The Chinese government is again spreading unfounded claims linking an American military lab to the COVID-19 pandemic, just as experts with the World Health Organization are looking into the origins of the virus in China.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, on Tuesday asked Washington to open its Fort Detrick biolab for investigation, alluding to a conspiracy theory she helped push in May that the Maryland facility was linked to COVID-19.
Beijing and Washington have been blaming each other for causing the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 2 million people globally. Despite strong scientific evidence that the coronavirus emerged naturally, the two governments have raised suspicions that the virus could have escaped from each other’s laboratories, citing half-truths that often take on a life of their own among conspiracy theorists.
On Wednesday, “America’s Fort Detrick laboratory” became the top trending item on Chinese social media site Weibo, amplified by accounts controlled by the ruling Communist Party.
“The COVID epidemic hit America in April 2020, and New York became the epicenter,” the Communist Youth League wrote in a post that has been liked more than 1.5 million times. “In the meantime, at Fort Detrick about 240 miles away, the U.S. government was conducting experiments with dangerous pathogens.”
Titus Chen, a professor at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan who has studied Chinese propaganda, called Beijing’s information campaign “a counterbalancing narrative.”
“When the world’s attention is once again focused on Wuhan, it’s the Chinese government’s attempt to divert the focus, to move the ball back to the U.S.,” he said.
The latest misinformation campaign was set off after Hua of the foreign ministry lashed out at the U.S. State Department for suggesting an investigation into a virology lab in Wuhan. The Trump administration has attempted to link Chinese research facilities to the origins of COVID-19 as early as April last year, pushing U.S. spy agencies to find information to support the lab release theory.
Experts say Beijing’s response also helps distract Chinese people from questioning the authorities, as the WHO probe in Wuhan and new outbreaks in northern China have put renewed attention on Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
While China has largely contained the pandemic, many people in the country have painful memories about the early days of the epidemic. After the government delayed alerting the public about a potential epidemic, the surging COVID cases in Wuhan overwhelmed the health care system and forced patients to plead for hospital beds online.
The renewed misinformation push coincided with the first anniversary of the outbreak in Wuhan. One year ago this week, Wuhan entered a strict lockdown that would see most residents confined to their homes for 76 days.
Social media platforms have suppressed discussions on the government’s mishandling of the crisis and instead promoted groundless posts blaming the pandemic on America.
Obscure rumors from Facebook or Twitter, websites that are blocked in China, have made their way onto Weibo’s influential trending list, which routinely directs hundreds of millions of people to hot topics approved by censors.
For example, a trending hashtag #Hill led to a post that claims an ex-Fort Detrick worker named Samantha Hill had identified the coronavirus as coming from a leak from the lab. The post, which cited an unverified, now-deleted Facebook post, has been shared more than 81,000 times and liked by more than 1.6 million users.
The most liked comment said America should “apologize to the bats,” referring to the scientific consensus that the virus that causes COVID-19 likely jumped to humans from the animals.
“The main purpose is to evoke nationalistic sentiment,” said Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The Chinese government’s handling of the initial outbreak was problematic, and these stories are likely aimed at distracting people.”
A team of WHO-led experts arrived on Thursday last week in Wuhan, where they are being quarantined for two weeks before investigating sites that might give them clues to how the pandemic started.
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