Transcript: NPR's Interview With Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai About The Coronavirus NPR's Steve Inskeep talked to Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the U.S., about his country's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Transcript: NPR's Interview With Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai About The Coronavirus

Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the U.S., in conversation with NPR's Morning Edition at the Chinese Embassy. Kisha Ravi/NPR hide caption

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Kisha Ravi/NPR

Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the U.S., in conversation with NPR's Morning Edition at the Chinese Embassy.

Kisha Ravi/NPR

NPR's Steve Inskeep talked to Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the U.S. They spoke as China faces one of the largest crises of its history; the coronavirus is a public health problem but it's also economic and political. The full interview is below.

We have an editor who closely follows China, who regards this as China's worst crisis in years, because it is a health crisis, but also an economic crisis and a political crisis. How severe is this, in your view, compared to other crises that China has faced in recent years?

Well, this is a very big challenge to us. And I think in a sense, this is very big challenge to the entire international community as we develop, as our economy grows, how we take care of public health needs. How do we respond to epidemics like this? So this is a challenge for the entire international community [and] for any government. And we are, somebody is saying...

[At this point in the interview, there was a brief technical difficulty that was quickly fixed.]

...the challenge and the response is also unprecedented. I think this is quite true. I know we are doing our utmost to contain, control the virus, and provide treatment to the people, and reduce its impact on economic and social activities, and we're still doing whatever we can do right now.

Has this become a test of the effectiveness of China's governing system?

Well, as I said, this could be a big challenge to any government, to any governing system.

But it's your government that is facing the test.

Actually, you see, yeah, we are at the forefront. We are at the forefront. Actually long before this outbreak, we already set a goal for ourselves, which is the modernization of our governance system and governance capacity. We believe this should be the overall goal for our reform process, and this epidemic has proved that we have set the right goal. So we have to do our best to reach that goal. But this is an ongoing process. You see, there will always be new challenges and we always have to make new progress. We should never stop. I'm sure we will learn more from this outbreak and do a better job.

Set the right goal, you said. And then there is the question of what went wrong that you would like to correct. I know the two top officials in Hubei province, the center of this outbreak, have been relieved of their duties. What went wrong?

First of all, this is a new virus. Actually, nobody knew it very well at the beginning. So there was a process for people to get to know more about it, to identify the virus, to know its qualities, the transmission routes. All this has taken some time. And for everybody, I think, that there's some kind of a learning process.

Oh, I understand. And health officials will say that that China's response has not necessarily been that slow, but something went wrong because two officials were removed. What went wrong?

Well, everything we are doing now, including all these personnel changes, have one goal, to respond to the call of the people and meet the needs of the people. This is the only goal for everything we are doing now. So naturally, under such special circumstances, people who are, people who can do the job better should be given the responsibility to do it. And this is a very heavy responsibility

Is part of it that there was so much economic damage and also so much public unrest that you needed, your government needed to show that it was responding to public unhappiness?

I think it's only natural that some people would be panicking under the circumstances. So we always have as one of our basic principles, openness and transparency. We believe openness and transparency will give people more confidence, will give them more awareness about this virus. What is the real, what are the real risks and how to prevent them? And we are providing, you see all the figures, the numbers on daily basis just to make people reassured that we are doing our most to confront it. And this will certainly help us to dispel any fake news, rumors or what people call pseudoscience.

Reassigning the officials, that was part of the reassurance?

As I said, we are doing everything possible to meet the needs of the people. So anybody who can do their job better should be given the opportunity to do it.

Because you mentioned openness and transparency, I need to ask about Dr. Li Wenliang who, as you know very well was a doctor who sounded the alarm late last year about the coronavirus, was detained by the authorities and made to retract what he had said. This got even more attention after he himself died of the virus. Why was he detained and made to retract his statements?

No, first of all, he was not detained. I think somebody talked to him, but he wasn't, he was not detained. Otherwise, he could not be working in the hospital.

He was questioned, right? You're saying he was questioned, not detained. Is that correct?

You see, he was a doctor. He was a good doctor. We really, all of us feel really sad for his death. But he was a devoted doctor. He was a good professional. And he saw some coming danger from the specific cases he dealt with. As a doctor, he was alerted, but not everybody quite understood and appreciated him at the very beginning because this is a new virus. Nobody knew anything about it.

