‘Wuhan virus from the United States’: The Beijing vs. Washington Information War

Op-ed from EAD

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Ever since the coronavirus began to spread throughout the United States, Washington and Beijing have been waging a global information war over national responsibility for the outbreak. President Donald Trump and his aides are trying to blame the spread of the disease on “communist” China. However, Trump himself was criticized in his country for neglecting the danger and huge failures in the American response to the disease.

Now the parties are moving from information attacks to practical actions. The U.S. Presidential Administration is considering expelling dozens of Chinese diplomats, journalists, and others who the Americans believe are collecting intelligence information from the United States. The deportations can even affect the Chinese mission to the UN, where China has a permanent seat on the Security Council. The Trump administration is discussing the possibility of closing in the United States any Chinese organization or company suspected of being a cover for intelligence work.

The planned expulsions are connected with the growing information war between Washington and Beijing, which has erupted in recent weeks due to estimates of the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, the Chinese government announced that it would expel 13 American journalists working for the three largest publications: the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post. Beijing also determined that all US-based news organizations operating in China should provide the Chinese government with detailed information about its financial assets, personnel structure, and other organizational information. American journalists claimed that they were expelled from the PRC for trying to tell the truth about the state of affairs in China with the pandemic.

At about the same time, President Trump and senior members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo , began to call the “new coronavirus” the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.” The latter term referred to the Chinese province where it is believed that the virus first appeared. President Trump began to claim that he had decided to use the term “Chinese virus” in response to “unfounded claims” by government officials in Beijing that the new coronavirus was brought into China by US troops in October 2019. 

The theory of sabotage, linking the outbreak of illness with the visit of American athletes to the Wuhan Military Games, was first put forward by the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China Zhao Lijiang who tweeted about this earlier this month. Then, other Chinese officials and state news agencies repeated the American sabotage version. However, earlier this week, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Tsui Tiankai, in an interview with Axios, rejected the theory of “sabotage” as “crazy.”

On Thursday, the leading American publication The New York Times reported that the Trump administration is considering expelling a large number of Chinese citizens working as diplomats or journalists from the United States. In some cases, the White House has reportedly been considering closing down some Chinese media offices in the United States. According to a number of Trump administration officials, many Chinese journalists working in the United States are in fact secret agents of Chinese intelligence and regularly report to the Department of Homeland Security, the main foreign intelligence department of China. The People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) also has its own undercover intelligence network abroad, also operating in the United States. Some of these alleged undercover Chinese intelligence agents are allegedly affiliated with the China Global Television Network, a foreign subsidiary of China’s State Central Television (CCTV). Advocacy publications that report to the Chinese Communist Party are foreign agents, not “journalists,” the State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Thursday.

On March 2, 2020, the Trump administration imposed quotas on the number of foreign citizens who are allowed to work in Chinese media organizations in the United States. Chinese media groups have complied with this directive and recalled over 60 of their employees to China. However, now the White House believes that a significant number of the remaining 100 Chinese journalists who continue to work in the United States are secret intelligence officers. As a result of the first recall, there was a “concentration” of “Chinese spies” in the United States, the Americans believe.

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Meanwhile, on March 25, the Chinese English-language official publication Global Times reiterated the claim that the “new coronavirus” was brought to China by an American cyclist who visited Wuhan last October to participate in the 7th World War Games. The Global Times claimed that Chinese citizens and experts urge the United States to publish details about athletes who have been to Wuhan. Similar indictments, spreading the view that the new coronavirus was made in a military laboratory in the United States, are quickly gaining popularity on Chinese social networks. The search for a “null patient” —that is, the first documented case of the coronavirus epidemic — is widespread in China.

As China tries to redirect attention from Wuhan to the United States, the Trump administration does not seem to want to backtrack on what many in this country call the “racist language about coronavirus.” In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Trump said that he was going to stop using the term “Chinese virus,” and that “we should no longer make this a big problem.” Trump said he started using the concept of “Chinese virus” only because of conspiracy theories shared by Chinese officials.

But his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, continues to insist on the use of “problem terms.” On Wednesday, Pompeo held a teleconference with leaders of the G7 alliance. But the latter failed to agree on a joint statement on a global pandemic. The reason, according to the sources of the American resource ABC News, was that Pompeo insisted that any statement necessarily include the concept of “Wuhan virus.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged that China made some “mistakes” in its initial treatment of the outbreak. But in the end, WHO positively assessed the response of the Chinese authorities to the coronavirus crisis.

However, US authorities continue to blame the global pandemic for Beijing’s “mistreatment” of the crisis. “At first [Beijing] tried to suppress this news. They then worked to protect their own population by selectively exchanging critical information, such as data on genetic sequences, and continuing to resist international health authorities that offered help, sought access, and sought additional information, ”a London Times publication said on March 26 quoting US Ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson .

As you can see, the information war between the United States and China regarding the coronavirus continues and can spread to new areas of bilateral relations.

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