Argument

China Will Do Anything to Deflect Coronavirus Blame

Don’t mistake different messages for division within the party.

President Xi Jinping arrives at a meeting of the National People's Congress
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the fourth and last plenary meeting of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 15, 2019. Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

On March 22, Axios on HBO aired an interview it had conducted with Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, nearly a week earlier in which Cui reiterated his original Feb. 9 assertion that spreading coronavirus-related conspiracy theories would be “crazy” and “very harmful.” Cui was referring, albeit indirectly, to claims that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was developed in a military lab, perhaps in the United States, promoted by fellow Chinese officials. He particularly appeared to distance himself from the recently touted conspiracy by a spokesperson from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that the U.S. military may have brought the coronavirus to China, retorting, “I don’t have the responsibility to explain everybody’s view to you.”

The statement kicked off speculation over a possible split or spat within the MFA: that between the well-respected Cui and his less polished colleagues Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying, both spokespeople for the MFA; Zhao and Hua have been tweeting that the United States may be the source of the virus—and thus the appropriate target for all coronavirus-related blame.

For example, Bloomberg wrote on March 22: “Such public differences are rare among Chinese officials who are famous for their ability to stick closely to the Communist Party’s official line” and quoted another observer who called Cui “professional” and “an adult” whose words should be taken as an authoritative representation of the true MFA position.

But the assertion that there is anything short of a leadership consensus within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to spread conspiracy narratives is ill-conceived. Indeed, despite a momentary turn to the language of conciliation from Zhao, what observers should be focusing on instead is the consistent core of messaging coming from all of Beijing’s official and propaganda channels, including Cui: that the question of the source of the virus is a scientific question that requires listening to scientific and expert opinions—not U.S. or other foreign officials. Not a single reputable epidemiologist has shown any evidence that the coronavirus came from anywhere else but China, and the Italian doctor whose comments were taken out of context to boost the case has publicly refuted it. Yet this is important because by permanently, or even temporarily, injecting doubt into the origins of the coronavirus through this question, Beijing hopes to escape blame for its initial cover-up of the outbreak in December and January, which cost the world precious time to rally resources and create a potentially successful containment strategy.

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To understand this, though, requires a comprehensive dissection of China’s evolving narrative on the coronavirus’s origins since February, which reveals a two-pronged approach aimed at redirecting blame away from China and sowing confusion and discord among China’s detractors for its bungling of its initial coronavirus response.

Beijing first began leveraging studies and statements made by scientists to advance its claim that the coronavirus may have originated outside China in late February. The first study that offered ammunition for the effort was published on Feb. 20 under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Institute for Brain Research. It concluded that the Wuhan seafood market—as opposed to China at large—might not have been the source of the virus. One week later, the official People’s Daily was the first to leap from doubting the Wuhan market as the place of origin to doubting China as the country of origin.

“Zhong Sheng,” a homophonous byline meaning “Voice of China” (or perhaps more aptly China’s alarm bell) whose bellicose commentaries are collectively written by the paper’s international department in representation of the People’s Daily on foreign affairs, wrote on Feb. 28 that determining a disease’s origins is “difficult” and that the coronavirus “did not necessarily originate in China.” On the same day, a CGTN reporter seemingly fished for further talking points at a press conference for the World Health Organization (WHO) by asking about the possibility the virus came from outside China. This solicited a reply from Michael Ryan, the executive director for WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, that “disease can emerge anywhere. Coronaviruses are a global phenomenon.” While the doctor’s statement referenced diseases at large, the quote would not only be referenced by Zhong Sheng on March 20 but also framed to support the narrative that the coronavirus could have emerged anywhere.

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From March 4 to 9, the MFA opened a second authoritative channel to disentangle China from the growing global catastrophe when its MFA spokespeople in press conferences and on individual (but Beijing-controlled) Twitter accounts claimed that the current coronavirus outbreak’s origins were yet to be determined.

