Chinese Government Sometimes Promotes Conspiracy That Virus Originated in US, Sometimes Pulls Back
Recently the Chinese state has helped promote the idea that the Coronavirus originated in the US, rather than in China, in Chinese media and social media. Mistranslations of CNN news reports have been cited as proof of the theory, such as a news segment that read “CDC confirms Coronavirus case of unknown origin in US.” (See Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/02/china-blames-united-states-coronavirus/). Other theories have originated outside of the Chinese mainland. This includes a theory originally aired on a Taiwanese news show—based on dubious science—that the virus originated in the US because of a greater variety of virus strains found in the US (https://m.weibo.cn/status/4477008216030027). This post has been widely circulated on social media in the mainland. Such translations and “viral” news items should not simply be attributed to “organic” interest. They have received a certain level of state endorsement.
In China, social media posts are closely monitored by the government. Many social media posts critical of the government’s response to the virus have been deleted. People who have shared social media deemed a challenge to stability, such as the late Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, have been threatened by public officials and the police. Li warned colleagues on the Chinese social media app WeChat on December 30th that the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market was the site of a dangerous viral outbreak, and that medical professionals should take precautions. His post was shared widely in China. In retribution, authorities took measures against him. This led many in China to support Li for his opposition to government attempts to cover-up the epidemic early on. Li died on February 7 from the Coronavirus, which he contracted from one of his patients.
After initially suppressing all information about the epidemic, the Chinese state has since aggressively attempted to quarantine individuals, and even to quarantine large regions. This effort has involved an all-out campaign to further control the flow of information in China, and to promote a positive view of the country’s fight to contain the virus outside of the country. In a tactic resembling Michael Bloomberg’s recent social media campaign to promote his erstwhile presidency, the Chinese state has offered to pay “social influencers” abroad $80-$300 for each post that is favorable of China’s response to the epidemic:
A little offended that a bunch of people here are getting offers to post “positive energy” stuff about China for US$80-300+ per tweet, and I did not 😤 pic.twitter.com/ELnymJ1bnZ— Vicky Xiuzhong Xu (@xu_xiuzhong) March 8, 2020
These maneuvers extend beyond the context of fighting the disease, and instead are clearly part of a pre-existing and ongoing showdown between the United States and China for influence, legitimacy, and dominance on the world stage.
Government officials have weighed in on the virus’s origin as well. Recently, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, announced at a briefing that “No conclusion has been reached yet on the origin of the virus,” citing a statement by Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a prominent epidemiologist, that “though the virus was first discovered in China, it may not have originated there,"(https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/coronavirus-rumors-misinformation-swirl-unchecked-china-n1151291).
At the same time, the Chinese state has also tried to limit the spread of some conspiracy theories. For example, the Global Times, a paper associated with Chinese government views, debunked a theory that originated in Japan that argued that flu deaths in the US were really caused by the coronavirus, and that this had preceded the spread of the virus in China (https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1180415.shtml).
The contradiction between both fanning the flames of some rumors and controlling others can be explained by the dual interests of the Chinese ruling class, which includes both promoting scientific practices and ideas that can help defeat the outbreak while also promoting the country’s rise on the global stage—by any means necessary. This latter cause has required that at times those who have spoken truth about the epidemic’s origin have been persecuted. It has also meant that at other times, lies and half-baked conspiracies about the contagion have been given a green-light by state censors.