Chinese ambassador Lin Songtian. Picture: SUPPLIED
Chinese ambassador Lin Songtian. Picture: SUPPLIED

Chinese ambassador Lin Songtian has insisted his country was safe and there was no need for South Africa to evacuate its citizens currently residing in China.

He said China was better placed to deal with the crisis, given its financial muscle, and noted that the country managed to build a 1000-bed hospital in 10 days to deal with the epidemic. He said  all forms of public transportation had been suspended and a national quarantine project launched.

“China has strong capacity and enough resources to manage a public health emergency effectively and SA citizens in Hubei and Wuhan provinces are safe. [There’s] no reason to evacuate SA citizens from China.”

Lin commended the SA government for not following other countries including the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada in evacuating its citizens from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak that has claimed about 360 lives. There were about 17,200 confirmed coronavirus cases in China.

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Lin said it would be “unsafe, costly and risky” to evacuate the SA citizens, who include students, teachers and other professionals, clarifying that China was “safe”.

The ambassador said it would be the “wise, safe, cheap and right” thing to do for SA citizens — some of whom have said they want to come back home and be with their families — to stay put in China during this “crucial moment” to prevent the spread of the disease.

Lin said the countries that had evacuated their citizens had no proper mechanisms in place to deal with those that had been infected by the virus.

He singled out the US, saying he was challenging the global superpower to have “a national response system, [and] a national quarantine system”, noting that the Chinese government had not suspended flights to the US.

The US and China have been engaged in a tit-for-tat trade war since 2018.

“We don’t have a travel ban for Chinese not to go to the US. We did not evacuate our citizens [from the US] because we believe the US is the most developed country in the whole world ... they need to protect our people,” said Lin.

“They have the capacity and resources to protect our people. We want to work together with the US, with the world and all of us. We have no choice: We need to join hands together to fight and keep away from the disease. [We need to] protect our people [and] work for a better world and a better shared future for mankind.”

He said they would keep fighting until the battle was won very soon. Lin added that no Chinese diplomat would be allowed to take leave until the outbreak had been contained in its entirety. “The ambassador is the commander in the field. We keep our eyes open.”

He  warned that the outbreak of the coronavirus could negatively affect his country's economy.

Lin said if China's economy collapses, “everybody will pay the price”. China is the world’s second largest economy and was instrumental in reigniting the world’s economy after the global financial crisis in 2008.

SA and China share strong economic ties, and trade between the two countries accounted for more than R570bn in 2018.

“China is the main engine [driving the] world’s economic development. In 2008, when the financial crisis happened, the [economic growth] contribution from China reached about 30%,” Lin said in Pretoria on Monday. The coronavirus outbreak has been declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“If the engine collapses, everybody will pay the price,” he warned.

But he also took pains to explain that China had the ability to contain the coronavirus and that there was no need for panic as China had enough resources and capacity to handle the outbreak. He said the WHO declaration should not be interpreted as a no confidence vote in China’s ability to control the outbreak.

ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe said the party welcomed the update by the Chinese embassy and that the Asian country was “doing its best endeavor to curb the spread of the epidemic and widen the scope of public awareness on precautionary measures”.

“The ANC has confidence in the undertakings made by South African authorities including an announcement made by the minister of health Zweli Mkhize that the South African government will be on high alert and that the country is ready for active surveillance, detention and tracing of the virus,” said Mabe.

“The ANC remains committed to the protection of South Africans, both here and abroad, and will continue to work closely with the Chinese authorities and the World Health Organisation to ensure that the coronavirus is contained for the wellbeing and good of all throughout the globe.”

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za