China is waging a propaganda war against the coronavirus on several fronts. In addition to its well-documented efforts to deflect attention from its early suppression of information about the disease and to claim that it has among all nations now halted the scourge, it is also pushing an alternative explanation of its origins—namely that it didn’t start in Wuhan after all, but was a creation of a military biochemical lab in the United States and was brought to China by an American team that competed in the Military World Games in Wuhan.
While China’s conspiracy theory was quickly noted and dismissed in much of the West, it is continuing and broadening all over social media in China – a country that strictly monitors what appears on its online platforms, regularly scrubbing it of what the authorities call “rumors.” But a lot of it, put on platforms that are banned in China, seems aimed outward, part of a concerted effort to convince the world that China, once the villain of the coronavirus story, is actually its hero, and that the real villain is America.
Its effectiveness may provide a new illustration of how fake news, if repeated loudly and often enough, uses social media as a carrier to spread misinformation around the globe.
Recently, for example, Global Times, an English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, called on the American government to release the medical records of all the members of the American team that competed in Wuhan, so as “to end the conjecture about U.S. military personnel bringing Covid-19 to China.” In asking the United States to be “transparent,” the paper was giving credence to a claim at the heart of the conspiracy theory, that a 50-year-old bicycle racer named Maatje Benassi, a member of the American delegation, was “patient zero,” the first victim of the disease, which would mean that the virus was brought to China by the United States. This claim has been amplified across Twitter.
Conspiracy theorist George Webb in a screen grab from a YouTube video.
It’s not the first time that China has given quasi-official sanction to the rewriting of the recent coronavirus past. The theory that the American army created the coronavirus has been propagated on Twitter, for example, by Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry. What’s become clearer over time is the possible goal of China’s effort: to win respectful treatment for its evidence-free claim, to present the question of the virus’s origins as undecided, something urgently requiring further research and disclosure.
The Military World Games logo for the Wuhan competitions last October.
One video making the rounds recently provides one of the more elaborate presentations of the theory to date. It’s not entirely clear who created it, or how broadly it is circulating in China or how great its influence is. A brief, unscientific survey of people inside China, mostly well-educated middle-class city dwellers, turned up nobody who actually believed its claims.
But the video is professionally done, with a Chinese-language narrator speaking with very much the style and intonation of official Chinese news broadcasts. It has the look and format of other videos that have been put out by a Chinese army propaganda unit in Wuhan, though it could not be confirmed whether this new video was produced in this way or not.
Opening ceremony at the Wuhan games.
Gerben van Es/Defensie/Wikimedia
In support of that notion, the narrator – according to RealClearInvestigations’ translation – reminds viewers that the 2019 World Military Games were held in Wuhan in October last year, with participation by some 10,000 athletes from more than 100 countries, including the American team with nearly 300 athletes and staff. The U.S., which, the narrator says, “has very strong abilities,” did poorly in the competition, and indeed, the American team won just eight medals, none of them gold, compared to China’s 239.
Isn’t this a strange thing? the narrator goes on to say, putting the poor American performance into a sinister light and using it to support the theory that the coronavirus must have originated in the U.S., not in China.
“Do you think the Americans came to Wuhan to buy soy sauce?” the narrator asks sarcastically. “They didn’t come to compete; they came because they had a job to do,” and while he doesn’t say so explicitly, the implication is clear: the “job” was to plant the new virus in Wuhan, thereby framing China as the creator of the new disease.