in serious condition, but at least we know how to treat them much better than before. So we're trying very hard to prevent any so-called "second wave" of the confirmed cases. And we are making great efforts to restart the economic engine, to restore things to normal economic and social activity. This is a tremendous task, but at the same time, we are fully aware that we cannot succeed all by ourselves. We have to contribute to international efforts, international cooperation, globally, to combat this virus, because unless we have global success in containing and treating this virus, no country will be safe, including China, including the United States. So we are working very hard on all these fronts.
Ian Bremmer: You had a longer experience now responding to this crisis than any other country in the world. What advice, if any, would you give to the American government in what we need to do going forward? As a consequence, the lessons that you've learned?
Cui Tiankai: I don't think I can give any professional advice to anybody in terms of public health, because I'm not specialist in public health. But I think what we have learned from our experience and from the experience of other countries is that we really have to put people's lives and health first. This is the most important thing for us to do. And we should do it at any cost. We have to save lives, to protect people's health, especially the more vulnerable groups, old people, people with underlying diseases, and maybe poor people in many countries. We have to make this our top priority at any cost.
Number two, we really have to enhance international cooperation. We really have to reject any attempt at taking political advantage of other people's sufferings. Unfortunately, there are still elements here, maybe elsewhere in the world, who are making such an attempt.
We have to work together and firmly reject all such attempts. Then in the long run, I think we should draw the proper lessons from this pandemic. You see, for the last few years, so many people were talking about strategic rivalry among the major powers, the so-called "Thucydides' trap", and so on and so forth. But very few people anticipated that such an invisible virus has made such a big impact on all of us. So I think people have to give serious thinking to what is a real threat for all of us. What is our real enemy? And where lies our common interest? How we should respond globally together to such global challenges?
Ian Bremmer: Are you worried? We live with globalization, we live with a just-in-time supply chain, which is very efficient, and which China is a core component of, but that means if anything goes wrong that you're vulnerable. And you certainly see a lot of efforts as a consequence to move to localization to produce a lot more products where the consumers are. That has the potential to create much less mutual interdependence between the US and the Chinese economy. How do you respond to the concerns about the just-in-time supply chain and what companies need to do to ensure that they are less vulnerable to these sorts of sudden shocks?
Cui Tiankai: I think this is something our economists really have to look at. But I believe, you see, so far the virus has moved much faster than any shift in the supply chain. You have to recognize this. And globalization, the process of globalization was driven by economic efficiency and technology. I don't think it was just designed by some people. It was driven by these objective forces. I don't think we can really stop these forces. These are more fundamental forces in the world. And I can understand that now people want to have more diversification of supply chain. So when they are faced with a crisis, they could still have supplies.
I think this is understandable. And this should be done, but maybe only to some extent, because it's quite clear you cannot confine everything within national borders. This pandemic proves again this is a global challenge. The virus recognizes no national boundaries, no difference in political systems, in culture, in religion whatsoever. It attacks all of us the same way. So there is an even greater need for closer and more effective global cooperation. So if there's anything wrong with the past process of globalization, I think we have to make it more open, inclusive, with more equitable distribution of benefits for everybody. Take care of the weaker people, the more vulnerable people, the poorer people. That's something we have to do to correct the past weakness or deficiency of globalization. But still, this pandemic has proved, again, we are so closely connected globally. So when we are faced with such serious global challenges, how can we make ourselves more divided rather than united?
Ian Bremmer: Now you've said a few times already. So I understand this is a clear priority for you that it's a global crisis. We need global cooperation to respond. Now, so far we've not seen much global cooperation. The reality is that the G7 has met a couple of times, said it's going to monitor the situation. The G20 has met and said it's going to monitor the situation. We don't see a lot of coordination, either political, economic, monetary or on the healthcare side. We see individual countries responding individually. What do you think concretely the Chinese can do to help facilitate a more international response?
