If you think the US is the only place to find conspiracy theories about the coronavirus outbreak – think again. China is spreading its own spin on the virus, and it’s a doozy, the social media rumor mill in China is claiming that the US, and not China is ground zero for the outbreak, and it Washington, and not Bejing, that owes the world an apology.
It all started when the influential Weibo page “Beijing Things” circulated a Taiwanese television clip showing a pharmacologist speculating about the United States as the contagion’s origin. Writers at popular outlets on WeChat, then picked up on the story and began churning out “fake news” laying out how the U.S. military could have deployed the pathogen as a clandestine bioweapon during a trip to Wuhan in October.
In the video posted by the Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is asked whether there may have been deaths attributed to influenza that could actually have been the result of Covid-19. Redfield responds in the affirmative: “Some cases have been actually diagnosed that way in the United States today.”
Redfield’s vague answer was enough to add fuel to a conspiracy theory that has been gaining traction over the past two weeks in China – that the coronavirus did not originate in China but may have come from the US instead.
“The US has finally acknowledged that among those who had died of the influenza previously were cases of the coronavirus. The true source of the virus was the US!” one commentator on the video said. “The US owes the world, especially China, an apology,” another said. “American coronavirus,” one wrote.
The theory has gained traction over the past few weeks, after a respected epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, said in a passing remark at a press conference in late February that although the virus first appeared in China “it may not have originated in China.”
Last week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman suggested without evidence that the US military might have brought the virus to the Wuhan, the center of the outbreak. Zhao Lijian accused the US of lacking transparency, saying on Twitter, “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!”
China’s ambassador to South Africa said last week on Twitter that the virus was not necessarily “made in China.”
An editorial in Xinhua, the official government newspaper, last week also echoed Zhong, “The epidemic was first reported in China but that does not mean it necessarily originated in China … The WHO has said many times that Covid-19 is a global phenomenon with its source still undetermined.”
Officials have framed the campaign as a protest against the “politicization” of the outbreak by countries such as the US, where some officials have continued to use the terms “Chinese coronavirus” or “Wuhan virus,” despite the World Health Organization’s discouragement. But analysts say China may be looking to deflect blame as the coronavirus spreads around the world.
“We might be heading into first global recession caused by Chinese Communist party mismanagement,” wrote Bill Bishop, author of the China newsletter Sinocism. “Previous manmade disasters in China since 1949 never really spread outside the People’s Republic of China’s borders in meaningful ways.”
“This time looks to be different … And that is likely one of the reasons the propaganda apparatus and PRC officials are pushing so hard the idea that virus may not have originated in China,” he wrote.