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Trump Administration Derides 'Wuhan Virus,' As Beijing Extends Aid To Other Countries


While the Trump administration blames China for the global coronavirus pandemic, Beijing is trying to burnish its image. It is sending aid to Italy and Iran and announcing more funding for the World Health Organization. China has long sought to build up its influence in international institutions like the WHO. But many China watchers here in Washington say the world should be wary, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been calling it the Wuhan virus since the outbreak began in that Chinese city. Daniel Blumenthal, who's with the conservative think tank The American Enterprise Institute, wrote an article recently titled "The Xi Jinping Flu."

DANIEL BLUMENTHAL: They covered it up. They arrested doctors. They made the virus worse. And now their propaganda machine and disinformation machine is in full gear to try to make it look like they're somehow responsible players when their actions were the height of irresponsibility.

KELEMEN: In a letter to U.N. member states published by Foreign Policy, China's ambassador to the U.N. wrote that his country had contained the spread of the epidemic and is ready to help others fight it. China has already sent medical teams and surplus supplies to Italy and Iran. There are domestic politics at play, says Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

BONNIE GLASER: China is desperately worried that its own people will criticize the Chinese Communist Party for not doing enough, and so part of this is deflecting attention, talking about what's going on abroad.

KELEMEN: But while China shares its knowledge and equipment with other countries, Glaser says there's been a lot of finger-pointing between Washington and Beijing.

GLASER: This was potentially an opportunity for the United States and China to work together to fight a global pandemic. And instead, it has ended up being extremely acrimonious and probably has soured the U.S.-China relationship even more.

KELEMEN: And that's a problem, says Jeremy Konyndyk, who helped the Obama administration work with the international community to fight an Ebola outbreak. He's been critical of the Trump administration's approach - not consulting with European allies before imposing travel restrictions - and using tough rhetoric with China.

JEREMY KONYNDYK: When you have the secretary of state pejoratively referring to the coronavirus as a Wuhan virus, that is not helpful. It certainly alienates the Chinese government and alienates the Chinese people when you have White House advisers talking about using this as an opportunity to reset the trade balance with China, as Larry Kudlow did a few weeks ago. It's just gratuitous and needless, and it doesn't leave us any better off.

KELEMEN: Konyndyk is now with the Center for Global Development and on an independent oversight board of the World Health Organization. Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed cutting $3 billion from the WHO and other global health programs. Konyndyk calls that a terrible idea.

KONYNDYK: They're not a perfect organization, but they play a really crucial role. Much of the learning that we have from China right now came through a WHO mission.

KELEMEN: He says because the WHO is politically neutral, it was easier for China to share information. Critics, though, point out that China is playing politics in the organization, keeping Taiwan out even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.