We have two interesting articles this week. The first is about the new ‘whistle-blower’ laws being introduced in China and explains the background. The second features a speech given by the well-known academic and writer Martin Jacques. He speculates about the future of global governance in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Chinese people condemned the punishment of Dr Li Wen-liang, who first gave warning of the COVID virus in Wuhan. Chinese authorities have now recognised their mistake. New legislation makes clear that whistle-blowers warning of public health concerns need to not fear prosecution even if they are wrong.
There is now a new law protecting an ‘early warning person’. It is called the “whistle-blower clause” or “Li Wenliang clause” by Chinese netizens. After the coronavirus outbreak broke out in Wuhan, at the end of last year, eight medical staff, including Dr. Li Wenliang from Wuhan Central Hospital, issued an early warning to the outside world, but were admonished by the local public security bureau on the grounds of “spreading rumours.”
Since then, the epidemic spread rapidly and the early warning became a reality. The Wuhan Municipal Public Security Bureau revoked its admonition letter in mid-March and apologized to Li Wenliang’s family for this. Li Wenliang himself unfortunately passed away in February due to contracting coronary disease. Chinese officials assessed him as a ‘martyr’ in April.
Beijing, Shenzhen and other cities in China have introduced laws and regulations to protect “whistle-blowers”. These clarify that, in public health emergencies, non-malicious false reports will not be penalised. Scholars point out that the legislative protection of “whistle-blowers” is to make up for the shortcomings of the early warning mechanism for exposure to the coronavirus epidemic, and tactfully acknowledged the inadequacy of the “whistle-blowers” issue.
Beijing Municipality passed the Regulations on Public Health Emergencies stipulating that any unit or individual has the right to report the hidden dangers of public health emergencies to the government and relevant departments. The regulations set up rewards early-warning persons and specifically stipulate that “they are not to be held accountable for non-malicious false reports.”
The regulations also stipulate that after finding clues to public health emergencies, front-line medical personnel can report in an emergency. In addition, any unit or individual has the right to report late, false, concealed, and under-reporting behaviours of public officials. The personal information of the informant shall be kept confidential.
The new clauses are announced and implemented immediately, and Beijing has also become China’s first first-level administrative region to provide legal protection for “whistle-blowers” in public health emergencies.
Before Beijing, Shenzhen also passed regulations on public health emergencies in August that were implemented from October 1.
Shenzhen’s regulations also encourage citizens, legal persons, and other organizations to report public health emergencies through public health hotlines, Internet government websites, and new government media, and to report late, false, concealed, and under-reporting behaviours. Units and individuals that report non-maliciously shall not be held accountable.
Ai Fen, also a doctor at the Wuhan Central Hospital, was severely reprimanded by the hospital’s discipline inspection department for issuing warnings to colleagues on social media at the beginning of the outbreak.
The experience of Li Wenliang, Ai Fen and others has triggered extensive discussions on protecting the “whistle-blower”. Chinese public opinion urges that the contribution of the “whistle-blower” should not be ignored simply on the grounds of non-verification, and the early warnings issued by the people should not be ignored, let alone the “rumour”.
During the “Two Sessions” (National People’s Congress and CPPCC Annual Meeting) in May this year, many deputies and CPPCC members proposed to give medical staff in epidemic areas the right to make early warning suggestions and establish a mechanism for reporting errors and corrections.
China has been criticized for its original response to the Wuhan epidemic and other issues. With the global pandemic, China has taken the lead in getting out of the epidemic when many countries are still struggling to deal with the epidemic.
However, some observers point out that Beijing and Shenzhen’s legislation to protect whistle-blowers still focuses more on reflecting clues through official channels. Some netizens pointedly said: “Reporting upwards and reporting to the public are two different things.”
There is also some controversy as to whether medical staff should be protected from conducting normal business discussions based on their profession, or to remind people around them.
There is a view that due to different professional abilities and judgment levels, doctors should not express their opinions too casually, so as to avoid false alarms and cause panic.
How the COVID-19 epidemic affects global governance. Martin Jacques has written many books and articles about the economy and China. This blog made reference to one of them (“When China Rules the World”) in Today’s Great Game. Here the distinguished author examines the possible effects of the pandemic on governance for the Chinese journal Huang Qiu.
