For all the world has come to learn about the novel coronavirus, which has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, one thing scientists still haven’t been able to determine for certain is where exactly it came from.
Though the current COVID-19 pandemic is generally traced back to a cluster of cases linked to a wet market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, questions remain as to where it came from before that—something Chinese state media has steadily amplified.
Following a string of successes fighting the virus at home, even as it continues to wreak havoc overseas, Chinese state media outlets are increasingly seizing on the characteristically slow moving nature and equivocating language of scientific research to sow doubt on whether the outbreak originated in China at all.
“The possibility cannot be ruled out,” runs a common refrain through much of the coverage, “that the novel coronavirus may have come from outside China.”
An article in nationalist state-run tabloid Global Times on Monday cited research into a recent cluster of new cases in Beijing to insinuate that imported goods may have in fact been responsible for the initial outbreak in Wuhan.
“Evidence shows that the source of infection in Beijing’s new coronavirus outbreak points at Europe, seemingly casting new doubt over the origins of the COVID-19 epidemic, with some netizens and experts speculating the outbreak that occurred in Wuhan's Huanan seafood market may also relate to imported food or animals,” the first line of the article reads.
Wu Zunyou, an expert at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), told state broadcaster CGTN that research “clearly indicated” that the virus strain involved in the new outbreak in Beijing belongs to a "major epidemic strain in the European countries," concluding that the virus responsible was "from outside of China.”
The virus could have been brought to Beijing “from any of the European countries, or maybe from the United States, or from Malaysia,” Wu elaborated in the interview.
“The European strain is very prevalent in many many different countries,” he said, but “it’s not in… China.”
The Global Times, while stopping short of explicitly saying Europe had imported the virus to Wuhan, did strongly suggest as much, saying “suspicions are mounting” over imported goods, citing “some experts” as saying “the possibility cannot be ruled out,” and pointing to past comments by China CDC head Gao Fu that the seafood market in Wuhan "is more like a victim" of an imported coronavirus than its originator.
Only in the last few paragraphs of the story is any countervailing evidence mentioned, namely that vendors in Wuhan said most of the produce sold there came from nearby, and the contention from two prominent experts that COVID-19 almost definitely originated in wild animals, most likely bats.
Outside of Chinese state media, meanwhile, the theory that even the Beijing outbreak was imported in a shipment of contaminated seafood was met with skepticism, with academics and the head of the World Health Organization suggesting the outbreak was more likely caused by human-to-human transmission.
As the actual scientists the Global Times story belatedly quoted pointed out, the slowly accumulating scientific consensus surrounding the origins of COVID-19 suggests that it mutated from similar coronavirus strains found in bats.
But a separate story, also published by the Global Times, took pains to suggest that these may not have been Chinese bats.
“The novel coronavirus appears to have originated in horseshoe bats and the possibility cannot be ruled out that it may have come from outside China from Southeast Asian countries,” the June 4 article begins, citing a joint study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology and foreign researchers.
While horseshoe bats are indeed found across Southeast Asia, as the Global Times article noted in the very first line, they are also native to southern China, and the study itself pointed to Yunnan as the likely origin of the coronavirus strain most closely matching that responsible for COVID-19.
Oddly, the Global Times story also ultimately acknowledges that all the samples came from Yunnan, despite choosing to hone in on the acknowledgement by the researchers that the same species of bats is present in other nearby countries.
Just last week, meanwhile, fellow state media outlet Xinhua ran a story of its own about Thai authorities testing bats for COVID-19 that fit snugly into the Southeast Asian bat theory alluded to in the Global Times.
On the whole, the coverage of the virus’ origins by Chinese state media hasn’t trafficked in outright falsehoods—after all, it is true that “the possibility cannot be ruled out” that the virus originated elsewhere. And others around the world, most notably U.S. President Donald Trump, have certainly not been above circulating other widely discredited conspiracy theories as to the virus’ origins. (Some Chinese officials haven't been above it either.)
Rather, Chinese media’s coverage appears to rely on scientists’ innate reluctance to make definitive statements in the absence of overwhelming evidence to create a counter-narrative deflecting attention away from China’s botched response to early indications of an outbreak.
In February, China’s top leadership was forced to acknowledge its own missteps, which included ordering one Chinese doctor who tried to warn of the disease late last year to stop making “false statements” and cease his “illegal activity.”
Not only did the revelations rattle the global community’s trust in China, they also proved vastly damaging to the Chinese Communist Party on the domestic front, something party leadership may now be trying to correct, according to Dr. Lee Jonghyuk from the China Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
The Chinese Communist Party may be pursuing a strategy of “distraction and flooding.” That is, by inundating domestic readers with a "massive amount of biased information,” it’s actually distracting the public from the "actual target” of their dissatisfaction—in this case, the party itself.
The culpability of the government in the country’s first outbreak was a subject of rare open criticism among Chinese citizens, but rather than censoring debate about mishandling of the epidemic, it’s easier to redirect public debate towards the origins of the coronavirus—and to anywhere in the world but Wuhan and China, Lee told VICE News.
“As an authoritarian country, what is the most important for the CCP is regime stability,” he said. “Its utmost concerns always lie on [its] domestic audience.”