On March 12, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted a video from the Global Times and added commentary suggesting the U.S. Army brought COVID-19 to Wuhan, China. The same day, after his initial tweet, Zhao tweeted out a conspiratorial article titled “COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the US” published on a fringe site. While the article concedes that “a less sinister alternative is possible,” it suggests that the virus originated in the U.S. and may have leaked from a military laboratory before spreading to Wuhan’s food market. As of March 17, these tweets saw considerable reach on Twitter: The first post garnered more than 7,800 comments, 7,100 retweets and 14,300 likes; Zhao’s second post received more than 10,200 comments, 12,300 retweets and 19,500 likes.
On March 13, the Global Times published an article with the headline “Origin of COVID-19 in dispute; US accusations on China opposed: FM,” which recounted Zhao’s tweets and highlighted his suspicions about the origin of the coronavirus. Zhao “urged the US to disclose further information, exercise transparency on coronavirus cases and provide an explanation to the public,” the article wrote. By omitting information from health officials about COVID-19’s spread and focusing on Chinese government official statements critical of the U.S., the article attempted to shift opinion in favor of the conspiracy theory.
Another Global Times article, published on March 14, again advanced the conspiracy that COVID-19 is U.S.-made, restating Zhao’s comments and criticizing the U.S. health-care system in the wake of the coronavirus. The article also said that the U.S.’s mishandling of COVID-19 thus far “raised public suspicion on whether the virus had surfaced in the US earlier” and attempted to misrepresent statements made by Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield to sow doubt about amount of time COVID-19 has been spreading in the U.S.
A Global Times article published on March 15 titled “US urged to explain military lab shutdown” also urges the U.S. government to release information about “an infectious disease research lab under the US Army” at Fort Dedrick in Maryland, questioning again whether the U.S. military was involved in the origins of COVID-19. Despite widespread reports that the virus is believed to have originated in a food market in Wuhan, China, the article reiterates that the “the origin of the novel coronavirus is still unknown.”
On March 17, the Global Times published an article discussing disinformation spread about COVID-19 and tensions between the U.S. and China over the handling of the virus. The article notes that “according to the facts, it was the US politicians who started the rumor offensive and began spreading baseless conspiracy theories,” referencing the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory repeated by Senator Tom Cotton. Though the article writes that some Chinese analysts “thought Zhao [Lijian] was repeating ‘the wrong conspiracy theory’ similar to what US politicians use to smear China,” it goes on to recount and justify Zhao’s statements via an interview with a Chinese academic, writing that Zhao’s tweets represented “a reasonable query that is totally different from US politicians’ groundless rumors and insults against China.”
Chinese state media will continue its attempts to shift public opinion in a more favorable direction for China and an unfavorable direction for the U.S. as social and economic disruption continues due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Global Times and other Chinese state-sponsored outlets will attempt to control the narrative on COVID-19, an opportunity to seed global perception of China as a world leader.