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Remarks by H.E. Ambassador Zhang Ming at the Press Briefing on COVID-19 and China-EU Relations

Thank you, Fraser. Friends from the Press, good afternoon!

The novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak has caught global attention, dominating media headlines. I have heard some questions, concerns, and even worries and fears. So I talked to Fraser and we decided to have a briefing like this. I first want to respond to four questions that are often asked by European journalists, and then go into an open-ended Q&A section.

Question one: Is the outbreak already under control?

As of today, the number of confirmed cases in Chinese mainland is 72,436. This is indeed a big number, showing that the epidemic is highly contagious. Yet there is good reason to say that the epidemic could be contained and overcome. Let me give you some positive signals.

China’s efforts to contain the outbreak at the source are paying off. 59,989 cases, or 83% of the total, are concentrated in Hubei Province. There is no massive outbreak outside Hubei. Cases outside China account for about 1% of the world’s total. This is not a global pandemic. Dr. Tedros said that if it weren’t for China’s efforts, the number of cases outside China would have been very much higher.

The number of newly confirmed cases outside Hubei has been on decline for 14 consecutive days, falling by 91%. From February 1, the number of cured cases has surpassed that of fatal cases, with widening gap in between. The fatality rate remains low, at about 2.5% on Chinese mainland, and only 0.6% outside Hubei. The rate is far lower than Ebola (40.4%), SARS (10%) and MERS (34.4%).

Question two: Is China open and transparent?

The Chinese government puts its citizens’ life and health front and center. Upon knowing about the concentrated outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, the National Health Commission immediately sent a task force to the city and briefed the public the next day. China notified the WHO and the international community shortly after. It took a week for Chinese experts to identify the pathogen as the novel coronavirus. Then we shared the virus genetic sequence with WHO and the rest of the world without any delay. WHO praised our efforts as record-breaking. Of course, it would be better if we could have taken even shorter time.

Some are asking: why didn’t China disclose the outbreak at the very beginning? Isn’t it a sign of no transparency? Everybody wishes that the virus would have be identified and eliminated the moment it appeared. This is an ideal scenario. Yet the reality is that this is a brand new virus, about which we had little knowledge. In retrospect, there are always things that could have been improved in response to an epidemic caused by a new kind of virus. The Chinese government, health specialists and the general public are seriously examining every aspect of our endeavor in the past weeks, in an effort to replicate good practices and learn the lessons. Yet it is unfair to conclude that the Chinese government is not transparent due to lack of knowledge of the virus at the early stage.

Openness and transparency are the most powerful weapons against the epidemic. Since the outbreak, the number of cases has been reported on a daily basis and the reporting is mandatory even for localities where no cases appear. And there are daily media briefings from the central and local governments. The central government is stepping up supervision and asking the public to provide clues about under-reporting and cover-ups. Those involved in such behavior shall be held accountable.

As we develop a better understanding of the epidemic, the figures are becoming more accurate. In addition to the nucleic acid testing, diagnostics is also made on the basis of clinical symptoms, to ensure that every patient could be admitted to hospital. This is a respect for facts and science.

Question three: Is China’s response appropriate and proportionate?

As I said, this is a new virus. The Chinese government is preparing for the worst and handling the outbreak as a category A infectious disease though it is a category B disease. We have adopted an inter-agency, multi-sectoral and society-wide approach to minimize the scope of affected areas and contain the spread of the outbreak.

Some Europeans are concerned about the lockdown of Wuhan, saying that the measures violate human rights. It was a difficult, courageous yet science-based and effective decision to apply temporary access control to Wuhan and its surrounding cities. What we have been doing is protecting the most fundamental human right—the right to life. It’s like a doctor performing surgeries on a patient. Nobody will accuse the doctor of restricting the patient’s freedom and human rights, will they?

Indeed, it is a huge challenge to apply access control to a city like Wuhan with over 10 million citizens. We have done a lot to minimize the impact. Now people's essential travels and the transport of important supplies are provided for. Daily necessities are provided as a priority. Despite the difficulties, Wuhan still has social stability. People fully understand and actively cooperate with the government's containment measures.

We continue to improve our response so it will be more science-based and conducted in a more orderly way. We want to make our measures more targeted and see them implemented down to the last detail. This has given the Chinese people a greater sense of security and confidence in winning the battle.

Question four: What does the outbreak mean for the economy?

With business activities deferred and demand for services reduced, there is some impact on the Chinese economy. Yet the impact is limited, short-term and manageable. The epidemic will not change the positive prospects of the Chinese economy in the long term, the huge market demand offered by the 1.4 billion Chinese people, nor China’s commitment to reform and opening-up. There is no need for global investors to worry too much.

The Chinese government has sufficient policies to boost the economy. After the Spring Festival, the People’s Bank of China injected RMB 1.7 trillion into the market. The Chinese government has rolled out policies to cut taxes and fees. Such policies are equally applied to Chinese- and foreign-invested companies, to help them resume activities and offset the impact of the epidemic.

We are seeing positive developments. Nearly 80% of manufacturers of facial masks and protection suits in key areas have resumed production. 94.6% of major grain producers and processors, 96.8% of petrochemical companies and 83% of power companies have returned to work. Civil aviation, railway and water shipment services are in normal operation. Foreign companies, like Tesla, Honeywell and Airbus, are gradually coming back to work.

Besides the China factors, the impact of the epidemic on global economy largely depends on global response. I wish to emphasize that the only thing to fear is fear itself, not the virus. WHO does not recommend travel or trade restrictions on China. Such restrictions would add to panic and disrupt the containment efforts. Most countries, including the EU states, have followed the WHO advice by taking reasonable measures. Yet unfortunately, some developed countries, which have advanced capabilities, have taken the lead in adopting excessive restrictions on China, to the contrary of WHO recommendations. It is our hope that the relevant countries could look at the epidemic and China’s response in an objective and cool-headed way, act in accordance with WHO’s recommendations, and avoid unnecessary disruptions on international travels and free trade.

Friends of the press,

Health cooperation is an important part of the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership. Since the outbreak, the Chinese government has kept Europe well informed. President Xi Jinping spoke to French and German leaders. Premier Li Keqiang spoke to President von der Leyen. I met with the commissioners for health and crisis management last week. Chinese and EU health experts have kept in touch through video conference. The two sides are exploring more possibilities of cooperation on diagnostics, treatment, scientific information sharing and clinical trials. China attaches great importance to health and safety of European citizens in China, and has assisted in the repatriation of European citizens. The EU has facilitated the delivery of 12 tons of medical equipment to China, and more is expected to follow in the coming days. Such good will has been widely applauded by Chinese citizens. I wish you could bring my gratitude to European friends.

Since the inauguration of the new EU leadership, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang had separate phone calls with President Michel and President von der Leyen. China-EU relations have achieved smooth transition.

In the past months, we are concentrating on two lines of efforts. First, to deliver on the commitments made at last year’s Summit. In addition to the progress on the civil aviation agreements and GI agreement, we have accelerated the talks on the investment agreement, with two intensive rounds of talks recently that produced important progress.

Second, to look for new drivers for China-EU cooperation. The new Commission has come up with some ambitious initiatives on green development, digital affairs and health, providing opportunities for China and EU to expand shared interests and cooperation. We hope to work with the EU toward more concrete results to demonstrate that we are partners that rely on each other, not rivals that confront each other.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of China-EU diplomatic ties. There will be a series of major events ahead. The sudden outbreak of the epidemic will not weaken our resolve to make this year successful. The two sides are preparing for the planned high-level exchanges as scheduled. We are also closely following the outbreak and stay in touch with the EU side.

Now I’m glad to take your questions.

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