While the world’s leading scientists do not know for sure the origin of the coronavirus behind the Covid-19 pandemic, some Chinese officials and US politicians appear to know better.
Medical experts around the world have been trying for months to confirm the origin of the virus that has infected nearly 130,000 people and claimed more than 5,000 lives.
But scientists have yet to track down “patient zero” of the outbreak or confirm conclusively that the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, linked to 27 of the 41 first reported cases, was the source of the virus.
A study published by the Hubei Centres for Disease Prevention and Control this week analysing its genomic sequences said the market may have promoted its spread, but the researchers could not determine whether it had originated from there or what intermediate hosts may have transmitted the virus to humans.
But while this remains an open question for scientists, that has not stopped politicians from weighing in with unverified theories.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian became the latest to promote a conspiracy with a series of tweets late on Thursday and early Friday suggesting that the virus may have been spread by the United States military.
Zhao promoted a Canadian conspiracy website making the claim and wrote: “When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
The claims were apparently linked to the US Army’s participation in the international Military World Games held in Wuhan in October, which featured teams from more than 100 countries.
While Zhao’s tweets quickly drew tens of thousands of responses from Chinese internet users, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, was equivocal when asked at a Friday press briefing if the statements reflected Beijing’s official stance.
“You wonder if Zhao’s opinions represent those of the Chinese government,” Geng said. “I think you first should ask if remarks by certain US senior officials that vilify China represent the official stance of the US government.”
There are many opinions about the origin of the virus in the international community, including in the US, but the Chinese side believes that this is a science question that requires professional and scientific opinions.”
Beijing has previously complained about the spread of “rumours and prejudice”, characterising them as a “political virus”.
State-backed media has focused its displeasure on US political figures such as the Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who has repeated a fringe theory that the coronavirus emerged from a biochemical lab in Wuhan.
Rumours that the coronavirus might have been engineered in a chemical laboratory as a bioweapon have already been dismissed by scientists, who pointed out that its genetic make-up did not support such a claim
Beijing has also aggressively pushed back against references to the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” deployed by figures such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and has tried to shift the focus away from criticisms of its initial handling of the outbreak to promoting its role in providing help and expertise to other countries.
Analysts said the posts from Zhao, a prolific tweeter known for his incendiary online rhetoric, owed more to the tensions between Beijing and Washington rather than being a serious endorsement of the conspiracy theory.
On Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, discussions of Zhao’s tweets racked up more than 170 million views, with many posters supporting a more hawkish stance against the US.
Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said Zhao’s suggestion that someone else may be to blame for the outbreak was one way for the Chinese Communist Party to reduce “pent-up public anger” about Beijing’s management of the crisis.
The news that the police had taken action against doctors who sought to warn colleagues about the outbreak in its early stages – including Li Wenliang, who later died from the disease – prompted widespread fury.
He also said the tweets reflected “how far into the abyss relations have fallen” between China and the US.
“There might be some people in the foreign ministry who are uncomfortable with Zhao’s tweets but they are consistent with the more aggressive posture that Chinese diplomats are adopting around the world on this and every other issue,” McGregor said.
“Zhao just happens to be a little nastier than the others and more willing to push the boundaries of diplomacy. But he increasingly represents mainstream Chinese diplomacy.”
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said Zhao’s tweets were his “personal opinion” and would not carry much weight in comparison with comments made in official foreign ministry press conferences.
“Such an important issue like the origin of the virus shall be decided by scientists around the world,” he said. “Now too little is known and there are different opinions. Claims like this will only provide ammunition to China hawks in the US, but I think the priority of both countries now is to contain the virus and secure their economies.”
Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, said Zhao’s remarks were trying to “wind up those that wind you up” but risked backfiring.
“It is indicative of the very defensive, often counterproductive and heavy-handed Chinese diplomacy more generally at the moment – high on strategic content, low on any real signs of emotional intelligence,” he said.
Lucrezia Poggetti, research associate at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, said Zhao’s theories could still sway people’s opinions.
“We shouldn’t underestimate China’s potential to influence narratives and opinions abroad,” she said. “China experts will be able to spot Chinese propaganda quite easily, but this is more difficult to do for the majority, for example in Europe, who are not familiar with China’s political system.”
She continued: “In Europe, China also rides on a wave of scepticism towards the EU and the US, as the narrative of China’s benevolence is contrasted with a lack of solidarity among EU countries and from the US.”
Zhao may have a free pass to make unverified claims on Twitter, a platform blocked in China, but ordinary members of the public have not been so lucky.
Last month a man in Inner Mongolia was detained for 10 days after claiming online that the coronavirus had been manufactured as an American bioweapon against China.
The Covid-19 outbreak has caused misinformation and conspiracies to proliferate online, with an analysis by the US think tank Foreign Research Institute this week finding that state-run outlets in China, Iran and Russia had all actively spread disinformation.
These included attempts to promote the narrative that the US was “weaponising the crisis for political gain and thus worsening its spread globally”.
One Chinese academic in Beijing criticised Zhao’s comments in a post on WeChat, saying they would further hurt relations with the US.
“As a government spokesperson, you should already know to speak and act cautiously,” he wrote. “To take some common hearsay as ‘evidence’ without any reason, and publicly post these far-fetched claims online … is extremely likely to stir up or deepen the conflict between countries.
“I cannot understand how this kind of hot-tempered person could advance so rapidly in his career.”
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