The World Health Organization has never had more than one director-general from the same nation, so when Dr. Margaret Chan of Hong Kong left after two terms in 2017, China pushed to have her succeeded by an Ethiopian microbiologist named Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The first African to lead WHO, Mr. Tedros, who holds a doctorate in community health, is also the first non-physician director. He rose through the ranks as a member of Ethiopia’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front, serving as the leftist government’s minister of health, then foreign affairs.
“When you look at Tedros, Beijing really campaigned for him because they realized they weren’t going to get two in a row,” said Gordon G. Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China” (2001).
Mr. Tedros’s ascension came amid a decades-long campaign by China to install its officials, in some cases non-Chinese proxies, atop international organizations, a tactic gaining scrutiny with WHO accused of botching its novel coronavirus response by acting as a “puppet of the Chinese Communist Party,” as Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican, put it.
Peter Navarro, assistant to President Trump on trade and manufacturing, said that China now effectively controls five of the 15 U.N. specialized agencies, which include WHO, the international coordinating body on public health founded in 1948.
“What China has been doing very, very aggressively over the last decade is to try to gain control of those [agencies] by electing people at the top,” Mr. Navarro said on Fox’s “The Story with Martha MacCallum.” “It already controls five of the 15, and also by using proxies, colonial-type proxies like Tedros, at the WHO. You can see in this crisis the damage of that kind of control by China of a key health organization has been just absolutely enormous.”
The outrage has focused on decisions that critics contend were aimed more at toeing the Chinese Communist Party line than protecting world health by containing the coronavirus.
Despite reports that China knew the pathogen was highly contagious in December, WHO issued a Jan. 10 statement opposing international travel restrictions, backing Beijing’s position. Mr. Trump defied the agency by cutting off travel to and from China on Jan. 31.
Then came WHO’s infamous Jan. 14 tweet: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.”
Other statements by Mr. Tedros have not aged well, including his Jan. 28 praise after meeting with President Xi Jinping about the “commitment from top [Chinese] leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated.”
Taiwanese officials have since said they alerted WHO of the contagion risk in late December, but were ignored. The Chinese Health Ministry announced that the novel coronavirus was passed from human to human on Jan. 20.
“You look at the actions of two parties, China and the WHO, and together they took a local outbreak that should have never gotten beyond Wuhan or maybe Hubei Province, and they turned it into a nationwide epidemic in China,” said Mr. Chang. “And then a global pandemic.”
Others argue that Mr. Tedros had little choice but to exercise diplomacy, given that WHO has no authority to compel China to turn over data.
“[W]e need to be very realistic. The WHO has limited leverage,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It has to navigate a complicated planetary environment with a very weak hand. It’s on its own. It would have had no backing from the U.S. or other powerful states if it had chosen to be confrontational with China at those key moments. It would have simply had its access terminated.”
Mr. Morrison agreed that WHO “fell short,” notably by delaying the pandemic declaration until March 11 under Chinese pressure, but said that Mr. Tedros’s leadership “has been flawed at points but overall has been exemplary.”
“[W]e need to deconflict what China has done versus what WHO has done,” Mr. Morrison said on a Wednesday press call. “China has committed very disturbing actions, and WHO has made some mistakes. And we need to disaggregate these.”
Founded in 1948, WHO was credited with leading the fight to eradicate smallpox — the agency celebrated last year the 40th anniversary of that milestone — but in recent years the organization has been faulted for its cumbersome bureaucracy, notably its tardy response to the 2013-16 Ebola epidemic.
Mr. Trump threatened Wednesday to cut U.S. funding to WHO, accusing the agency of being “China-centric” and that it “really blew it” on the novel coronavirus, prompting Mr. Tedros to slam efforts to “politicizing the virus.”
The U.S. contributed $400 million to the U.N. agency last year, while China gave $44 million.
Bruce Aylward, WHO senior adviser to Mr. Tedros, argued that it is necessary to take a diplomatic tack with China, adding the agency took the same approach “with every other hard-hit country like Spain, and had nothing to do with China specifically.”
“It was absolutely critical in the early part of this outbreak to have full access to everything possible, to get on the ground and work with the Chinese to understand this,” Dr. Aylward said at a virtual press briefing, as reported by Reuters.
The organization was able to send a team of experts to China in February, but they were “shunted off to places that were meaningless,” said Mr. Chang.
“He [Dr. Aylward] said it’s really critical we get to the origin of this outbreak quickly, implying that the reason they’ve been nice to China is that they needed China’s cooperation. Well, they didn’t get China’s cooperation,” Mr. Chang said. “They were stiff-armed. It didn’t work, and it resulted in the further spread of this disease.”
He echoed the calls of Republicans such as Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona and Ms. Cheney calling for Mr. Tedros to resign.
“We should demand the resignation of Tedros, Aylward, every Chinese official in a management position. If they don’t do that, our funding goes to zero,” said Mr. Chang. “I know there’s a lot of good doctors there, and I’m sure they’ve done some great work, but on balance, WHO was a malign influence. This disease would not have become a pandemic if not for WHO supporting China’s line.”