WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced Friday he would withdraw funding from the World Health Organization, end Hong Kong's special trade status and suspend visas of Chinese graduate students suspected of conducting research on behalf of their government – escalating tensions with China that have surged during the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump has been expressing anger at the World Health Organization for weeks over what he has portrayed as an inadequate response to the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in China's Wuhan province late last year.
The president said in a White House announcement that Chinese officials “ignored” their reporting obligations to the WHO and pressured the organization to mislead the public about an outbreak that has now killed more than 100,000 people in the United States.
Trump said the U.S. would be “redirecting” the money to “other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” without providing specifics.
Critics of the administration's decision to cut funding called it misguided, saying it would undermine an important institution that is leading vaccine development efforts and drug trials to address the COVID-19 outbreak.
Sen. Chris Murphy called it a distraction that would “hand over” the organization to China.
“Leaving castrates our ability to stop future pandemics and elevates China as the world's go-to power on global health,” said the Connecticut Democrat.
The WHO declined to comment on the announcement. Officials of the U.N. agency have not directly addressed a letter that Trump sent to the general director on May 18, warning he would make permanent a temporary freeze on U.S. funding and reconsider U.S. membership unless it committed to “major substantive improvements within the next 30 days.”
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate health committee, also warned that the president's decision could interfere with vaccine trials and international cooperation during future outbreaks.
“Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made in connection with coronavirus, but the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it,” said Alexander, echoing a point made by others, including the head of the United Nations.
At a later event Friday, Trump was asked about relations with China and he repeated his earlier suspicions about how the country managed to apparently contain the virus in Wuhan while it spread to Europe and the United States.
“Well, we're certainly not happy with what happened with respect to China,” he told reporters.
Tensions over Hong Kong have been increasing over the past year as China has cracked down on protesters and sought to exert more control over the former British territory.
Trump said the administration would begin eliminating the “full range” of agreements that had given Hong Kong a relationship with the U.S. that mainland China lacked, including exemptions from controls on certain exports.
He said the State Department would begin warning U.S. citizens of the threat of surveillance and arrest when visiting the city.
The president also said the U.S. would be suspending entry of Chinese graduate students who are suspected of taking part in an extensive government campaign to acquire trade knowledge and academic research for the country's military and industrial development.