It was nothing more than a far-fetched rumour circulating among conspiracy theorists until a Beijing diplomat tweeted that the US military had planted the coronavirus outbreak in China.
“It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, wrote on Twitter on Thursday, in response to an admission by America’s Centers for Disease Control that its counting of coronavirus cases was faulty. “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
It was unclear whether the spokesman’s suggestion that the US was behind the outbreak in China represented the view of the Beijing government but on Friday state broadcaster CGTN tweeted Mr Zhao’s allegations.
That the US, rather than China, is responsible for the crisis — and even owes China an explanation for its muted response to the outbreak — is a concept that has steadily gathered momentum in Chinese media over the past week.
As new cases of the virus plummet in China and surge in the US and Europe, Chinese media and several Twitter-active diplomats are shifting the narrative away and blaming Washington.
Chinese news media has lit up with stories about the dangers of foreigners importing the virus from outside of China and how it is now Chinese experts who are swooping in to rescue Europe’s besieged cities.
Most striking have been the promotion of conspiracy theories and attacks on the veracity of US case numbers. The sluggish response from the Trump administration is often drawn in stark comparison with the success of China’s sweeping quarantine of hundreds of millions of people.
“US should try to find a way to curb the outbreak!” Mr Zhao wrote in a separate Twitter post. “China has implemented measures for 2 months, allowing time & offering experience for US to learn from it, but US has hardly done anything.”
Hua Chunying, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, took to Twitter on Thursday to criticise the CDC’s counting method, ending her post with: “It is absolutely WRONG and INAPPROPRIATE to call this the Chinese coronavirus.”
Despite being banned in China, a number of Chinese diplomats have recently taken to Twitter to counter criticism of China. Mr Zhao has been prolific in his combative tweeting and was recently appointed to a senior position with the foreign ministry.
Kingsley Edney, a lecturer of the politics of China at the University of Leeds, said: “The years after the Olympics [in 2008] saw a big increase in investment in outward-facing television and print media, but now of course the party also uses social media, such as Twitter and WeChat, to spread its message internationally.”
When Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese doctor leading the efforts to fight the outbreak, raised the idea in late February that the virus may not have originated in China, local media were flooded with articles questioning whether China should bear responsibility for the virus.
Steve Tsang, director of Soas China Institute in London, said: “We have seen it with the Chinese propaganda campaign, which has redirected attention from the earlier failures of the Chinese government responses by creating a controversy over where the virus originated — without ever providing evidence that it did not emerge first in China.”
Scientists believe the coronavirus originated in bats and could have been spread to humans who ate wild animals sold in China’s markets. There is no strong evidence to suggest the virus originated outside of China.
Dr Zhong has become the face of China’s battle against the outbreak. A veteran of the Sars pandemic in 2003, the 83-year-old broke the news to the Chinese public on January 20 that the virus was spreading across the country.
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This week Dr Zhong was on newscasts across China as he fielded questions from an expert at the European Respiratory Society. The interview has been broadcast as evidence that, having beaten the virus at home, China is now crucial to fighting the outbreak in Europe.
Chinese leaders were criticised for their delayed response to the outbreak, which is believed to have originated in the city of Wuhan in December, with local officials accused of initially covering it up. The Communist party has also been buffeted by accusations that its unprecedented quarantine of more than 100m people in cities across China was illegal and was, at times, brutal in its method of isolating people suspected of infection.
However, as Europe and the US struggle to contain the pandemic, the merits of the Chinese system will continue to be debated.
“The failure of developed countries to manage the outbreak of coronavirus has played into the Chinese government’s side of the story,” said Nicholas Ross Smith from the University of Nottingham’s campus in the Chinese city of Ningbo.
“So, my impression is, if western countries struggle to deal with the virus as quickly as China, we are going to see a more aggressive narrative coming from Beijing.”