What impact will the COVID-19 pneumonia epidemic have on international relations and global governance? At first glance, people have every reason to believe that it might bring the nations of the world closer together.
The COVID-19 pneumonia epidemic has become a global phenomenon. It quickly swept across all countries and is a major problem facing the world. Countries need to learn from each other’s experience, including the nature of the virus, the social measures necessary to completely eliminate or contain the virus, and the medical and protective equipment needed to fight the epidemic.
To some extent, these aspects have become reality, but they are certainly not the current mainstream. On the contrary, the COVID-19 pneumonia epidemic has poisoned global relations and increased tensions. Why?
The main reason is the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States. From the very beginning, China has been maliciously and surprisingly attacked by Western media and some Western politicians. The viciousness of these attacks, especially in some Western countries, has had a negative impact on the attitudes of the people of Western countries towards China.
The second reason for the negative impact of the COVID-19 epidemic is that the threat it poses is so great. It has aroused the fears of all sectors of society; it has caused governments to face arduous challenges. Most of them tend to look inward rather than outward. Debates, quarrels, and actions between countries are extremely costly and greatly offset the desire to learn from each other. Far from bringing countries and societies closer together, the pandemic tends to separate them from each other. In particular, the scale of the epidemic has blinded broader perspectives and opinions. It is regarded by some countries as a national rather than an international crisis, and as a result everyone is fighting the epidemic separately.
The fight against the epidemic has become a huge test of the governance capabilities of countries around the world.
The responses of countries around the world are of three types. The first are the East Asian countries and regions such as China, South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. There are important differences in their anti-epidemic methods, but the similarities are more impressive:
- first is the role of the government and its strong governance capabilities and the respect it has gained from the people.
- second is the collectivism quality of the people and the resulting social discipline. For example, unlike some other places, wearing masks has never been the subject of controversy in East Asia, but is generally observed.
- third, in these countries and regions, the goal of fighting the epidemic is to contain and eradicate the virus, not simply control it. This is seen as a prerequisite for economic recovery. They have all achieved great success in fighting the epidemic. Considering China’s scale, its performance is outstanding.
The second type of response is Western European countries, which have been trying to control rather than completely eliminate the virus. In this sense, they have also achieved varying degrees of anti-epidemic results. However, this process is accompanied by controversies about the relationship between the role of the government and individual rights, the need for economic recovery and the right to life. In fighting the epidemic, these countries are less successful than East Asia.
The third way is that of the United States and Brazil. It has been a disaster, because the fight against the virus was considered a secondary or even minor task rather than a fundamental priority. As a consequence, it is not surprising that deaths have increased significantly. In this process, the role of the government has been weakened compared with individual rights; meeting economic needs has become a priority over fighting the virus.
The consequences of these different types of anti-epidemic methods will be far-reaching. Debates about the comparative advantages of different governance models will become more intense. At present, these debates are not the core issue. The failure of the current U.S. government to fight the epidemic, coupled with the failure of U.S. economic policy in the past 20 years, will further weaken the global influence of the U.S.
The third point of thinking about the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic involves global governance and international order in the post-epidemic era. It is hard to be optimistic. Sino-US relations are more fragmented than they were at the beginning of the year. This will weaken the possibility of global governance. The most obvious example is the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organization and the reduction of financial support. Because of the attitude of the United States, the future of the WTO is also threatened, and it is unlikely to function normally in the short term. If Biden is elected, the prospects for global cooperation may be better, but it may not be able to return to the previous state.
In the foreseeable future, progress in global governance is more likely to occur at the regional level. An obvious and inspiring example is that China and the European Union are moving towards each other in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is critical to the progress of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Similarly, the “Belt and Road” initiative also provides a new type of cooperation between countries.
In the long run, the COVID-19 epidemic may also bring about broader forms of cooperation. After experiencing this epidemic, the world will have a deeper understanding of the threat posed by future epidemics. One of the reasons East Asia’s response to the COVID-19 pneumonia epidemic is better than other countries is that they have experience in responding to SARS.
In time, the WHO will be strengthened. The experience and lessons of fighting the COVID-19 epidemic will be shared around the world, especially by medical experts. This will undoubtedly shape how the world responds to a future epidemic.
(The author Martin Jacques is a senior researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK. This article is based on the author’s speech at the “Blue Hall Forum”)