It was posed as an innocent question, not an accusation. If the U.S. was so concerned about transparency, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying wondered aloud to nearly half a million followers on Twitter earlier this month, why not open its own biodefense lab in Maryland’s Fort Detrick to international inspectors?
Hua’s tweet was also an invitation to a conspiracy theory, and a message that, if President Donald Trump was determined to speculate about the virus first appearing in a Chinese lab—a notion that scientists have dismissed and that allied intelligence agencies find “highly unlikely”—then China was going to give as good as it got. Beijing does not accept that the virus originated in China at all, insisting that just because the country first reported the virus, and traced many of the first cases to an outdoor market in Wuhan, doesn’t mean it came from there. What if, Hua intimated without quite saying, it came from a U.S. lab instead?
After that May 8 tweet, Chinese state media outlets picked up the question and started pushing it in multiple languages: Spanish and Arabic as well as English. On May 12, the state-run China Global Television Network offered a story on the Fort Detrick lab’s “purely freakish history,” including the very real CIA experiments on humans that began there in the 1950s. The hawkish Communist Party newspaper Global Times ran a piece on May 14 declaring, “The US can’t just claim all reasonable inquiries to its bio-labs as ‘conspiracy theories.’” This followed the paper’s earlier speculation, citing a mysterious anonymous petition on the White House website, that the base may have been the source of a virus leak.
The party has never waged a global struggle quite like this one—and its battle with the U.S. over where the virus came from and whose failures made the pandemic worse have marked a serious deterioration in the two countries’ ties. Just months ago, Trump was praising Xi Jinping for how he handled the outbreak; now Trump is toying with cutting off relations with the Chinese government altogether. [Continue reading…]