You're saying that's why he was made to retract what he had said, because people didn't understand what he was revealing?

You see, as a doctor, he could find things from specific cases. But for the government to make an alert, any announcement, they need more evidence. They have to base themselves on scientific analysis. So all this would take some time. But now, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, everybody knew that Dr. Li was right. And he continued to work in the hospital. And it was very tragic for us that he, in his work, he lost his life. But I think he was one of the good doctors. There are tens of thousands of them still working as a front line, still risk their own lives to save other people.

Does the government owe his family an apology for having made him reverse what he revealed at the beginning?

I think that the city government made some announcement at his passing away. They expressed their condolences and there was such an expression of condolences, support to the family all over China.

It seems from the amount of social media criticism that appeared in China on Weiboand other other sites after his death, that people saw the specific story of Dr. Li as a symptom of a problem with China's system, of a lack of openness, of a lack of transparency. Does this story reveal a problem with openness and transparency in China?

Actually, I think Dr. Li is also part of the Chinese system. He's not alone. As I said, there are tens of thousands, even millions of health care workers, community workers still working on the very front line. Dr. Li was just one of them. Maybe he was an outstanding doctor, but he is part of the system. Maybe people are not aware, he was a member of the Communist Party.

So you would like the party to have credit for what he called out? Uh, I can respect that. But does it suggest that there --

I think he, he is a good member of the party.

Does this suggest, though, that that the government that he served under was less open to a warning than it should have been?

You see, we believe in openness, but openness does not mean that you could say anything under any circumstances. The government has to respond in a responsible way. Whatever action the government is taking, whatever announcement it is making, alert it is issuing, you have to base yourself on sufficient evidence and science.

One of the social media statements that was made in recent days after Dr. Li's death, in this moment of unusual criticism of China from within China, was a response to an official in Hubei province, acknowledging they don't really know the scale of the problem, they don't truly know how many people have been infected with coronavirus. And someone wrote on social media. "It's been over a month and finally, a truthful sentence." That suggests that the government has lost some credibility with the people. Do you think that's true?

I'm not in a position to explain everything on social media, and I don't think I should do that. People have that freedom to express their views. But I'm not responsible for their views.

I understand. But can you answer that question? Do you think that your government has lost some credibility with its people?

When you talk about government there are different levels of government in China, like in the United States. You have the central government, you have provincial government, you have city government, you have village people. So you cannot talk in very general terms "the government." Sometimes government at a particular level makes some mistakes. This is possible. This is, I think it is all natural all over the world. But you cannot say the whole government in China is making a mistake. This is not true.

In this instance, are you suggesting that local officials may have made mistakes, but that national officials did something different when they...

I think officials all over the world could make mistakes, including here in the United States.

What role is President Xi playing? Now that this --

The leading role. He's taken such a strong leadership.

In what way?

Well, he set up a central government mechanism to fight this virus and he had made tour in Beijing, visited two communities, encouraged people, [and] gave people good hope. Without his strong leadership, the nationwide effort would not be that strong. And he also talked with foreign leaders, many of them, including President Trump on the phone. They had a very good conversation on the phone last week.

Is China prepared to welcome American health experts into China to help with this?

Of course we will welcome them. We welcome experts of all countries to come to help us. But you see, first of all, the World Health Organization is sponsoring such expert group.


They have already sent an advance team to China. They are working in China. Secondly, people have to understand right now, people in China are so preoccupied with their work to combat this virus. So we have to have some ordered manner to have experts from other countries. And also there's a real risk that they might be exposed to the virus. We'll have to take good protection of them.

Will American experts from the Centers for Disease Control specifically be let into the country?

They I think that they have recommended a list of names to the WHO and this is all under the consideration of our communication with the WHO

But not yet, then.

I don't know the latest progress, but the WHO is doing a good work in this regard. They have an advanced team already in China making all the necessary arrangements and actually some American experts, a professor from Columbia University, I think Professor Lipkin, has already visited China and he's now back in New York. He has been working with a Chinese counterpart for many years, ever since SARS.

