President Trump opened his speech last night by saying the following: “My fellow Americans, tonight I want to speak with you about our nation’s unprecedented response to the coronavirus outbreak that started in China and is now spreading throughout the world.” A few sentences later he added, “This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history.”
After the speech, CNN’s Jim Acosta latched onto the phrase “foreign virus” on Chris Cuomo’s show. “One of the points that the president wanted to make tonight, wanted to get across to Americans, is that this virus did not start here but that they’re dealing with it,” Acosta said. “It’s going to come across to a lot of Americans as smacking of xenophobia,” Acosta concluded.
Two points about this. First, just a few weeks ago it was pretty common for people in the media to refer to this as the “Wuhan” coronavirus. Coronavirus is a type of virus that includes many specific strains and Wuhan is the place where this novel virus originated. In fact, Jim Acosta himself used this formula back in January.
CNN International: Authorities in Beijing have cancelled all large-scale Chinese New Year celebrations in an effort to contain the growing spread of Wuhan Coronavirus.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) January 23, 2020
The second point worth noting here is that China is actively engaged in an ongoing propaganda effort to suggest the real source of the virus is unknown. Axios reported on this effort yesterday:
We’re getting a glimpse of how China’s formidable propaganda apparatus can obscure the truth and change narratives abroad, just as it can at home…Chinese diplomats are taking to Twitter and email, pushing talking points that deflect blame from Beijing and instead praise its response…
What they’re saying: “Though the COVID-19 was first discovered in China, it does not mean that it originated from China,” Zhong Nanshan, a scientist helping lead the government response, said in a Feb. 27 press conference.
Here’s a Chinese ambassador pushing this talking point in public:
Although the epidemic first broke out in China, it did not necessarily mean that the virus is originated from China, let alone "made in China". pic.twitter.com/EVXLkQnyfF
— Chinese Ambassador to South Africa (@AmbLINSongtian) March 7, 2020
In addition, China’s embassy in Australia sent an email to an Australian journalist which claimed, “journalists are politicizing the coronavirus by suggesting it originated in China.” The goal is obviously to fuzz up the origin of the virus and make talking about the truth more difficult.
But it’s actually worse than that. As the Washington Post reported last week, China is encouraging the spread of online conspiracy theories that the virus actually originated in the US:
In recent days, run-of-the-mill mockery of the White House has taken a darker turn as the Chinese Internet became inundated by the theory, subtly stoked by the Chinese government, that the coronavirus originated in the United States. The U.S. government, one version of the theory goes, has been covering up mounting cases, and perhaps thousands of deaths, by classifying them as regular flu.
While conspiracy theories pervade the Internet in every country, the sudden surge and overwhelming prevalence of anti-U.S. rhetoric this week has been conspicuous and significant in the context of China, where censors typically scrub speech that strays out of bounds and police quickly detain those deemed to be spreading rumors.
“Go on WeChat, go on Weibo, look on Baidu search, and it’s full of ‘look at all the other countries getting sick,’ or ‘the virus came from the United States,’ or all different levels of conspiracy theories,” said Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information who studies China’s Internet.
Today the Guardian published a follow-up on these conspiracy theories which are still spreading on Chinese social media:
One of the most popular topics on the Chinese microblog Weibo on Thursday was a one-minute clip of a US congressional hearing this week on how the country was dealing with the coronavirus.
In the video posted by the People’s Daily, Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is asked whether there may have been deaths attributed to influenza that could actually have been the result of Covid-19. Redfield responds in the affirmative: “Some cases have been actually diagnosed that way in the United States today.”…
“The US has finally acknowledged that among those who had died of the influenza previously were cases of the coronavirus. The true source of the virus was the US!” one commentator said. “The US owes the world, especially China, an apology,” another said. “American coronavirus,” one wrote.
Here’s the clip in question which was published with Chinese subtitles.
CDC director Robert Redfield admitted some Americans who seemingly died from influenza were tested positive for novel #coronavirus in the posthumous diagnosis, during the House Oversight Committee Wednesday. #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/kk7q0bKE6p
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) March 12, 2020
And here’s a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry sharing the clip:
Some #influenza deaths were actually infected with #COVID-19, Robert Redfield from US #CDC admitted at the House of Representatives. US reported 34 million cases of influenza and 20,000 deaths. Please tell us how many are related to COVID-19? @CDCDirector pic.twitter.com/vYNZRFPWo3
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) March 12, 2020
Getting back to Jim Acosta, I’m not suggesting that Acosta got an email from the Chinese government or that he is knowingly responding to Chinese propaganda. For one thing, Acosta doesn’t seem to be questioning the fact that the virus originated in China. That said, having figures in the US media suggests it’s “xenophobic” for the President of the United States to mention that the virus originated in China clearly helps the Chinese propaganda effort. To the degree it gets people to think they shouldn’t discuss this fact (lest they sound xenophobic) that’s a plus for China which ultimately wants people to stop talking about where and how this originated.
If Acosta were a better reporter I think he would have shared some of this context on CNN last night, i.e. that the president appeared to be taking a firm stance against an ongoing Chinese propaganda effort to suggest the origin of the virus is either a) unknown or b) the United States. Instead, he told CNN viewers the president’s statement of the facts was xenophobic.
At some point, CNN might want to clarify with Acosta whether his job is inform people about what’s going on in the world or simply to attack President Trump on camera.