Has China begun walking back its COVID-19 propaganda?

Either Beijing has begun to reconsider its attempts to blame the US for the coronavirus outbreak, its foreign ministry might have an internal war on its hands, or they’re getting nervous enough to try to play games. Its official spokesman Zhao Lijian continues to insist on Twitter and elsewhere that the US may have originated COVID-19, such as in this tweet from over the weekend:

A little over a week earlier, Zhao had argued that not only had it been in the US first but that the American military had spread it into China. That drew the attention of Donald Trump, but also the semi-official state media outlet South China Morning Post:

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian took to Twitter on Friday to double down on an unproven claim that the US military brought the new coronavirus to the central city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.

Zhao urged his more than 287,000 followers in two tweets on Friday morning to widely share an allegation from a Canada-based conspiracy website that the coronavirus – which has become a global pandemic – originated in the US rather than the Wuhan seafood market that is thought to be its source.

“This is so astonishing that it changed many things I used to believe in,” he wrote on his official account.

The allegation was apparently linked to the US Army’s participation in the international Military World Games held in Wuhan in October, which drew competitors from more than 100 countries.

Although the SCMP report treated Zhao’s claims with a disapproving dollop of skepticism, the Chinese government seemed content with allowing Zhao to conduct pushback on its behalf. At least, that was the case until last night, when its ambassador to the US took a public swipe at Zhao for peddling his “crazy” theories. Cui Tiankai told Axios on HBO’s Jonathan Swan that the accusations were “very harmful,” and outside Zhao’s purview in any case:

The differences spilled into public view Monday after China’s ambassador to the U.S. reaffirmed his opposition to promoting theories that the virus that causes Covid-19 originated in an American military lab. Ambassador Cui Tiankai said in an interview with “Axios on HBO” that he stood by his Feb. 9 statement that it would be “crazy” to spread such theories, even though a foreign ministry spokesman has repeatedly floated the idea on Twitter in recent weeks.

“Such speculation will help nobody. It’s very harmful,” Cui told Axios. “Eventually, we must have an answer to where the virus originally came from. But this is the job for the scientists to do, not for diplomats.”

Cui’s comments represent a sharp public rebuke to foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who has publicly questioned whether the virus originated in China and even touted the idea that it may have been introduced by U.S. Army athletes. Such public differences are rare among Chinese officials who are famous for their ability to stick closely to the Communist Party’s official line.

The developments suggest that China’s foreign ministry may be having second thoughts about taking a more confrontational approach toward President Donald Trump. The foreign ministry later Monday posted a Chinese-language transcript of Cui’s remarks on its website and another spokesman, Geng Shuang, told reporters “the virus should not be linked to a specific country or region to avoid stigmatization.”

The question now is — which one’s the CCP official line? They seemed pretty sanguine about letting Zhao pass around his theories of the coronavirus; Zhao’s retweeting his earlier tweet today, in fact. On the other hand, SCMP amplified Cui’s take and called it an “oblique rebuke of fellow Chinese diplomats” in today’s edition:

The comments represent an oblique rebuke of fellow Chinese diplomats who spread unproven claims that the US may have been responsible for starting the global pandemic.

Cui made the comment after Zhao, the most active tweeter in the Chinese government, triggered an uproar by saying on Twitter that the US military may have brought the coronavirus to China.

Several other Chinese diplomats, including the Chinese ambassadors to South Africa and Egypt, have retweeted Zhao’s posts suggesting the virus had an American origin. …

It is rare for Chinese diplomats to openly disagree with each other. Analysts said Cui’s remarks suggested that Zhao’s aggressive tweets may have prompted criticism within China’s diplomacy team.

“Cui is China’s US ambassador, and his interest is in ensuring stable bilateral relations,” Adam Ni, diplomacy analyst and director at the Australia-based China Policy Centre, said.

Cui’s comments are not all that “oblique,” which is itself notable for a country in which subtlety is a diplomatic art form. It suggests not just disapproval, but an outright split within the diplomatic corps and in Beijing. Or — and this seems more likely — a decision by Xi Jinping to play good cop/bad cop with the US, allowing some deniability to its propaganda campaign. Cui has a higher rank in the foreign ministry than Zhao, which makes his voice more official, but it’s tough to ignore that Beijing still has Zhao in position as its official diplomatic representative. It’s the equivalent of speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth.

It does also suggest that Beijing recognizes that it’s risking its standing with this propaganda campaign. They should know by now that Trump won’t simply stop punching back, but will likely escalate the rhetoric and increase pressure in the US to curtail business with China in the future. That will happen with or without a propaganda war, but this isn’t helping to improve China’s longer-rang economic access. Maybe they’re realizing that now, or at least perhaps Cui is.