Cui Tiankai: I think you're right. Of course we have to recognize the G20 had a good special summit, also a video call, and they have taken a number of good decisions. Now the task is to implement these decisions. But still, I think, the current situation and the current deficiency in global governance, I hope, will make people give more serious thinking to your idea of this Gzero. We don't have a very good functioning global governance so far, whether for the global economy or for global public health. I think people really have to make serious efforts to think about what kind of global governance we should be building. What should we aim at?
You see, I think we have had a number of crises in this 21st century, maybe starting with the terrorist attack 9/11, then the financial crisis, now this COVID-19 virus. The security challenges, the financial instability, now public health. If we can still call this a wakeup call, I think we should have woken up long time ago, but still, if we have not started yet, we have to start real efforts to build a good international governance system for the 21st century, for the future. But I think that all would depend on what we aim at. If we still want to build some international governance system based on a particular political model or with the dominance of one or two particular countries, I don't think we can succeed. If we aim at a new system of international governance that is open, inclusive, that is based on mutual respect among all countries, on the full recognition of the diversity of culture, civilization, political system, economic system, if we can do this, then I think all the things are ready for us to build a new and effective international governance system. We have to make the right choice now.
Ian Bremmer: Do you think, I mean, obviously, we see coming out of this crisis, China's economy is rebounding the fastest. China is critical for the distribution of medical supplies and personnel. Do you see China playing a fundamentally different role on the global stage? Do you see China emerging as a global leader in a way that hasn't before on the back of this crisis? And if you do, is that an intentional strategy? Do you see this as more of a reactive response? Do you see this as the desire of the Chinese government to say, this is the moment when China should lead.
Cui Tiankai: If we could have our preference, certainly we don't want to see this moment, because this is a huge crisis for all of us. So what is driving our action right now is our understanding that we're all part of the community. We have to help others, because nobody could be safe if others are still threatened. We have a clear understanding of this. So we are doing our best to help others just to save lives. And in a sense, it is also helping ourselves. China cannot be safe from the virus if all the other countries are still struggling. So we are helping others. That's true. But in a sense, we are also helping ourselves by helping others. And I don't think our aim is to be the so-called "leader of the world,” because we never believe that there should be a leader for the world. We believe in equality of all the countries. Of course, some countries are more powerful, more capable of doing things and should make bigger contributions. And we're ready to do that. But still, what we really want to have is mutual respect, true respect with each other, and full recognition that differences among countries will continue to exist. We should see these differences as a source of diversity, complementarity rather than confrontation or conflicts.
Ian Bremmer: What kind of response have you been getting from countries around the world? We've seen very active public diplomacy, very active humanitarian support, especially in Europe, obviously, key allies of the United States. What kind of response and reaction concretely have you been getting from those governments?
Cui Tiankai: I think people welcome our help, of course, and we are trying our best to deliver some technical assistance, some medical supplies, and share with them our own experience of dealing with this virus. But we also make it clear what we have done in China is based on China's conditions, on China's circumstances. For instance, we have such a huge population. Many other countries don't have such a huge population. We have such a density of population in some of the big cities. So there are things that we are doing in China, which work for China, they may not be very suitable for other countries. So we keep telling people this: you have to develop a whole strategy based on your own conditions that would work for your own country. But as far as technical and medical assistance is concerned, we are ready to provide that.
Ian Bremmer: Are there any lessons that the Chinese government has learned from the early missteps that were made in responding to the coronavirus?
Cui Tiankai: Now let me tell you, some of the things that have been reported in the media here or claimed by politicians here are just not facts. So let me try to give you some facts. You mentioned this doctor, Li Wenliang. He was a great doctor. He was a great person. It's so unfortunate that he passed away. He was, by profession, he was an eye doctor. He was not a specialist on this kind of virus, you see. But even before him… of course Dr. Li did raise some alarm among his colleagues, among his medical colleagues. He did not intend to make it public, but somehow his message got out.
