(CNN) — When World Health Organization investigators wrapped up their work examining the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan this month, Chinese officials were clear where they felt the WHO should look next.
“(We hope) that following China’s example, the US side will act in a positive, science-based and cooperative manner on the origin-tracing issue (and) invite WHO experts in for an origin-tracing study,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last week.
Going even further, Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control, said the US should now be “the focus” of global efforts to trace the virus.
That Chinese officials should point to the US when discussing the origins of a virus first detected in central China may at first appear confusing to many.
But for months now, China has been advancing alternative theories for how the coronavirus first emerged, ones that would obviate any blame officials in Wuhan may bear for not reacting quickly enough to the initial outbreak in that city in late 2019, during which they are accused of dragging their feet as evidence of human-to-human spread became clear and the virus ran rampant.
One Chinese theory in particular emerged early on in the pandemic but gained significant traction in recent weeks, as the WHO investigation and new outbreaks of the coronavirus in China renewed attention both internally and externally on the government’s alleged failures.
In many ways, this theory is the mirror image of a conspiracy about China alleging that the virus might have emerged — either intentionally or by mistake — from a lab in Wuhan focused on researching deadly pathogens. That this did not happen is one of the few definitive statements the WHO team were able to make after their trip to the city this month.
“(Our) findings suggest that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain introduction of the virus into the human population, and therefore is not a hypothesis that implies to suggest future studies into our work, to support our future work, into the understanding of the origin of the virus,” Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the team, said at a press conference announcing their findings held before the team left China.
At the same time, however, Zeng, the Chinese CDC official, was advancing just such a hypothesis, not about the Wuhan lab, but Fort Detrick, a US Army biomedical research laboratory in Maryland. There is no evidence to support this theory.
“The US has biological laboratories all over the world,” he told a Shanghai-based website, in an interview which linked Fort Detrick, and the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) based there, to research carried out by the notorious Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
“Why does the US have so many laboratories? What is the purpose of this?” Zeng said. “In many things, the US requires others to be open and transparent. In the end, it turns out that the US itself is often the most opaque.”
The idea that the coronavirus may have emerged from a lab, that the pandemic which ground the world to a halt may have been man-made, is not isolated to China. Many US politicians and conspiracists have pushed the idea that a Chinese lab might have been responsible, while others have posited alternative supposed bioweapon creators, including the US itself.
A survey carried out by Pew in April 2020 found that some 30% of Americans believed the virus was created in a lab, with most of those claiming it was created intentionally.
Around that time, leading members of then-US President Donald Trump’s administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attempted to link the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the coronavirus, implying it might have escaped — or even been released — from the lab.
This claim was angrily rejected by China and rebuked by leading scientists working on the virus. Following an inspection of the lab itself this month, the WHO team largely dismissed it in a press conference as a possible origin of the Wuhan outbreak.
According to a CNN investigation, growing scrutiny of the lab in early 2020, along with criticism of China’s initial handling of the pandemic, appears to have prompted the Communist Party’s propaganda organs to adopt the Fort Detrick conspiracy as a potential counter, a disinformation mirror to deflect criticism both legitimate and groundless.
And as attention returned to Wuhan at the start of this year, promotion of this conspiracy has redoubled, with a web of official government accounts, influencers, and state media spreading this disinformation to tens of millions of user online.
Angela Xiao Wu, an assistant professor at NYU Steinhardt who has studied efforts at shaping online opinion in China, said it was “surely an effective tactic for the Party-state to direct people’s critical attention outwards as a way to channel their fears and frustrations,” though she added many other governments had adopted similar tactics, “including the Trump Administration.”
In the first weeks of the pandemic, Chinese censors tightly controlled speculation about the virus, even that which implicated the US. In January 2020, according to state media, a man in Inner Mongolia was arrested for spreading rumors after a video he made claiming the virus was a US bioweapon was watched almost 14,000 times.
This attitude shifted, however, as Chinese authorities faced growing criticism both at home and abroad. In Washington, the Trump administration, flailing in its own domestic response and facing growing case numbers, lashed out at Beijing. In China, anger was growing over the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor and whistleblower, who was reprimanded by police for sharing information about the virus, before succumbing to it himself.
Throughout March and April, reports in Chinese state media began to focus on Fort Detrick, culminating in an article in the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, calling on the US government to give “clear answers to the world” about the USAMRIID lab.
The genesis of the conspiracy, the nugget of truth upon which all the other false claims have been layered, is an incident from 2019, when CDC inspectors briefly halted research at USAMRIID, over safety concerns. At the time, the lab was working on pathogens including Ebola, Zika, and plague.
A spokeswoman for the lab told the Army Times in 2019 that the issues stemmed from when the lab switched from steam sterilization to a chemical system the previous year.
“The new system necessitated numerous changes in laboratory infrastructure, procedures, and work practices that substantially increased the complexity of operating in containment laboratories,” public affairs officer Caree Vander Linden said. “Mechanical issues and human error were among the issues cited by CDC in issuing the suspension.”
