China Brief

Trump’s Virus Origin Theories Could Spark a Beijing Backlash

The administration keeps pushing unverified accusations that the coronavirus came from a Chinese research laboratory.

U.S. President Donald Trump the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House in Washington on April 7.
U.S. President Donald Trump the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House in Washington on April 7. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: The Trump administration stands by its claim that the coronavirus originated in a Wuhan lab, Beijing intensifies its rhetoric against Hong Kong’s protesters, and how life after lockdown looks in China.

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United States Pushes Wuhan Lab Claims

The Trump administration continues to promote the unverified claim that the coronavirus emerged from a research laboratory in Wuhan, China. The president hopes to elide responsibility for the tens of thousands of Americans who have died from COVID-19 in order to win reelection. But numerous scientific reports confirm that the virus is natural, though the possibility of a biosafety accident can’t be ruled out entirely.

The evidence presented by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials has been entirely circumstantial, leading to a strong pushback among U.S. allies. Pompeo has claimed that there is “enormous evidence” that the coronavirus came from the lab. It is highly unlikely this evidence exists—not least because the United States badly lacks reliable intelligence inside China. The only report the administration has presented came from the Department of Homeland Security, a body that is widely regarded as incompetent on foreign affairs among the intelligence community.

Something to hide? One of the arguments made by the Trump administration is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) isn’t allowing proper investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, so it must have something to hide. Here’s the problem: The CCP behaves this way all the time. Whatever the origins of the coronavirus, the party would refuse access—conjuring conspiracy theories.

It’s possible that the CCP itself doesn’t have a clear picture of the origins of the virus. If it did come from a routine biosafety accident, those involved would have a personal interest in concealing that fact.

Baffled response. The Chinese response to U.S. allegations has not been particularly heated, but that is in part because China’s blame game with the United States was already so intense that there is little room left for escalation. There have been routine editorials against Pompeo, but the diplomatic temperature hasn’t yet risen further.

What is worrying is that Beijing might mistake a campaign aimed at domestic political ends for a serious geopolitical challenge. Reuters reports that internal Chinese documents present Beijing as facing an unprecedented wave of hostility led by the United States and warn of the need to prepare for war.

What’s We’re Following

Hong Kong crackdown. Under the cover of the pandemic, Beijing is worsening its crackdown in Hong Kong, calling protesters a “political virus.” Equating dissent and disease is an old dictatorial tactic and one that is prominent in China’s campaign of cultural genocide in Xinjiang. Hong Kongers, proud of their civil-led response to the coronavirus, are unlikely to take the criticism lying down. Once it’s clear that the risk of community contagion has dissipated, expect protesters to flock to the city’s streets again—especially as the economy continues its downward slide.

Czech investments. The state-backed investment company CITIC Group is attempting to buy media influence (link in Czech) in the Czech Republic, using the economic fallout of the pandemic to acquire distressed outlets. The Czech Republic has been particularly resistant to Chinese influence over the last year, with already strained relations worsened after the Czech prime minister publicly called for China to recall its ambassador following threats to Czech authorities in March.

Praise for Pottinger? A speech in Mandarin by U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger received abundant praise from many of those who knew him as a China-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal. But the Chinese public can distinguish between pleasant rhetoric and action, and the speech was a dud in China—unlike in a previous era when the small deeds of American officials such as Gary Locke served as effective publicity.

Tech and Business

Foreigners banned from livestreams. Amid growing paranoia about any form of uncontrolled content, Chinese livestreaming sites are warning users that they risk being banned if they include foreign individuals in their videos, especially if they live outside China. This reflects the fear of the livestreaming sites that censorship officials will use any excuse—such as contact with foreigners—to clamp down.

The clubs are returning. In a sign of confidence, live venues and bars are starting to reopen across China, with 61 percent of venues nationwide now open. The move is all the more remarkable given that the authorities aren’t particularly comfortable with such places, which are often the target of crackdowns for supposed links to illegal drugs or prostitution.

Cinema at home. The Chinese movie industry is still a long way from a return to normal. Planned reopenings of cinemas have often been canceled the day before out of fears of contagion, and filming seems unlikely to return this year. In response, various at-home watching options have become even more popular than usual, mirroring patterns around the world.

What We’re Reading

“COVID-19 In China: From ‘Chernobyl Moment’ to Impetus for Nationalism,” Made in China Journal

This detailed piece by the Chinese social scientist Chenchen Zhang, now based in Europe, shows how what once seemed to be a serious threat to the CCP’s legitimacy has been coopted into a successful propaganda exercise. The long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the party’s stability still seem negative, but the chaotic failure of the United States has certainly given the party considerably more credibility in the eyes of many Chinese.

That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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