But even before him, there was a doctor, who was a lady in Wuhan, she got three cases, suspicious cases of people running fever for unknown reasons, without any clear cause. So she reported this and within a couple of days, the local CDC sent some experts to the hospital to look at these cases. And the next day, three days after this lady doctor put forward the reporting, the local CDC sent an alert to all the local hospitals to say that there are suspicious cases, people running fevers, and we could not identify the cause. That was very late December.
The first reporting was on December 27 last year. Then on January 3, we informed the World Health Organization of this particular situation. So it's just within a few days, and we alerted all the member countries of the WHO. Then a day after that, the CDCs of our two countries had their first communication. So you see, I'm not a medical professional, I cannot tell you whether this kind of reporting response is sufficiently clear or good, but I think in terms of time, it was done within a very short period of time.
Then when people came to realize this virus could be transmitted between human beings, even before that, the central government sent experts to Wuhan to look at these suspicious cases. Then when they came to realize that this is transmittable between human beings, we locked down the whole city of Wuhan with 10 million people. Then actually the Province of Hubei was also kind of closed down with 60 million people. Then two days after the lockdown of Wuhan, the United States evacuated its consulate from Wuhan together with its citizens. Then in early February, the United States stopped all travelers from China (who had been in China for the last 14 days), whether Chinese or foreigners. So a number of measures were taken.
Ian Bremmer: The Chinese government objected to it at the time, as you know.
Cui Tiankai: So what I want to say is that, the fact is we reported to the WHO in the early days, when we saw these suspicious cases, just within a few days and everybody was alerted, but whether they have done enough or not, this is not up to me to judge, you see.
Ian Bremmer: That's fair. President Trump has actually said in recent press conferences that the Chinese obviously have been hurt by this much more as a consequence of the explosion. So he's not, I think, reflecting this was intentional on the part of the Chinese government, that they knew what was going to happen in any way. But you have seen President Trump recently say that the Chinese numbers are a little on the light side. And then just most recently we saw on news of a classified US intelligence report that concluded that the Chinese government actually concealed the extent of the virus outbreak. I'm sure you've seen all of these reports because you're dealing with it. How do you respond to those direct accusations by the US government?
Cui Tiankai: The fact is we started daily briefing to the press in the very early stage of this crisis. We are still doing daily briefing to the press, announcing all the updates, the numbers, the cases treated, the cases confirmed, all these things. We are making it public on a daily basis. And we're also sharing, at very early stage, in early January, what we have found out about the genome sequences of the virus and everything we learned from our own experience. We shared it with the world.
We even publicized all the possible treatments. We keep updating it, from time to time, including how to use traditional Chinese medicine to treat the patients. We made it public, all this information, all our experience. For the accusations that China is hiding the numbers, just think about it, we have such a huge population, such a big country, you cannot hide the cases of a very vicious virus, because if you have patients, they are just patients. If people are infected, they're just infected. How can you hide them?
Ian Bremmer: Do you see any space for an opening between the Americans and Chinese? As I look at this, I see the biggest crisis that we've experienced in our lifetimes. I see several concrete steps by both countries that are not moving to cooperation, they are actually moving towards more confrontation. And these decisions around the media are only one. Do you see any concrete steps that I'm perhaps not seeing that imply our countries are coming together more?
Cui Tiankai: I certainly don't want to see any escalation of tensions between our two countries anytime, and especially at this critical moment. I certainly don't want to see any further deterioration, and I'm doing my best to prevent this from happening. But what is surprising to me is how low people could go here sometimes, for some of the politicians, how low they could go. It was really surprising to me.
Ian Bremmer: Are you talking about the Senator that suggested that this was created in a biolab in Wuhan?
Cui Tiankai: Well, I don't want to name any names.
Ian Bremmer: And what do we do to get out of this cycle?
Cui Tiankai: Let's concentrate on the positive things. Let's focus on our common interests and mutual needs. Let's work together to respond to this global crisis, to save people's lives. This is our paramount task.