SARS, the SARS epidemic of some years ago. OK. When Americans look at China's effort to face this crisis, it is natural, I think, for some to compare the U.S. system to China's system and ask how things would be different if the crisis were here. Americans might say it is impressive that China can shut down an entire city to try to stop the spread of a virus that would not very likely happen in the United States. But they will also argue that the American system is more open and would be a little more free about sharing information and trying to get reliable information to the public. That is the way that an American might look at strengths and weaknesses of China's system compared to the United States. How would you make that comparison?

Well, as a diplomat, normally I don't compare the government of China, and the government of the United States, but you can have your own views because you also have had things like disasters, emergencies here, like the Hurricane Katrina some years ago. And you did not shut down the city, but there was total disorder in the city. I visited Louisiana. People told me all kinds of stories. So we're shutting down some of the cities, especially Wuhan to stop the transmission of the virus, to protect more people. We are doing all this of course, at high cost. But we are doing this in the larger interest of the entire world. If we fail to stop the virus, it could spread to other countries. Then this will cause international crisis. So this is, I believe, a real example of one for all, all for one situation. We are doing this for the world, and we appreciate that the world is helping us.

You mentioned the high cost. There is a high economic cost, among other things...

Of course.

... for China to shutting down major cities. Is there a point at which China's government might have to decide the cost is too high, that this is a disease, it's endemic, some people will die, but you need to reopen cities and resume economic activity?

First of all, people's well-being, their health, their safety, their lives, are the most important thing for us. So we'll do our best to protect people's well-being in a sense at whatever cost. At the same time, people also need economic development. They have to have the economy grow and more normal social life. So we are also trying our best to restore normal economic and social activity.

How soon might that happen?

It would depend on how soon we can control the virus.

So you're going to continue this effort until the virus is controlled. There is not a point at which you would say this is just too costly we need to go on about.

I think we are working on two fronts. On the one front, we are doing our utmost and this is a nationwide effort to fight the virus. At the same time, we are doing whatever we can, to the extent that we can, to maintain some normal economic and social life. For instance, people's daily necessities have to be provided and some of the companies, factories have to resume their work after the Lunar New Year holidays. And we are looking at when and how schools could be reopened.

Shortly before we spoke, Chinese authorities dramatically increased their reported number of Coronavirus cases, which was an adjustment because of the way that the counting is done, not necessarily an increase in the number of cases, but that leads to a question. Are you confident that you now know a reliable number of how many cases there are and have an idea of the full scope of the problem?

I think it's extremely important to have reliable numbers. That's why we're updating the numbers every day. And as you said, there was a dramatic increase because of the change of the diagnosis criteria, and this is absolutely necessary. To use the words of some expert that this is an attempt to widen the net. So everybody who needs, who requires medical treatment will be included, would be covered. That will help us to get to the bottom.

Do you now have the bottom? Do you. Do you feel you have — you feel confident that you have the [crosstalk]

I don't know. I think this is a question for the specialists to answer, but I certainly hope that it will get to the bottom very soon.

Do you think that you might have this crisis in hand in a matter of days, weeks, months? How long might it take?

For me, the sooner the better. But it would depend on our efforts, whether we are working in the right direction, whether the methods, the tools we are using are effective, but we are doing our utmost. I have confidence in our scientists, in our doctors and the medical workers.

Have the broader strains in U.S.-China relations made it more difficult for the two countries to cooperate on this issue?

I think clearly there is a need for the two countries to cooperate because this is a challenge to the entire international community. So in the phone call between President Trump and President Xi, they agreed that our two countries should really work closely together to combat this virus. And we appreciate very much the support assistance given to us by American people, American business, American nongovernmental institution and many others.

You think that collaboration is the same despite the difficulty in relations overall?

I think as far as people-to-people cooperation is concerned, I don't see any difference. People-to-people cooperation is still very effective, very genuine. We are so impressed by the goodwill of the American people. But, but there's a big but. For some politician here in this country, maybe for some people need the media, I'm sorry to say that, because you are also from the media — they are not being so helpful. Some are trying to take advantage of other people's suffering. I don't think this is a very good thing.

What's an example of what you mean?

Well. You could read the media. Then you'll find out.

Wilbur Ross, the U.S. commerce secretary, made a comment about the coronavirus the other day and he said he didn't want, ... anyway to be happy about the virus. But he said it, quote, gives business another thing to consider when deciding on their supply chains. I understood him to mean businesses have another reason to think about — American businesses — have another reason to think about going somewhere other than China.

