China, conspiracy theories, and the murky coronavirus origin story

Yesterday, Josh Rogin, of the Washington Post, published a column that appeared in the paper’s Global Opinions section, but contained bombshell new reporting. Per Rogin, in early 2018, officials from the US Embassy in Beijing repeatedly visited a laboratory in Wuhan where researchers were studying coronaviruses in bats, and their possible transmissibility to humans. Embassy staff were so concerned about safety issues they said they’d observed on their visits that they sent two warnings back to the State Department, urging the US government to give the lab support. In the first of the cables, which Rogin obtained, officials warned that the lab’s work on coronaviruses “represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.”

Two years later, with a new SARS-like pandemic sweeping the earth, the warning cables “have fueled discussions inside the US government about whether this or another Wuhan lab was the source of the virus,” Rogin reports. There’s no evidence that the new coronavirus was manufactured; most scientists agree that it came from animals. But as Xiao Qiang, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, told Rogin, “that is not the same as saying it didn’t come from the lab, which spent years testing bat coronaviruses in animals.”

ICYMI: How right-wing media is covering the COVID-19 epidemic

Rogin’s story was shared widely on social media, including by prominent mainstream journalists. “Yikes,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted; “WOW,” Charles M. Blow, a columnist at the New York Times, added, “I didn’t see this coming.” Conservative pundits and politicians seized on it, too; Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, called the article a “DAMN big deal.” This was not surprising: earlier this year, a web of narratives took hold on the right alleging that the new coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab—by accident or by design. In mid-February, Sen. Tom Cotton, a hawkish Republican from Arkansas, mentioned the Wuhan lab in an interview on Fox News. “We don’t have evidence that this disease originated there,” he said, “but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says.” Cotton clarified, on Twitter, that he thought the outbreak was “most likely” natural—and not deliberate, if it did come from the lab—but was pilloried by major news organizations for spreading a “fringe” “conspiracy theory” that “was already debunked.” In the weeks following Cotton’s Fox hit, versions of the lab theory continued to swirl online, and continued to be cast as baseless—and even dangerous—by more credible sources. At its nefarious end, the theory is wild, and easy to dismiss. Since early April, however, the accidental end of the theory has, as Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo put it last week, “begun to rear its head once again, this time entertained by credible journalists,” including David Ignatius, of the Post, and Glen Owen, of Britain’s Mail on Sunday. Then came Rogin’s story—and, with it, further mainstreaming.

There’s a lot to parse here. There’s no question that right-wing China hawks, from the internet to the White House, have weaponized information about the origins of the virus—be it fact, rumor, or outright lunacy—to advance a political agenda. President Trump has referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus” and the “Wuhan virus,” part of a broader effort to dodge blame for its spread in the US. Such language, Asian Americans say, has fueled rising bigotry. The World Health Organization—which has been accused, by many on the right, of being soft on China—has also been caught in Trump’s crossfire. Yesterday, Trump said he would suspend US funding to the organization. Had the WHO “done its job” and “call[ed] out China’s lack of transparency,” he said, “the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death.”

There are, however, many legitimate questions to ask about China’s lack of transparency. The US intelligence community reportedly believes that the Chinese government has grossly understated the full extent of the coronavirus outbreak in the country, and it’s far from alone in that assessment. According to the Times, officials in Wuhan have, in recent weeks, broken up virtual groups set up by victims’ relatives, censored photos of relatives collecting victims’ ashes, and even assigned minders to supervise burials. In the early days of the virus, Chinese authorities silenced Li Wenliang, a doctor who tried to raise an early alarm, and who later died after contracting the virus. Journalists who tried to blow the whistle disappeared. Last month, Beijing expelled American reporters working for the Times, the Post, and the Wall Street Journal—an escalation of a long-running diplomatic spat with the US—and forced Chinese staff serving the same outlets to resign. Two weeks ago, the pro-Beijing government of Hong Kong reprimanded the territory’s state broadcaster for asking a WHO official a question about Taiwan.

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Last week, China imposed tight restrictions on the publication of academic research linked to the origins of the coronavirus. As Rogin notes, its government won’t answer even basic questions on the topic, and has tried to suppress investigations into the possible involvement of the two labs in Wuhan. “Beijing has yet to provide US experts with samples of the novel coronavirus collected from the earliest cases,” Rogin writes. A Shanghai lab that published the virus genome in January “was quickly shut down by authorities for ‘rectification.’”

Journalists have rightly been keen to refute Trump’s blame-shifting and point-scoring exercises, as well as claims from other actors with an anti-China ax to grind. Still, what we know about the virus is dwarfed by what we don’t. Often, uncertainty has stemmed from legitimate scientific disagreement, but it has stemmed, too, from attempts to deny and deflect—and on that score, China has been a serious, if not a lone, offender. Just because a conspiracy theory is later proven to have merit doesn’t make it not a conspiracy theory; their defining trait is belief in the absence of evidence. The most useful response, here, is not to get sucked into the right-wing fever swamps, but to isolate legitimate questions, and try and report out the answers. As Rogin writes, the coronavirus origin story “is not just about blame. It’s crucial to understanding how the novel coronavirus pandemic started because that informs how to prevent the next one.”

Below, more on the coronavirus:


Other notable stories:

  • In February, when Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign was still a thing, Leta Hong Fincher wrote, for The Intercept, that in 2013, Bloomberg News killed a story by her husband, who was a Bloomberg journalist, that would have embarrassed the Chinese government. The company later demanded that both Fincher and her husband sign NDAs. Yesterday, NPR’s David Folkenflik added more details; he reports that Bloomberg saw the Chinese market as a priority at the time, and that Bloomberg’s then editor-in-chief said that the story wasn’t “justified,” that China would interpret it as “judging them,” and that it would likely lead to the country shutting the company down.
  • Last week, staff at the Young Turks, a progressive online news network, voted to unionize. The company, led by leftist firebrand Cenk Uygur, recognized the union—but only, Politico’s Alex Thompson reports, after “a drive that included two separate complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, the company’s rejection of card check in favor of a secret ballot… allegations of a political conspiracy to sink Uygur’s recent congressional campaign, and at least two 1,500-word-plus screeds” from Uygur to staff.
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Nicholas Diakopoulos explores the ethics of predictive journalism. “The act of publication may create a feedback loop that dampens (or amplifies) the likelihood of something actually happening,” he writes. “News organizations that publish predictions need to be aware of their own role in influencing the outcome they are predicting.” (If you would like to support CJR’s work, click here.)
  • Peacock, a new streaming service from NBCUniversal, launches today. For now, it’ll only be available to Comcast X1 and Flex customers; a wider rollout is planned for later in the year. In addition to entertainment, Peacock will offer news programming, including NBC Nightly News, Meet the Press, and Dateline. (Variety has more programming details.)
  • George Pell—the Australian cardinal whose trial on child sexual abuse charges became a controversial media story—was released from jail last week, after a court overturned his conviction. In an interview with a sympathetic commentator on Sky News, Pell suggested that his accuser had been “used.” (Pell is now facing fresh claims of abuse.)
  • And Britain’s press regulator dismissed a complaint from Amanda Liberty, a woman who accused The Sun newspaper of mocking her long-term relationship with a chandelier, on the grounds that “her attraction to historic light fittings is not considered to be a protected sexual orientation,” The Guardian reports. (Liberty changed her last name during “a previous self-declared public relationship with New York’s Statue of Liberty.”)

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.