Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian took to Twitter on Friday to double down on an unproven claim that the US military brought the new coronavirus to the central city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.
Zhao urged his more than 287,000 followers in two tweets on Friday morning to widely share an allegation from a Canada-based conspiracy website that the coronavirus – which has become a global pandemic – originated in the US rather than the Wuhan seafood market that is thought to be its source.
“This is so astonishing that it changed many things I used to believe in,” he wrote on his official account.
A spokesman for the US embassy in Beijing declined to comment on Zhao’s tweets.
The allegation was apparently linked to the US Army’s participation in the international Military World Games held in Wuhan in October, which drew competitors from more than 100 countries.
The incendiary and unverified claim from Zhao – a prolific tweeter promoted to deputy director general of the foreign ministry’s information department in February – came despite a widespread backlash to his first tweets on the subject late on Thursday.
“When did patient zero begin in the US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be the US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Zhao wrote on the platform, which is inaccessible to most in China, on Thursday. “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
The hashtag topic “Zhao Lijian sent out five consecutive tweets questioning the US” had been read more than 4.7 million times on Weibo, China’s Twitter, as of Friday at noon, with many praising the diplomat’s rhetoric.
Beijing in recent days has increasingly pushed back on the idea that the coronavirus, which causes a disease known as Covid-19, originated in China, even though the first cases were reported there in December. The virus has since spread to more than 100 countries, with over 130,000 cases globally and over 4,900 deaths.Rumours that the coronavirus might have been engineered in a chemical laboratory as a bioweapon have already been widely dismissed by scientists, who pointed out that its genetic make-up did not support such a claim.
As Washington has struggled to slow the spread of the virus in the United States, senior US officials including President Donald Trump have sought to describe it as a “foreign virus”, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Republican leaders going further to label it the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese coronavirus”.
Zhao last week told reporters at a briefing that “no conclusion has been reached yet on the origin of the virus”, and that there were “ulterior motives” in labelling it as having originated in China. He cited remarks by Zhong Nanshan, the prominent Chinese respiratory expert who has become an authoritative voice on the outbreak, that the coronavirus may not have originated in China.
Pompeo argued last week that Washington had “pretty high confidence that we know where this began”, saying: “No less authority than the Chinese Communist Party said it came from Wuhan, so don’t take Mike Pompeo’s word for it.”
Amid an already tense strategic rivalry between the major powers, Beijing and Chinese state-backed media have been further emboldened in their criticism of the US, at first for not being sufficiently supportive of Chinese efforts to combat the virus, then for “stigmatising” the outbreak as originating in China, and now for Washington’s own missteps in handling the epidemic in the US.
Chinese diplomats, many of whom have taken to Twitter in recent months in Beijing’s push for greater international engagement, have actively defended Beijing’s policies to contain the outbreak in China on social media platforms.
Zhao himself has drawn attention as one of the earliest Chinese diplomats to embrace Twitter, employing heated rhetoric that some have likened to Trump’s tweeting style. The diplomat, who spent four years as the No 2 at China’s embassy in Islamabad until August, has been at the centre of controversy in the past, with former US national security adviser Susan Rice describing him as a “racist disgrace” and “shockingly ignorant” for comments about racial segregation in Washington.
High-profile China watchers including Bill Bishop, editor of the Sinocism newsletter, and James Palmer, senior editor at Foreign Policy, have said they were blocked by Zhao on Twitter after criticising his latest tweets about the coronavirus.
Asked in February about blocking people on Twitter, including China watcher Bonnie Glaser from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Zhao said: “If you don’t like someone’s remarks, you have the right to block him or her.”
Source: South China Morning Post newspaper
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