After his remarks, I read a lot of comments from American media, from American economists. They have expressed their views. So I have nothing to add.

Which views do you mean?

All kinds of views. And as far as I know, many people disagreed.

With him making that statement?

Yeah, of course, yeah.

He, of course, is talking in a broader sense about the idea of decoupling, about the United States making its economy much less intertwined with China. Do you believe that's happening, whether you would like it to or not?

I don't think that that should happen, and I don't think that that could happen. Because we are the two largest economies in the world. We are so interconnected, so interdependent. And this interdependence has worked in the interests of both countries. Both economies, both peoples have benefited a great deal from such growing economic ties. Why should anybody try to cut it off, to have this so-called decoupling?

Does this mean that the Trump administration's efforts to, for example, push back against Huawei or other Chinese companies or get American companies to turn to Vietnam, that those efforts ultimately are not going to succeed, in your view?

Well, the good news is we have concluded this phase one trade agreement. This is evidence that there's intention on both sides to solve our economic problem and maintain and develop our economic relations. There is a good attempt on both sides. At the same time, I think people have to follow the economic and technological logic. They cannot do anything against this logic. For American business, for American companies, they have to weigh the pros and cons, they have to aim at the most efficient allocation of resources and of their production. They have to follow the law of economics, not any wish of any politician.

I'm thinking of the U.K.'s recent decision to use Huawei 5G equipment and portions of its network despite American requests not to do that. Is that an example of following economic logic as you see it?

Well, I don't want to make any comment on people of other countries. But I think maybe, maybe you should learn something from the United Kingdom. On some of the issues, I think that they made smarter decisions. For instance, they joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank very early and now they're benefiting from it. They also took their own decision on 5G technology, on Huawei. I think that they are smart people, they are smart people.

Because you mentioned the trade agreement, I'd like to ask about the general direction of U.S.-China relations. I think that we could have thought of them in the last couple of years as on the way down. After that trade agreement, are they on the way up or would you point in some other direction?

Ithink, the phase one trade agreement is part of the achievement efforts by both sides to develop a stronger and more stable relationship between China and United States. And I certainly hope that this agreement will be implemented effectively and it will be a big plus for the overall relations. Of course, we have other problems to solve, other issues to address — political security and others. But the, what we have learned from the trade negotiation could also be useful for other areas. I don't think the phase one trade agreement would be possible without the principle of mutual respect and equality. The two sides made genuine efforts to understand the other side, to respect the other side's legitimate needs and concerns and try to address the issues with a balanced approach and with a good sense of equality. If these principles could be applied in our efforts to address other issues in other areas, we could be equally successful.

Just one other thing to ask about, Ambassador. I'm sure that you follow the president's impeachment and acquittal here in the United States. And there was a part of this that touched on China. The president was criticized for seeking investigation of a political rival, Joe Biden, in Ukraine. When he was criticized for this, he said that was correct, that he sought that investigation and urged China also to investigate Joe Biden or his son, Hunter Biden, for investments that he was involved in in China.What did your government make of that remark?

We'd never get ourselves involved in American domestic politics, and we would never do that.

Does that mean when the president of the United States says China should investigate Joe Biden, China is not going to take that advice one way or the other?

I don't think that this is included in any official communication between the two governments.

Ah, so if the U.S. through official channels made a request China would give that some thought — otherwise it's not anything for you to address.

I understand the whole process is part of the domestic political drama being played out here, so we are just observers.

And forgive me, I know our time is about up, but I know you've been an observer of the United States for a very long time. And so now sitting with you, I have to ask what you've thought about as you've watched this drama of American politics the last few months.

You see our two countries, China and the United States, we are big countries, major powers in the world and we are the two largest economies. So I think we do have some similarities. As big countries, you have great responsibilities and very often we set great goals for ourselves. This is only natural for any major power. And then we also have our roots in different civilizations. But we both could run into some problems, big challenges from time to time. You have your own problems and challenges, we have our problems and challenges. I always believe whether China or United States can really grow stronger and have a better future very much that depends on our domestic governance. Now, you may have problems to solve — to enhance your domestic governance. We have our own challenges to meet, to modernize our governance system and capacity. So if each of us can do a good job at home you always have a good future. So we are watching, of course, we wish American people good luck and a better future.

Ambassador, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

My pleasure, thank you.