Exactly eighteen months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe for the first time, the international community is still grasping for the truth about its origins.
A US intelligence review has failed to produce a “definitive conclusion” on how the global health crisis began, and the Chinese government continues to rebuff World Health Organization (WHO) pressure for a fresh investigation, even as the scientists who visited Wuhan as part of a joint WHO-China team in January warn that the “window is closing” for critical scientific analyses to proceed.
Just as Beijing was rejecting the WHO’s latest request for information surrounding the first COVID-19 cases, the Times of London published an exhaustive investigative report in August that crystallises what European and American leaders have feared since early last year: that the WHO’s response to the initial stages of the outbreak was instrumentalised and undermined by the Chinese state’s influence over its leadership and operations.
The Times investigation lays out, in painstaking detail, the tactics used by China to influence decision-making at the WHO in the years leading up to the pandemic, including that the diplomatic capital Beijing has been willing to spend to ensure its favoured candidates secure top leadership posts in the international organisation. By the time the crisis finally came, diplomatic tensions between EU leaders and the Trump administration negated any possibility of a concerted Western response.
China’s efforts, which the Times traces back to the Chinese leadership’s embarrassment at the hands of former WHO chief Gro Harlem Brundtland after the 2002 SARS epidemic, ultimately made it possible for Xi Jinping’s government to short circuit any serious investigation into the origins of COVID-19, even after China’s Western counterparts largely reconciled on the issue.
Requests for an independent investigation into the first days of the outbreak have been met with blunt refusals from Beijing, souring the once-cosy relationship between China and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus with less than a year to go until the end of the WHO director-general’s current term.
Even as the global health authority struggles to get ahead of new SARS-CoV-2 variants, growing awareness of China’s duplicity at the start of the original outbreak raises important questions over the WHO’s ability to hold Beijing to account on other public health challenges.
Chief among them: the tobacco epidemic that kills 700,000 people in the European Union and 8 million worldwide every year—nearly twice the official global death toll from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
The WHO has been on the forefront in combatting the global tobacco pandemic for decades, with one of its main priorities being the fight against the illicit tobacco trade that accounts for one in ten cigarettes sold worldwide. The Chinese government, despite its commitments to implement tobacco control measures under the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), is also one of the world’s largest purveyors of tobacco products. The state-controlled China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC) manufactures almost half of the world's cigarettes, with its sales accounting for 11% of Chinese state tax revenues in 2017.
While the CNTC’s activities long escaped notice from global public health campaigners by focusing on China’s massive domestic market, recent investigative reporting from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reveals the CNTC is now expanding to new markets alongside the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including many in Europe.
According to the OCCRP and tobacco control experts at the University of Bath, the Chinese company maintains close ties with the four companies that make up Big Tobacco – Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International, and Imperial Brands – and uses the same techniques deployed by these firms to flood European and other global markets with illicit cigarettes, encouraging new generations of smokers to pick up the deadly habit.
These tried-and-tested practices include tobacco smuggling, with the OCCRP tracing black market cigarettes exported across Europe and Latin America to a CNTC factory in Romania. The outlet’s investigative reporting has also uncovered direct links between the company’s representatives and Italian and Moldovan mafia networks. The Chinese firm is, unsurprisingly, less than transparent about its other known subsidiaries in countries including Zimbabwe, Panama, and Brazil.
Pushing China to follow global public health rules
As a state-owned entity, CNTC’s activities are a blatant violation of Beijing’s obligations under the FCTC, whose signatories pledge to keep their tobacco control efforts separate from the industry and implement independent traceability systems for tobacco products. In China, the CNTC is both the main tobacco company and the national tobacco regulator, and the institution’s two arms even share the same website and staff.
Much like Beijing’s intransigence over the search for the origins of Covid-19, Chinese disregard for the FCTC fits into a wider pattern of misbehaviour on global public health matters. The CNTC, like the Big Tobacco multinationals who have sought to place their own flawed traceability systems at the heart of the European Commission’s tobacco control efforts, has a vested interest in undercutting these benchmark public health goals. With its ability to challenge and undermine decision making within the WHO, however, the Chinese tobacco giant could have even more success than its Western counterparts.
As with the COVID-19 enquiries, European governments must challenge China’s cavalier approach to the WHO’s tobacco control efforts and Beijing’s refusal to adhere to its FCTC obligations, especially given the importance of tobacco traceability to combatting illicit trade and advancing global efforts to reduce smoking rates. Failing to do so would have substantial costs, measurable not just in institutional terms but also in human lives.
Nicolas Tenzer is the president of the Centre d’étude et de réflexion pour l’action politique (CERAP) think tank and the director of the review Le Banquet