When a conspiracy theory began circulating in China suggesting that the coronavirus had escaped from an American military laboratory, it had largely been marginalized. Now the ruling Communist Party has firmly mainstreamed the idea.
This week, a Chinese State Department spokesman repeatedly used an official podium to spread unproven ideas that the coronavirus may first have leaked from a research facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland. A Communist Party publication, the Global Times, launched an online petition in July calling for this lab to be examined and saying it had garnered more than 25 million signatures.
Officials and state media have promoted a rap song by a patriotic Chinese hip-hop group that made the same claim, saying, “How many conspiracies came from your labs? How many corpses are on a label? “
Beijing is spreading baseless theories that the United States may be the real source of the coronavirus as it rejects efforts to investigate the origins of the pandemic in China. The disinformation campaign started last year, but Beijing has been ramping up the volume in recent weeks to reflect its fear of being held responsible for the pandemic that has killed millions of people around the world.
Spread by officials, academics, key propaganda channels, and social media, these theories have gained prominence in China. You risk further confusing the investigation into the source of the virus and worsening the already frayed relationship between the world’s two greatest powers at a time when collaboration is urgently needed.
“Not only does this further worsen US-China relations, but it also makes it less likely that the two countries will work together to face a common challenge,” said Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University. “We haven’t seen any bilateral collaboration on the vaccines, tracking the trajectory of the virus or the mutations, or anything like that.”
Understanding the origin of the virus could help scientists prevent another pandemic. Virologists are still largely inclined to theorize that the virus passed from infected animals to humans outside of a laboratory, but there are increasing demands to also study the possibility that the virus originated in a laboratory in central Wuhan of the outbreak.
China has dismissed the Wuhan Lab leak hypothesis as an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. It has also criticized the United States’ pandemic response while highlighting its own success in taming a recent outbreak of the highly transmissible Delta variant, with only a handful of new cases reported this week.
Beijing has tightly controlled the World Health Organization’s efforts to investigate the origin of the outbreak, rejecting the health agency’s recent request for a second phase of an investigation that would examine laboratory theory in more detail.
China has stepped up its disinformation campaign ahead of the results of an investigation by American intelligence agencies ordered by President Biden. Authorities presented their report on the origin of the pandemic to the president on Tuesday, but have not yet finalized whether the virus occurred naturally or was the result of an accidental leak from a laboratory.
“The point is, really saturate the airwaves with everything that most of the average Chinese can’t see,” said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “Much of it anticipates and tries to preventively fend off this potential American study by the intelligence community.”
The Chinese government has argued that Beijing did its part in finding the origin of the pandemic by allowing WHO experts to visit earlier this year, and that scientists should now look at other countries, including the United States. Beijing accuses those pushing for a laboratory test in China to try to undermine the country’s image at home and abroad.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, used routine press conferences this week to spread unsubstantiated speculation that the virus had surfaced in the U.S. before the first cases were reported in China. He cited a July 2019 outbreak of a lung disease in Wisconsin that American health officials have already linked to vaping, not Covid. On Wednesday, he said WHO should investigate laboratories at Fort Detrick and elsewhere in the United States that study coronaviruses.
“The United States has accused China of being opaque about tracing the origins of the virus and falsely accused China of using false propaganda,” Wang said Tuesday. “But it has been looking for excuses, carefully hiding secrets, passively avoiding problems and constantly building up obstacles.”
In a report released this month, several Chinese policy research institutes accused the United States of “manipulating global public opinion by practicing ‘primal terrorism'”. Fort Detrick.
One of the report’s authors, Wang Wen, a professor at Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, said unsubstantiated suggestion that the coronavirus was made in a laboratory was a form of terrorism because it caused “unnecessary horror in society.” caused.
He defended the allegations in the report on the Fort Detrick lab, essentially saying that it was the United States that started it.
“It was American politicians who said this first and went on to say it,” said Wang. “China could have been cooperative at first, but after facing such slander, it has to ask reasonable questions of the United States too.”
The report argued that the pandemic may have started in the United States, pointing to the closure of a laboratory at Fort Detrick due to safety concerns in August 2019 and deaths in a Virginia nursing home in July 2019 as suspicious.
Never mind that such claims have been widely rejected by scientists. (“I don’t think these allegations are justified,” said Prof. Huang of Seton Hall University.) You have played a prominent role in China. That month, the state broadcaster ran several segments of the so-called “dark story” of Fort Detrick. The People’s Daily recently ran a 16-part series on American failure to control coronavirus with repeated questions about the Fort Detrick conspiracy.
“Why didn’t the United States invite WHO to visit Fort Detrick?” The newspaper wrote in an Aug. 6 comment. “As for traceability, if you can go to China, why can’t you go to the US?”
Efforts to emphasize American wrongdoing have backfired at times. After Chinese state media quoted a Swiss biologist who warned that WHO’s efforts to investigate the origins of the pandemic would become a tool used by the United States, the Swiss embassy in China said the expert appeared to be fictitious.
“If you exist, we would like to get to know you!” Tweeted the Swiss embassy. “But it is more likely that it is fake news, and we urge the Chinese press and internet users to remove the posts.”
Still, the coronavirus conspiracies became widespread on social media.
On Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, hashtags like “The United States Must Answer” and “Unmask the Amazing Inside Story of Fort Detrick” have been viewed more than 100 million times.
Jenny Zhang, a 21-year-old college student in the eastern city of Nanjing, said she signed the Global Times petition for an investigation at Fort Detrick after reading several reports in Chinese media suggesting the outbreak was in the USA started much earlier.
“It’s about the safety of all humanity,” said Ms. Zhang. “If the virus turns out not to originate from China, I think that would change other people’s views of China.”