Though multiple public investigations of the 2019 incident, by both the CDC and several media outlets, did not find any evidence of danger, or make any references to coronaviruses, it is easy to see how any story involving the lab could potentially give rise to conspiracies.
Prior to shifting its focus to defending against biological weapons and natural pathogens, Fort Detrick hosted Washington’s own offensive bio-weapons program, which ended in 1969. It has also been linked to CIA research into mind control during the Cold War.
The public investigation clearing the lab did not stop some claiming there were supposedly unanswered questions about its workings, however, and in March 2020 a petition posted to the White House “We the People” website calling for an investigation was heavily promoted in Chinese media and on social platforms.
“(USAMRIID) was once ordered to halt the study of biological select agents and toxins,” the People’s Daily said in a report referencing the petition. “Given that these issues have become a primary public concern, what is the US government’s response?”
By May, as relations between the US and China continued to plummet over the coronavirus pandemic, and Trump’s attempts to divert from his administration’s handling of it, the Fort Detrick conspiracy reached the mouths of China’s top diplomats.
At a press conference on May 6, in response to a question about the Wuhan lab origin, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying referenced reports about Fort Detrick, and called on the US government to “accept investigation and address these concerns,” driving the theory fully into the mainstream in China, with numerous outlets publishing reports on the alleged “cover-up,” while a widely-shared video compared it to Unit 731.
As China largely recovered from the pandemic and returned to normal in the latter half of 2020, the Fort Detrick theory faded from consciousness somewhat, replaced by more plausible — though highly contested — claims that the virus might have been circulating in other countries and could have entered Wuhan via frozen food supply chains, a theory the WHO team offered a tacit endorsement of this month in a press conference, saying it was worth further investigation.
With the WHO team headed to China at the start of this year, so too did global attention refocus on Wuhan and the bat lab. As it did, China’s propaganda organs ramped up coverage of USAMRIID, with Hua, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, saying on January 18 that the US “should open the biological lab at Fort Detrick, give more transparency to issues such as its 200+ overseas bio-labs, and invite WHO experts to conduct origin tracing.”
A video of Hua, uploaded by the state-backed Beijing News, was viewed almost a million times on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like service. The clip was then picked up by a number of leading Chinese influencers, with millions of followers between them, many of whom appear to be managed by the same marketing company, according to a CNN examination of posts and user profiles.
Today, the video of Hua speaking has been viewed 74 million times, with individual comments on the post receiving hundreds of thousands of upvotes alone, such as one which reads “if MOFA said so, then it can’t be unsubstantiated” receiving over 360,000 likes.
Wu, the New York University professor, pointed to China’s frequent campaigns against “online rumors,” which are used both to crack down on disinformation as well as more legitimate criticism of the government.
“Calling something ‘rumors’ infers a powerful authority whose judgment is instituted and enforced,” she said. “Reversely, when such an authority advances an official account that is unverifiable, surely its influences on the public are extraordinary.”
According to analysis of Weibo data, around the time the Hua video was going viral, a “Foreign Ministry” hashtag attracted more than 210,000 posts between January 18 and 25, with 790 million views. In the same period, 229,000 posts using the “Fort Detrick” hashtag were viewed more than 1.48 billion times.
Many of the most popular posts were from state-run media and nominally private publications with close links to the government, but others were shared by celebrities, influencers, and accounts which usually focus on entertainment news. For example, several fan accounts for popular actors shifted focus to Fort Detrick for a period, sharing news stories about the conspiracy theory to their hundreds of thousands of followers and allowing it to spread to a broader group which usually did not focus on politics.
Wu said it was common for supposedly non-political accounts to be used in what is called “online public opinion guidance,” including “through commercial deals.”
“How it works in China bears resemblance to the commercial sector in Western countries where marketing firms take money to help their clients, including politicians and campaign organizers, by orchestrating all kinds of KOLs to amply their messages on social media,” she said, using an acronym for “key opinion leaders.”
CNN has been unable to reach several of the most popular influencer accounts posting about Fort Detrick, and there is no evidence to suggest definitively that they were paid or induced to spread the message, they could have been posting about the theory simply because it was a popular news story at the time.
According to the DFRLab-AP report, conspiracies about Fort Detrick which emerged on the Chinese language web later spread worldwide via Facebook and other platforms, and were picked up by politicians in Russia and Iran.
Meanwhile back in China, the country’s propaganda organs have claimed vindication after the WHO investigation, and attacked both Washington and western media for questioning its findings.
“The WHO expert team has almost ruled out the possibility that the COVID-19 was leaked by Wuhan Institute of Virology, and opened the door to the theory that the virus might have been present outside China before the outbreak in Wuhan. This is a scientific judgment,” the Global Times, a nationalist state-run tabloid, said in an editorial, adding that US media “are one of the most active forces in the West’s weaving terrifying lies against China.”
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