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On China, COVID-19, and Conspiracy Theories

As US-China relations continue to worsen, many Chinese are seizing on the narrative that the new coronavirus started in America.

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On China, COVID-19, and Conspiracy Theories

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian gestures as he speaks during a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, Feb. 24, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

This year’s Chinese New Year was the most memorable for people across China. For the two months, from the end of January to the present, the Chinese government has used the strongest administrative power in the world to ban 1.4 billion Chinese people from going to work and social activities. The Western media have criticized this as a human rights violation, but the Chinese rejected that view. Everyone was very obedient, knowing that their lives were facing a serious threat — the new coronavirus that broke out in the central city of Wuhan.

Now the tables have turned, and the pandemic is spreading abroad. Seeing frequent images of Westerners without face masks, many Chinese are asking: “Are these foreigners crazy?”

I’m bored these days in Beijing, after around 50 days of self-isolation, but I know the risks of being out and about — Beijing is one of the 10 most severely impacted cities in China, with more than 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Amid the lockdown, the Beijing Municipal Government invited vendors to visit residential communities. They come three days a week to allow residents to buy basic materials such as meat, vegetables, noodles, and fruit without going to the supermarket. So I stayed home, all the while observing and thinking.

What concerned me the most was my college teacher’s diagnosis.

During the Chinese New Year holiday, he left Beijing to visit his sister in Wuhan and became infected. He went directly to the ICU and almost died. He recovered and was discharged more than 20 days later. Beijing televisions stations went to interview him because he was one of the few patients willing to face the cameras. The virus is highly contagious, and many patients are concerned about being discriminated against after exposing their identity.

The teacher told a TV reporter that he didn’t know how he got infected. This is the truth. He arrived in Wuhan at a time when there had been no warnings from either officials or the media. Many people, like him, became infected from a single trip to Wuhan.

Afterwards, the Chinese government closed the city. It’s difficult for anyone to imagine what Wuhan people have experienced. In two months, there were 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 2,000 deaths, accounting for two-thirds of the death toll in China. Those figures are enough to shock anyone.

So when U.S. Congressman Paul Gosar and even U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the new coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” I – along with all Chinese people – was furious.

This outbreak is not Wuhan’s fault, nor is it the fault of Wuhan and Chinese people. People in Wuhan, and Chinese people in general, are victims of the virus. Pompeo and Gosar’s statements add insult to injury for Wuhan people and Chinese. I agree with the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who believes that this is racist.

Because the damage done to China was so great, Chinese people are even more eager than Americans or anyone else in the world figure out the puzzle: How did the virus originate?

By now many people have heard that China’s new Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, questioned the United States on Twitter, saying “it might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” This has caused great concern in China, the United States, and the world. Zhao was referring to the fact that in October last year, the Military World Games were held in Wuhan, with more than 300 Americans participating. That gave rise to a conspiracy theory that American athletes infected with the virus may have brought it to Wuhan.

I was surprised when I saw the news about Zhao’s tweet. Anyone with logical thinking will laugh at this statement. This theory offers no explanation as to why American athletes and other foreign athletes weren’t impacted, but Wuhan people were hit hard.

Conspiracy theories are now very popular in China, most of them related to the United States.

In addition to the questions raised by Zhao, a broader conspiracy theory is that flu season in the United States gave rise to a large number of new coronaviruses – including the one that causes COVID-19. I know some Americans have raised similar doubts, but in the eyes of some Chinese, this is already a fact, one that the United States is trying to cover up. Others linked the COVID-19 epidemic to the fact that thousands of Americans came down with a lung illness last year, one that was blamed on e-cigarettes. They think this is also an example of the U.S. government covering up the discovery of the new coronavirus.

Even if ordinary Chinese people are spreading conspiracy theories, why is a spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs doing so?

I don’t think Zhao really believes in conspiracy theories. A bigger possibility is that, during the months since the COVID-19 outbreak, relations between the United States and China have actually worsened. The spokesman’s Twitter feed is just one sign of that deterioration.

The most obvious example is that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly criticized the U.S. government’s assistance to China during the crisis as being all talk and no action. This is not only diplomatic signalling; it should also be read as an expression of anger and disappointment with the United States.

This epidemic should have become a bridge linking the two countries. After all, nothing moves people like humanitarianism. But the U.S. government did not seize the opportunity. Instead, Pompeo went out of his way to call the disease the “Wuhan virus” to provoke the Chinese government and the people.

In fact, American companies have donated to China’s fight against the epidemic, more so than any other global multinational companies. Chinese media reported this. But in the context of increasing problems between China and the United States, how many ordinary Chinese remember the charity of American companies toward China?

On the contrary, Chinese media have reported frequently on the support from Russia, Iran, and other countries to China. This gives more Chinese people positive feelings about American rivals Iran and Russia.

For example, after the outbreak in Iran, Iran’s Embassy in Beijing made a unique move — publicly raising funds on the Chinese internet and even issuing a QR code so that ordinary Chinese can donate money by scanning with their smartphones.

One country’s government directly asking foreigners in another country for donations — that’s unheard of.

The Chinese response was very enthusiastic, and within a few days the goal of raising 10 million yuan had been met. I wondered why the donation campaign was so successful, so I asked a friend who donated 100 yuan. He said that he didn’t like the Iranian government, but thought that they were courageous and not afraid of the United States – they could still vie with the United States even under sanctions.

The Iranian government clearly understands Chinese public opinion. After Zhao’s tweet, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tweeted a conspiracy theory suggesting that the new coronavirus is a “biological attack” on Iran. Of course, this also suits the fancy of some Chinese people. In fact, a few days before this, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Hossein Salami put it even more clearly, arguing that the new coronavirus might be a U.S. biological weapon against China and Iran.

Regardless of whether Zhao was angry with the United States out of diplomatic considerations or personal reasons, his comment was meant to counter Pompeo’s “Wuhan virus” remark. But as the conspiracy theory spreads more widely abroad, won’t that damage China’s image abroad? And will the interests of the Chinese people be harmed even more as a result?

When chatting with foreign friends, I fear this might be the case.

One friend said that he originally sympathized with China over the harm caused by the virus, but did not expect that so many Chinese people and even officials would support a conspiracy theory. He began to wonder whether China was trying a coverup.

This isn’t just a view among Americans. Some Europeans are rolling their eyes at China as well.

One civil servant, who did not want to be named, told me that he, like me, was worried that foreign countries were getting a worse impression of China thanks to Zhao and others. That would make diplomats’ job even harder – the bureaucrat in question mainly deals with international cultural exchanges. When he was chatting online with a German friend, he recalled, his friend joked with him: Angela Merkel also visited Wuhan last year. Will the Chinese government say that she brought the virus?