The Associated Press has put together an interesting account of how China and Russia worked to spread the idea that the coronavirus was an American bioweapon. The claims started on Chinese social media in December of 2019.
“Watch out for Americans!” a Weibo user wrote on Dec. 31, 2019. Today, a year after the World Health Organization warned of an epidemic of COVID-19 misinformation, that conspiracy theory lives on, pushed by Chinese officials eager to cast doubt on the origins of a pandemic that has claimed more than 2 million lives globally.
Within weeks, Russia jumped on the idea that the virus had originated in American and began amplifying it:
On Jan. 20, the Russian Army’s media outlet, Zvezda, announced that the outbreak in China was linked to a bioweapons test, citing a four-time failed political candidate named Igor Nikulin.
Nikulin claims to have worked with the United Nations on disarmament in Iraq from 1998 to 2003, including as an adviser to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
But the U.N. has no record of his service. Richard Butler, the lead U.N. weapons inspector at the time, told AP he’s never heard of him…
Over the next two months, more than 70 articles appeared in pro-Kremlin media making similar bioweapons claims in Russian, Spanish, Armenian, Arabic, English and German, according to AP’s analysis of a database compiled by EUvsDisinfo, which tracks disinformation for the European Union.
Initially, China clamped down on such claims. A man in Mongolia who published a video claiming the virus had been engineered in the U.S. was arrested and detained on January 26. But it was only about two weeks later that Dr. Li Wenliang died in Wuhan after contracting COVID.
Suddenly, there was an eruption of outrage on Chinese social media. Censors were doing their best to take down criticism of the CCP and to frame Dr. Li’s death as that of a national hero, despite the fact that the police had ordered him to shut up under threat of imprisonment just weeks earlier. Under intense pressure, the CCP changed tactics and embraced the conspiracy theory about an American origin of the virus as a way to deflect blame. Now Chinese state media joined with Russian disinformation sources to spread the same message through various outlets.
On Feb. 22, People’s Daily ran a report highlighting speculation that the U.S. military brought the virus to China, pushing the story globally through inserts in newspapers such as the Helsinki Times in Finland and the New Zealand Herald…
On March 9, a public WeChat account called Happy Reading List reposted an essay claiming the U.S. military created SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, at a lab at Fort Detrick, in Maryland, and loosed it in China during the Military World Games, an international competition for military athletes, held in Wuhan in October 2019…
On March 11, Larry Romanoff, who claims to be a former management consultant based in Shanghai, posted an article on Global Research Canada that cribbed heavily from the Happy Reading List posting, citing it as a source.
All of this was still happening on the periphery but things changed when China’s foreign ministry spokesman embraced the claims on March 12. He was quickly backed up by other official Chinse government accounts.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, spent part of the next afternoon retweeting cute dog videos. Then, late that night, he sent out a series of tweets over 13 minutes that launched what may be China’s first truly global digital experiment with overt disinformation.
“When did patient zero begin in US?” Zhao wrote. “How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe (sic) us an explanation!”…
China’s Global Times and at least 30 Chinese diplomatic accounts, from France to Panama, rushed in to support Zhao. Venezuela’s foreign minister and RT’s correspondent in Caracas, as well as Saudi accounts close to the kingdom’s royal family also significantly extended Zhao’s reach, helping launch his ideas into Spanish and Arabic.
By March, the Iranians got in on the act and were also spreading claims that the virus had originated in America. While this concerted assault on America’s reputation was taking place, U.S. reporters were busy complaining about the President’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus.” In effect, the worst human rights offenders in the world were tag-teaming the idea this was an American virus but when the President responded by (accurately) calling it the “China virus” he was instantly called a racist by the U.S. media.
The AP reports that Iran and Russia stopped promoting the conspiracy theory sometime in April but China just kept going. In May, state media released a video about Fort Detrick where the virus had allegedly been engineered. Spokesman Zhao Lijian continued to refer to the conspiracy throughout last summer.
To this day, China is still suggesting the virus may have originated elsewhere and traveled to China via frozen foods. That idea now has at least some official cover thanks to the WHO team that just left Wuhan.