War of words

Fury over ‘Chinese virus’ in nasty diplomatic row


It comes from China, he says

Where did the coronavirus come from? Bats, you might say, and indeed that’s what most scientists currently assume. But the governments of China and America are more interested in where the virus originated from a geographical perspective. Over the last few days they have clashed repeatedly in their efforts to blame one another.

The science suggests that SARS-CoV-2 – the full name of the virus – made the leap from animal to humans in China. But there is nothing geographical in the labelling of the disease it causes – Covid-19.

Some say China lobbied to achieve this result with the World Health Organisation. But either way, Beijing and Washington are now busy with the blame game. US President Donald Trump has referred to SARS-CoV-2 repeatedly as the “Chinese Virus” this week, while China’s foreign ministry has been taking the line that the virus could well have come from outside China.

If you believe Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, it may even have come from US servicemen who visited Wuhan in October for the Military World Games. “When did Patient Zero begin in the US?” Zhao trolled on Twitter. “US owe us an explanation!”

He followed this up by posting two articles from a conspiracy theory website,, that claimed that the virus had originated in the US. Previous theories from the same site include that Osama Bin Laden never existed and that vaccine producers are in cahoots with the ‘Deep State’.

The Americans then called in the Chinese ambassador to complain about the promotion of the theory but Chinese diplomats around the world have continued to hint at it.

Borrowing a tactic from someone in Washington, the Chinese have also taken to deploying the “fake news” label to dismiss reports they don’t like. And when the foreign ministry announced the expulsion of a group of journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal this week it used the term again in calling for foreign correspondents to play “a positive role” in advancing mutual understanding.

The Chinese government has also been trying to shape more of the narrative around the pandemic, sending medical aid to European countries like Italy and playing up the success of its own containment measures. On Thursday it announced there were no new domestic cases of infection for the first time since the crisis began. This newer focus on the messaging around the pandemic also plays up the competence of the government’s approach since late January and avoids any mention of the mistakes made earlier in the cycle, when officials in Wuhan covered up the outbreak.

There have also been suggestions in the state media that China’s drastic quarantining of Hubei province ‘bought’ foreign nations time to prepare for the pandemic and that the US in particular squandered that opportunity – with President Trump initially tweeting that there was no need to panic and suggesting that the outbreak would pass quickly like the seasonal flu.

Trump has been quick to deny accusations that his labelling of the virus is inflammatory. “It’s not racist,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “It comes from China, that’s why.”

Trump has also voiced disapproval of the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis, saying “they could have given us a lot earlier notice, absolutely.”

In contrast, he has been rejecting any criticism of his own performance. “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China ­– against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!” he tweeted on Wednesday.

In a deepening of the controversy Jiang Weijia, a reporter with CBS, has also claimed that an official in the White House referred to the deadly infection as the “Kung-flu”.

“Makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back,” she tweeted. 

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