Mar 4, 2020 - Health

Scoop: State-owned think tank floats China-led WHO alternative

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, a Chinese government-owned think tank is soliciting opinions to gauge how the international community might receive a Chinese alternative to the World Health Organization.

Why it matters: Beijing is seeking to turn the coronavirus, initially a disaster for China's public image, into an opportunity to advance its global leadership and bolster its soft power abroad.

In a message viewed by Axios, an employee of CNPC Economics & Technology Research Institute (CNPC ETRI) said they were exploring the possibility of a Beijing-led global health organization that would rival the WHO.

  • The employee then asked how Israeli experts at SIGNAL, an Israeli nonprofit dedicated to strengthening Israeli-China ties, would view such an organization.
  • CNPC ETRI is a think tank affiliated with the China National Petroleum Corporation, which is owned by the Chinese government. The president of CNPC ETRI reports to Chinese leadership. (The institute did not respond to a request for comment.)

Context: China is seeking to recast itself as a global leader in the fight against the coronavirus, rather than the country where it originated and spread due to the government's initial suppression of information related to the outbreak.

What they're saying: "According to our analysis, the situation of coronavirus around the world is urgent, therefore, we consider that perhaps the world needs a leadership country/organization coordinating all the countries affected in fighting against coronavirus, just like the leadership role of U.S. in W.H.O," wrote the think tank employee.

  • The think tank employee then asked for feedback on the idea and whether SIGNAL's experts agreed with it.

Between the lines: In China, state-sponsored think tanks can double as diplomatic back channels, allowing leaders a low-risk means to float new ideas and explore how they might be perceived.

  • Carice Witte, the founder and executive director of SIGNAL, told Axios the idea of a Beijing-led WHO alternative is "very interesting in the context of China's aim to reshape global governance, including setting up parallel institutions."

"Our research purpose is to predict the development of coronavirus around the word and how to fight against the epidemics. We also asked experts other questions such as the public response to the crisis and how does the public view the measures taken by the government to fight against coronavirus." said Sun Li, a research fellow at CNPC ETRI.

  • "The question is nothing more than a survey which is used to predict coronavirus development."

Go deeper: More new coronavirus cases outside China than inside for the first time

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include the statement from Sun Li.

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