It was at this time that U.S. officials began to hit back. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” and stated in an interview that “no less authority than the Chinese Communist Party said it came from Wuhan.” U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien was blunter, pointing out that “rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up.” U.S. President Donald Trump stated in a nationally televised address that the outbreak “started in China and is now spreading throughout the world.”

By March 11, the CCP found its full footing, and the official propaganda line on the coronavirus’s origins crystallized when MFA spokesman Geng Shuang remarked in a regular press conference: “Regarding the question of the origins of the virus, this is a scientific question that requires listening to scientific and expert opinions.” It would be repeated over the coming weeks nearly verbatim. To outsiders, it might have read merely as questioning the wet market story, but it was a clear signal to start obscuring the national origins of the virus.

By March 12, Beijing launched its most bombastic tactic yet: blaming the United States directly for the coronavirus outbreak. To be sure, conspiracies of U.S. plans to undermine China are a regular feature of the Chinese internet. But this time the MFA itself was the source. Zhao unleashed a tweet storm accusing the U.S. Army of bringing the virus to Wuhan in October.

Perhaps due to the U.S. State Department’s summoning of Cui to warn China against pushing the U.S. origins conspiracy further, MFA spokespeople dropped their conspiracy theories for a week. But by March 20, the MFA was at it again, this time sowing new confusion by intertwining different, if related, U.S.-China disputes. That day, both Zhong Sheng and Geng repeated the official line that “the origins of the virus are a scientific question that requires listening to scientific and expert opinions.” Yet Geng went further, adding the new wrinkle that the United States is expelling Chinese journalists to “hinder the outside world from getting information on the United States’ epidemic situation.” Zhao and Hua built on this canard on Twitter the same day.

As the MFA continued to push the so-called scientific nature of the outbreak’s origins question, on March 22 party-state media launched another convenient explanation for the coronavirus: Maybe it originated in Italy! This is important because it reveals Beijing is content to shift blame away from China to anywhere in the world, not just the United States.

And yes, on March 17, Cui politely suggested: “Why not let our scientists do their own professional job and give us some answer, eventually?” Cui also stated: “You could try to interpret somebody else’s statement. I’m not in the position, and I don’t have the responsibility to explain everybody’s view to you.” This was a sidestep of the above conspiracies, not a refutation.

In conclusion, when viewing Cui’s remarks in context with the rest of Beijing’s authoritative output on the question of the coronavirus’s origins, it becomes clear that his statements complement those of Zhao and Hua—rather than contradict them. The CCP does not actually hope to convince the world that the virus may have started in the United States—or Italy, for that matter. But it absolutely does feel the need to blunt and undercut Washington’s efforts to point out China’s early role in letting the coronavirus get out of hand, a devastating reality for Beijing’s efforts to portray itself internationally as a responsible global power and potentially damaging domestically too if this international consensus is allowed to seep back into mainland China. This is precisely why none other than Politburo member Yang Jiechi issued a rare and authoritative threat of a political “counterattack” against the United States during a phone call to Pompeo on March 16, implying that if Washington continues its assault on Beijing over the virus, China will fight back.

By allowing Zhao and Hua to muddy the debate over the origins of the coronavirus, the Chinese leadership hopes the discourse’s center of gravity can be pulled away from blaming Beijing for the current global catastrophe to what appears to be a middle ground: Let the scientists worry about the virus’s currently indeterminate origins. As Zhao and Hua play bad cop, Cui—the top representative of Beijing in Washington—understandably plays good cop. In the end, Cui, the MFA spokespeople, and the People’s Daily have all been consistent in pushing a single goal: obfuscation.

To be sure, Beijing may well decide this messaging is counterproductive and cool it down. But for now bellicose conspiracies and smooth-talking diplomats all are working under the same orders: redirect blame away from the CCP for the greatest global health catastrophe of our time.

David Gitter is the director of the Party Watch Initiative, a program of the Center for Advanced China Research (CACR).

Sandy Lu is the director of analysis at the Center for Advanced China Research (CACR).

Brock Erdahl is an analyst at the Center for Advanced China Research (CACR).

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