Senior Chinese official challenges Trump over coronavirus response


BEIJING — A senior Chinese government official challenged President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., accusing him of wasting weeks after the threat posed by the virus first became apparent.

In a wide-ranging interview with NBC News conducted in Mandarin on Tuesday, the official, Executive Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, also hit back at the politicization of the virus.

Le, a rising star within the country's political establishment, rejected claims that China had covered up the initial outbreak or that it should be held financially liable for COVID-19. Instead, he termed the virus a "natural disaster" and called for greater cooperation and an end to accusations.

"On Jan. 23 when Wuhan went under lockdown, the United States reported only one confirmed case, but on March 13 when President Trump announced a national emergency, the United States reported over 1,600 confirmed cases," said Le, referring to the city in Hubei province where the virus is believed to have emerged.

"In this interval of 50 days, what was the U.S. government doing? Where have those 50 days gone?" said Le, a Russian speaker born on China's industrial east coast, who began his diplomatic career in what was then the Soviet Union.

Image: Executive Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng being interviewed by NBC News' Janis Mackey Frayer in Beijing. (Fred Dufour / NBC News)
Image: Executive Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng being interviewed by NBC News' Janis Mackey Frayer in Beijing. (Fred Dufour / NBC News)

Both the White House and State Department did not respond to requests for comment on the interview. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) needed to be "transparent."

"The world seeks answers to COVID19 and its origins … China has a responsibility to cooperate," he wrote. Pompeo has previously stated that Beijing will "pay a price" for its actions, while often adding he didn’t yet know what form that would take.

On Tuesday, the number of cases of coronavirus in the U.S. passed 1 million, a milestone that President Trump said was due to "much better" testing than other countries.

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The U.S. has recorded more than 58,000 deaths, so far, due to COVID-19, according to an NBC News tally.

China has been hounded by questions over missteps in its initial response to contain the virus. So far, more than 200,000 people globally have died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

President Trump has heaped criticism on China since the outbreak of the pandemic, at times questioning the accuracy of its official death toll and saying he was looking into a speculation that the infection originated in a Chinese laboratory — a possibility that Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected.

"Do you really believe those numbers in this vast country called China. … Does anybody really believe that?" Trump said at a White House news briefing on April 15. "Some countries are in big, big trouble and they're not reporting the facts — and that's up to them," he added.

Trump also shocked the international community when he pledged to stop funding the public health body, the World Health Organization, accusing it of being too close to Beijing and mishandling the outbreak.

The White House has since ordered intelligence agencies to comb through communications intercepts and satellite imagery to establish whether China and the WHO initially hid what they knew about the emerging coronavirus pandemic, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter told NBC News, this week.

After years of on-and-off trade talks, the coronavirus pandemic is the latest issue to create an impasse between the world’s two largest economies.

When Chinese medical staff members first reported cases of the virus in Wuhan late in 2019, reports were suppressed and some, including Dr. Li Wenliang — who later died from the virus — were reprimanded for spreading false information when they warned of the danger posed by the newly discovered disease, causing an outcry on Chinese social media.

Le stood by the country's official data and said China's response had been "fast" compared to other countries.

"I want to say China has not covered anything up. We did not cause any delay," said Le.

Trump and senior officials have previously emphasized the Chinese origins of the disease, infuriating Beijing by referring to it as the "Wuhan" or "China virus."

Le, 57 and widely considered a likely candidate to be China's next foreign minister, lived in New York when deployed to the United Nations in the late 1990s, offered his "heartfelt sympathy" to Americans fighting the crisis.

He urged greater cooperation between the two countries, stating that "the true enemy of the United States is the COVID-19 virus," not China.

"I think it’s really important for the U.S. government to find the right focus, the real enemy," said Le, a senior member of China's Communist Party who has been the second-ranking official at the Foreign Affairs Ministry under Foreign Minister Wang Yi since 2018.

Earlier this month, both U.S. political parties released TV ad campaigns accusing the other of mishandling the Chinese political relationship.

Le said it was "short-sighted" and "irresponsible" to seek electoral gain as a result of the crisis. He added that the Chinese public was "angry" and "entitled to express their outrage" at the U.S. politicization of the pandemic.

Image: A resident of a small community in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province has their temperature checked before being allowed to enter (AFP - Getty Images)
Image: A resident of a small community in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province has their temperature checked before being allowed to enter (AFP - Getty Images)

"Unfortunately, some political figures are politicizing this Covid-19. They’re using this virus to stigmatize China. This is not something we are willing to see," he said.

In Missouri last week, while anti-lockdown protesters demonstrated, Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against the Chinese government. The first of its kind to seek damages, the suit accused China of lying about the virus and causing financial damage to the state.

Le said any claims asking China to make reparations were "preposterous" and presented an "out-and-out political farce."

"There is no international law that supports blaming a country for simply being the first to report a disease," Le said.

But he said he wouldn’t object to some scientific investigation that kept away from "conspiracy theories."

"We do not oppose normal communication and mutual learning between scientists," he said. "What we do oppose is arbitrary investigations based on the presumption of China’s guilt. That is something we firmly oppose."

Janis Mackey Frayer, Eric Baculinao and Dawn Liu reported from Beijing; Adela Suliman and Laura Saravia reported from London; Abigail Williams reported from Washington, D.C.

Originally published