As Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) spreads throughout the globe, rumors and misinformation regarding the illness are keeping pace with the spread of the virus itself. In early March, the Chinese Foreign Ministry (MFA) joined the rumor mill when its newly-appointed spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) claimed on Twitter that “[i]t might be [the] US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” The tweet incited the kind of online backlash that often arises from Zhao’s characteristically inflammatory remarks.
Though some have sought to attribute the provocative comment to Zhao’s trademark trolling, allegations that the US may be behind a mass viral infection in China is not an entirely new tactic for Beijing, which has intermittently espoused similar rhetoric to serve its domestic and foreign agenda. The renewed dissemination of this sort of claim by a sitting official, a rare occurrence in recent decades, indicates a shift in Beijing’s approach to official messaging, which in recent months has taken an increasingly confrontational tone. This suggests that Beijing does not value even the image of amicable relations with the US as much as it once did.
Historical Cases of Viral Accusations
The Korean War
Allegations of biological warfare directed at the US are almost as old as the People’s Republic itself. During the Korean War (1950-1953), China along with North Korea and the Soviet Union, pushed the narrative that the US was utilizing biological agents in a desperate gamble to gain an edge over its adversaries. The bogus claims included US’ use of air-dropped insects to undermine North Korean agriculture and the spread of smallpox by American operatives.
Many of China’s allegations were presented via Chinese-language state media, suggesting that the effort was directed at domestic audiences for the purpose of inflating the threat posed by the US. For example, in May 1951 People’s Daily claimed that Brigadier General Crawford Sams, who was sent to investigate an ongoing epidemic in North Korean territory, was in fact “spreading the virus” as part of a mission to “carry out inhuman bacteriological experiments on Chinese People’s Volunteers.” Another piece, published by Xinhua on March 29, 1952 contended that the US “continued to release microbes and insects and indiscriminately drop bombs in China’s Northeast.”
The claims were also directed at overseas audiences. As armistice talks hit a gridlock in February 1952, Beijing mounted an outward-facing propaganda offensive aimed at swaying international opinion against the United States for its purported use of biological warfare. Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai led these efforts as China’s “Commander of the Struggle Against Germ Warfare” (反细菌战斗争的总指挥). In March 1952, Zhou expanded on North Korean claims of US biological warfare, stating that during the course of the war, the US had sent “448 aircraft on no fewer than 68 occasions to drop germ-carrying insects over Northeast China.”
In the decades that followed, the Soviet Union would change its stance on the US biological warfare narrative. By contrast, China would hold fast to it. Archival research indicates that the Soviet Union sought to distance itself from (and may have even regretted its participation in) the plot following the death of Stalin. No such process has taken place in China. To this day, the Chinese state’s official history of the conflict contends that the US used biological weapons.
SARS and Avian Influenza (H7N9)
Unsurprisingly, the end of Korean War hostilities between the US and China drastically decreased the frequency (not to mention the severity) of Beijing’s claims that Washington was engaging in biological warfare. Nonetheless, even during peacetime China’s viral claims have not entirely vanished. While Chinese officials did not openly endorse the idea that the US was behind the SARS (2003) and H7N9 avian influenza (2013) outbreaks, some state entities nonetheless promoted such theories, which gained traction on China’s incipient Internet. This practice, by which the state promotes claims but is not seen as initiating them, has lent an element of deniability to Beijing, which presumably would rather not have state endorsement of such claims rock bilateral relations.
In comparison to the strident campaign mounted during the Korean War, state entities’ activities during these two pandemics appear circumscribed to facilitating the spread of SARS-related conspiracy theories, mostly by providing platforms to the most vocal supporters of these allegations. Among them was Tong Zeng (童增), an activist and lawyer whose book, Last Line of Defense: Concerns on the Loss of Chinese Genes (2003), was published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ (CASS) China Social Sciences Press. The author and book, which claimed the SARS outbreak was the result of a “genetic weapon” engineered and utilized by the US against China, were subject to a glowing article by a journalist named Chen Weimin (陈为民) of the China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the country’s Communist Youth League.
The fact that these efforts were not consistent among state organs suggests that this was not the result of a coordinated national effort, but rather of decisions taken by lower-level state actors with the tacit approval of higher authorities. The more localized nature of these decisions resulted in competing narratives. Around the same time that China Youth Daily published its article, People’s Daily published a separate, more circumspect look at the book, questioning the author’s background and speaking to voices skeptical of its premise. The piece ran under the more critical headline, “Specialist: The SARS ‘Genetic Weapon’ Theory Needs a Scientific Basis.” Instead of targeting the US, People’s Daily took aim at Taiwan, publishing several articles, some of them lifted from Global Times, that accused Taipei of developing biological weapons utilizing a number of agents, including SARS.
