The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo launched an extraordinary attack on the World Health Organization during a private meeting in the UK, accusing it of being in the pocket of China and responsible for “dead Britons” who passed away during the pandemic.
Pompeo told those present that he believed the WHO was “political not a science-based organisation” and accused its current director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of being too close to Beijing.
Those present at the meeting on Tuesday said that Pompeo told his audience of 20 MPs and peers that he was saying “on a firm intelligence foundation, a deal was made” with China to allow Tedros to win election in 2017.
The secretary of state went on to to claim “when push came to shove, you’ve got dead Britons because of the deal that was made” – without providing any further details.
His remarks at the meeting organised by the Henry Jackson Society thinktank came in response to a question from Chris Bryant, one of two Labour MPs present in a meeting otherwise dominated by Conservatives, who had challenged him over the Trump administration’s repeated decisions to quit multilateral organisations.
Some believed Pompeo was trying to encourage those present to lobby for the UK to consider joining the US, although Bryant said that his partisan message left him unimpressed. “He said nothing that appealed to our side”.
Earlier this month, the US formally notified the World Health Organization it was quitting, despite widespread criticism and an almost complete lack of international support for the move in the midst of a pandemic.
That capped a string of attacks that Donald Trump had made on the organisation, although they come at a time when the number of new coronavirus cases continues to rise across the US.
The US has more than 3.8 million coronavirus cases and more than 140,000 deaths from Covid-19, making it easily the most affected country in the world. More than 60,000 new cases were recorded on Monday, about four times the figure for all of Europe.
The secretary of state also indicated that he was “confident that that the intelligence has been shared” with the UK on the persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China that would allow the UK to implement sanctions against Chinese communist party officials in response to a question from Conservative Nusrat Ghani.
Ghani had called on Dominic Raab to act earlier this week and implement sanctions against Chinese officials in Xinjiang province, but the question was ducked by the British foreign secretary.
Pompeo’s attack came just before he had a half-hour meeting with the prime minister at No 10. Downing Street sources said the specific issue of sanctions had not come up — but the treatment of the Uighur people was discussed.
Johnson and Pompeo also talked about how the US and the UK could cooperate on developing next generation technologies, to avoid a situation where a Chinese state-owned company such as Huawei achieves market dominance.
The US has accused Huawei of achieving its all but unassailable position partly through intellectual property theft.
A couple of hours after meeting Johnson, the secretary of state praised the UK government’s decision to remove Huawei from the UK’s 5G network, as he urged like-minded countries to “push back” against the actions of Beijing in a press conference.
Speaking alongside the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, after the pair held talks, Pompeo launched a strongly worded attack on China, including over the Covid-19 pandemic, which he called “preventable”.
“The Chinese Communist party’s exploitation of this pandemic to further its own aims has been disgraceful,” Pompeo said. “Rather than helping the world, general secretary Xi [Jinping] has shown the world the party’s true face.”
The US’s relations with Beijing have soured dramatically during Donald Trump’s presidency.
The UK government had come under significant pressure from Washington, as well as from Conservative backbenchers, over the role of Huawei, and announced last week it would drive out the Chinese provider from the 5G network by 2027.
Pompeo welcomed that decision, and the suspension of the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong, which Raab announced on Monday.
The UK has also promised that up to 3 million Hong Kong residents will be offered the chance to settle in the UK, and a path to permanent citizenship. “We support those sovereign choices: we think, well done,” Pompeo said.
Criticising China’s actions in a series of areas, he said: “You can’t go and make claim to maritime regions that you have no lawful claim to. You can’t threaten countries and bully them in the Himalayas. You can’t engage in cover-ups and co-opt international institutions like the World Health Organization.”
Asked if he would like to see the UK go further, he said: “We want to see every nation who understands freedom and democracy and values that, and knows that it’s important to their own people, to their own sovereign country, to understand the threat that the Chinese Communist party is posing to them, and to work both themselves and collectively to restore what is rightfully ours.”
He added: “It’s not about language, it’s not about words; we want every nation to work together to push back against the Chinese Communist party’s efforts in every dimension that I have mentioned today.”
Trump has been involved in a high-stakes trade war with China for months over allegations of industrial espionage and currency manipulation.
But in recent weeks Washington has also imposed sanctions on high-level Chinese officials over human rights abuses against the Muslim minority Uighur people in the western region of Xinjiang.
China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, defended his country’s human rights record on Sunday, insisting the Uighur people live in “peaceful and harmonious coexistence with other ethnic groups”, as he was confronted with footage of shackled prisoners being herded on to trains.