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A Non-Traditional Security Threat

Feb 24 , 2020
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

The following is the edited transcript of The China Current with James Chau interview on Feb 20 with Ambassador He Yafei, former Vice Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, on the outbreak of COVID-19.

For the full interview, please visit here


We were a little surprised by what had happened in Wuhan, but not so much so that we feel it's a national crisis, as if life stopped. I served as Chinese Ambassador in Geneva to the World Health Organization, so I am quite familiar with the international efforts to cope with the outbreak of epidemics. We experienced SARS in 2003, so for China it's not such a surprise.

We didn't expect it to be repeated. But we certainly know the world will not be devoid of any virus attacks in the future. It's something you have to live with. The only thing you need to do is to strengthen your research, and set-up a national emergency response system at different levels. So as something happens, you need to act quickly on solid evidence that something has happened, based on scientific evidence. I think at this time the Chinese government, Chinese people, or China for that purpose, has acted timely and effectively.

We need to get prepared. We need to learn more about virus, the origin of the virus, in what conditions it will come back possibly. Lots of R&D should be put into that. I think humankind, the international community for that matter, has put a lot of efforts, money, equipment into how to prevent war for instance, weapons of mass destruction, etc. But we haven't paid enough attention to life-threatening viruses.

We have been complacent with the advance of medicine and technology. We believe everything is curable, which is not true. When I was in Geneva, I heard very often from WHO experts, from Margaret Chan, for instance, the former Director-General, warning us and not just China but the world that virus is dangerous. We need to put in more resources in trying to do more research, strethening countries’ public health system and emergency response system, etc., so that whenever it happens, we have something ready to cope with it.

We have been hearing stories already about car makers, they cannot fulfil their production quota because the supplies components are not being produced adequately in China. The same thing is happening to Apple. So, in this globalized world, China is in a very difficult position - on the one hand, it continues to fight the COVID-19 outbreak and has taken tough measures; on the other hand, the government now has been all-out trying to restore production of goods.

The epidemic is generally speaking, by and large, already under control in China, and China has been making a great sacrifice, especially Wuhan, Hubei. It's already become kind of back to normal in terms of production. But still, problems exist. There were some restrictions, restrictions imposed on people living in certain quarters. If you travel to a place, you'll be under voluntary quarantine for 14 days, for instance. That will certainly hinder enterprises to return to normal. But measures have been taken, to maintain the balance between a very urgent need to jumpstart the economy. You can expect that the Chinese economy will suffer a little bit in the short-term, and therefore it will have implications for the global economy. But it will over very soon.

We understand some cautionary measures (taken in different parts of the world). But you should not overreact to the point that you cut-off international travel. If you cut-off international travel, certainly you will cut-off international trade.

The virus has an effect of a wake-up call, telling us that, hey, look, we live in a world that is complicated, with a lot of threats. This is one of the non-traditional security threats. We're not going to see war in the foreseeable future. But what is more threatening to humankind is non-traditional threats such like viruses, especially for public health. Global public health is extremely important.

As far as China is concerned, or for that matter, the U.S. is included, we need do more in Africa, because they have much weaker public health systems. When I look at China, I can see we are “fortunate, ” - because of SARS, China has since set-up a national system that can cope with such an outbreak of a virus. You can see the quick mobilization nationally of all kinds of resources. We are thankful to international assistance for instance from Japan, from Europe, including from the United States, and we are grateful for the international assistance to help China to tide over the difficulties.

(The China Current continues its special coverage on the outbreak of COVID-19. Go to its social media @thechinacurrent and its website, for interviews, videos, and podcasts.

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