A similar situation played out during the 2013 H7N9 outbreak. On that occasion, the allegations came from Dai Xu, a retired air force colonel and lecturer at the PLA National Defense University, who utilized his personal Weibo account to propagate the idea that the outbreak was an American military plot. Although Dai eventually deleted some of his remarks, it seems this decision was likely taken as a result of the negative responses he received online—directed at his comments making light of disease-related fatalities—and not the result of any official reprimand.
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
Zhao’s allegation that the US military may have introduced the coronavirus to China has once more thrust Chinese claims of American biological hostility into the international spotlight. In terms of execution, this latest round of allegations follows Chinese state practice in recent years, with claims disseminated through an “unofficial” channel that allows Beijing to disavow them as the remarks of a single bureaucrat and not representative of the official line.
The problem with claiming these allegations are not representative of the official line is that, even now, officials’ (and former officials’) personal accounts are not allowed to deviate from the shifting, often-invisible bounds of accepted speech in China. The fact that Zhao has not retracted his remarks—even as Beijing’s anti-rumor campaign surrounding the virus continues—indicates his allegations are at least one narrative Beijing wants to convey, and thus enjoy the state’s tacit approval. This idea seems further validated by the fact that, when directly asked about the claims at an official press conference, MFA spokesperson Geng Shuang did not refute the claims and instead took to criticizing similarly unhelpful remarks made by American officials.
What’s more, other diplomats are taking note. Already, a number of other high-ranking envoys, including China’s ambassadors to South Africa and Iran, have come out in support of Zhao, who is now standing by the claim that the coronavirus may be of US (albeit not necessarily military) origin. Their championing of this narrative not only serves to further push Beijing’s own version of the coronavirus story but also serves to prove their loyalty to their superiors in Beijing who increasingly incentivize such behavior.
While some have interpreted Ambassador Cui Tiankai’s recent comments, in which he stated that the origins of the virus were not for “diplomats and journalists to speculate,” as a sign of a foreign policy rift in Beijing, his comments are quickly being overwhelmed by an onslaught of speculative content produced by official and semi-official media. On March 20, China's English language television broadcaster CGTN republished an opinion piece, originally published on WeChat, with ten questions that the US should answer related to the origins of the COVID-19. On March 25, the Global Times published an article urging the US to release the health information of military athletes that attended the Military World Games in Wuhan last October, all while its editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, put out concillitatory messages on Twitter stating that “Whoever stirs up conflict between China and the US will be condemned by history.” That same day, a headline run by Reference News, a Xinhua affiliate, encouraged Zhao Lijian to “Keep Asking Questions!” Even if there is a rift in Beijing’s foreign policy circle, it sure does seem like one side is getting more playtime than the other.
The continued promotion of these allegations by Chinese officials and other state entities represents China’s growing apathy toward maintaining even the image of an amicable relationship with the US. Long constrained by its desire to maintain at least a working relationship with Washington, Beijing’s continued support for this campaign suggests that the preservation of a constructive bilateral relationship is no longer as high a priority as it once was for China’s top decision makers, which seem to have decided that the relationship was worth further jeopardizing in exchange for a global propaganda play. We are not yet back to the days of the Korean War but the fact that the comparison is even worth making should worry everyone.
 Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013) 243.
 “American Invaders Continue to Release Germs and Insects and Indiscriminately Drop Bombs in China’s Northeast” [美国侵略者续在我国东北撒放细菌毒虫与滥施轰炸], Xinhua, March 29, 1952.
 Jager, Brother’s at War, 244.
Ricardo Barrios is a senior analyst at RWR Advisory where he conducts risk analysis on Chinese and Russian firms. Prior to that, he investigated China’s growing ties with the countries of Latin America as part of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Asia & Latin America program. His research interests include Chinese foreign policy, party-state relations, and state ideology. Barrios holds a Master’s in International Politics from Peking University and a BA in Politics and East Asian Studies from Oberlin College. In 2019, he was selected by the American Mandarin Society as part of its “Next Generation Scholars.” He is professionally proficient in Mandarin Chinese, fluent in Spanish, and reads Russian.