As the Chinese government has gotten a grip on its breakout of the 2019 coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, internal narratives have been shifting. Having initially declared a “people’s war” on the disease, Chinese President Xi Jinping, clad in a facemask, went to Wuhan this week— the city where the virus, known as SARS-nCoV-2, is thought to have had its zoonotic genesis.
Xi’s visit was seen as a victory lap: a moment for him, as commander-in-chief, to indicate to the Chinese people that the outbreak had been brought under control. It also coincided largely with the moment that the rest of the world — especially Europe and the United States — began to recognize the gravity of the COVID-19 situation. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization moved to officially dub COVID-19 a pandemic.
In the weeks preceding Xi’s moment in Wuhan, official Chinese propaganda channels had started to raise the notion that the disease may not have originated within China. On February 27, Zhong Nashan, a Chinese scientist involved in Beijing’s national response, suggested the following: “Though the COVID-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China.”
On Thursday, Lijian Zhao, an official spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, took to Twitter to insinuate that “it might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” Zhao, no stranger to Twitter controversy, added that the United States should “be transparent” and “make public your date.” The “US owe us an explanation,” he added.
That message was then taken up by Chinese diplomats overseas. For example, the Chinese ambassador to South Africa, repeated that line. Messaging underplaying the suspected zoonotic origins of the disease in China’s Hubei province were combined with a celebration of China’s national response and its implications for the world: “China’s endeavor to combating the epidemic has bought time for int’l preparedness,” the Chinese foreign ministry suggested this week.
All of this, culminated in Zhao’s implication of U.S. military involvement: a spectacular claim for an official government spokesperson.
Zhao’s Twitter profile, unlike that of several other national spokespersons on the platform, does not indicate that he is tweeting in a personal capacity. He used this account extensively to build a following when he was posted to Pakistan as the deputy chief of mission for the Chinese embassy there.
Now, as national spokesperson, for him to insinuate that the United States military had a role in bringing COVID-19 to Wuhan raises an uncomfortable specter for U.S.-China relations. It mirrors the arguments raised by some in the United States — including prominent lawmakers — that SARS-nCoV-2 might have been bioengineered (a proposition for which no evidence exists and one that is also logically unsound).
The COVID-19 pandemic is just starting, but it’s starting to look as if this will turn into a major sore point between the United States and China. In particular, as China’s national response begins to take effect and the U.S. public health crisis appears to be ramping up, Beijing’s propaganda blitz may only grow more intense. The effects on U.S.-China relations are unlikely to be positive.