“America” is not spreading lies about China (because countries cannot talk)

I’m endlessly fascinated (and frustrated) with the US media reports on “China”. Here I’d like to consider what it would be like if they covered “America” in the same way. Take this comment, in an otherwise very high quality essay:

China is certainly engaged in an English-language propaganda campaign to depict its response as an effective deployment of high-tech authoritarianism that rapidly contained the virus and bought the world time. It’s buttressing the message by sending medical equipment and experts to other countries, and spreading a false story that the illness originated as U.S. military bioterrorism.

The article links to a NYT story:

The insinuation came in a series of posts on Twitter by Zhao Lijian, a ministry spokesman who has made good use of the platform, which is blocked in China, to push a newly aggressive, and hawkish, diplomatic strategy. It is most likely intended to deflect attention from China’s own missteps in the early weeks of the epidemic by sowing confusion or, at least, uncertainty at home and abroad.

Mr. Zhao’s posts appeared to be a retort to similarly unsubstantiated theories about the origins of the outbreak that have spread in the United States. Senior officials there have called the epidemic the “Wuhan virus,” and at least one senator hinted darkly that the epidemic began with the leak of a Chinese biological weapon.

“The conspiracy theories are a new, low front in what they clearly perceive as a global competition over the narrative of this crisis,” said Julian B. Gewirtz, a scholar at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard.

Which conspiracy theories? The Chinese theories about America or the American theories about China?

Sen. Tom Cotton keeps airing a long-debunked theory that the deadly coronavirus is a Chinese biological weapon that was leaked from a government lab in Wuhan.

And who is “they” in that final sentence of the NYT quotation? China and America? Or just China?

I’d guess that 99% of NYT readers would assume that “they” means just China, even though the evidence clearly suggests that people in both countries are spreading conspiracy theories.

I can already hear you complaining about moral equivalence. “One wacky Senator from Arkansas is not equivalent to a Chinese ministry spokesman. We all know that individual Americans are free to speak their minds, whereas the Chinese move in lockstep.”

You mean like the Chinese ambassador to the US?

In a rare interview, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told “Axios on HBO” that he stands by his belief that it’s “crazy” to spread rumors about the coronavirus originating from a military laboratory in the United States.

I guess China’s ambassador to the US never got the memo.

As far as I know, “China” never accused the US as having created the virus, nor did “America” accuse China. But our media seems to have a double standard regarding which countries to anthropomorphize.

Here’s Politico:

While we often think of those jobs as focused on protecting against terrorism, both agencies have critical public health roles, too; U.S. intelligence spent the winter racing to understand how serious a threat Covid-19 truly was and deciphering the extent of China’s cover-up of its epidemic. Just last week, news broke about a special report prepared by U.S. intelligence documenting China’s deception about the disease’s spread—information that, had it been more accurately captured and understood, might have caused a faster, harder response and lessened the economic and personal toll of the epidemic at home.

Apparently spending “the winter racing to understand” did not include asking our close allies in Taiwan if there was a problem in Wuhan. More importantly, even after the Chinese admitted the severity of the problem (in January) and closed down Wuhan, the US government spent the next 6 weeks twiddling its thumbs. And we are supposed to be upset that we weren’t given an extra two weeks to twiddle our thumbs?

Is China now the country to blame for all our inadequacies? We have 4% of the world’s population and nearly 30% (and rising) of the coronavirus cases. That’s China’s fault? I guess if you believe that the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt was China’s fault, it’s not such a stretch to blame them for Mardi Gras or our lack of testing and surgical masks.

Here’s just a small portion of the failures documented in the Politico piece:

Yet Trump has churned through officials overseeing the very intelligence that might have helped understand the looming crisis. At Liberty Crossing, the headquarters of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the government will have been without a Senate-confirmed director for eight months as of next week; last summer, Trump accepted the resignation of Dan Coats and forced out the career principal deputy of national intelligence, Sue Gordon. Coats’ temporary stand-in, career intelligence official Joseph Maguire, then served so long that he was coming close to timing out of his role—federal law usually lets officials serve only 210 days before relinquishing the acting post—when Trump ousted him too, as well as the acting career principal deputy. In their place, at the end of February—weeks after the U.S. already recorded its first Covid-19 case—Trump installed U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as his latest acting director, the role that by law is meant to be the president’s top intelligence adviser. Grenell has the least intelligence experience of any official ever to occupy director’s suite.

This Friday, the role of Homeland Security secretary will have been vacant for an entire year, ever since Kirstjen Nielsen was forced out over Trump’s belief she wasn’t tough enough on border security. DHS has numerous critical roles in any domestic crisis, but its acting secretary, Chad Wolf, has fumbled through the epidemic; in February, Wolf couldn’t answer seemingly straightforward questions on Capitol Hill from Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana about the nation’s preparedness—what models were predicting about the outbreak, how many respirators the government had stockpiled, even how Covid-19 was transmitted. “You’re supposed to keep us safe. And you need to know the answers to these questions,” Kennedy finally snapped at Wolf. Wolf has been notably absent ever since from the White House podium during briefings about the nation’s epidemic response.

Yeah, it’s all China’s fault.

I predict that when Trumpistas read this story . . .

In phone calls with outside advisers, Trump has even floated trying to reopen much of the country before the end of this month, when the current federal recommendations to avoid social gatherings and work from home expire, the people said. Trump regularly looks at unemployment and stock market numbers, complaining that they are hurting his presidency and reelection prospects, the people said.

. . . they’ll think the important point is when should the economy restart, not the criterion that Trump uses when making this decision.

PS. It’s been a couple decades since I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio. When did he become a conspiracy nut? Do millions of conservatives still listen to this man? I’d like to see Rush go speak to the overworked doctors and nurses in NYC and tell them that California faced a far more severe coronavirus epidemic last November, and none of their doctors and nurses complained about being overworked.



15 Responses to ““America” is not spreading lies about China (because countries cannot talk)”

  1. Gravatar of K.G. K.G.
    11. April 2020 at 15:16

    It’s a subtle form of dehumanization. In general, American entities are spoken of as individuals capable of independent existence, thought and action. Everything Chinese on the other hand is regarded as just one more cell in a giant organism. If you are attacked by a person’s hand, you are allowed to attack that person’s leg, since they are parts of the same person, etc.

  2. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    11. April 2020 at 15:26


    Evidently, leaks from virology labs are not unknown in China and have happened previously.

    A researcher, who worked in the Wuhan lab, made a career out of collecting virus samples from bat caves, and himself took precautions to not transmit such viruses to others. That is, that researcher would sometimes isolate himself for two weeks after exposure to possible bat viruses. But, despite precautions, that researcher may have been the link.

    Trying to determine if a lab was the source of COVID-19 is a legitimate line of inquiry. Surely, we know from experience that what a government says is not always to be trusted, in Beijing or Washington DC.

  3. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    11. April 2020 at 15:35

    I read an interesting article in SCMP recently that a US Navy magazine was advocating privateering against Chinese merchant shipping: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3079303/us-military-researchers-call-use-privateers-against-china

    This SCMP article to its credit was careful in noting who wrote the article and never attributes the article to “America,” even though it appeared in a US Navy publication and not some kind of private media.

    But imagine if people in China were talking about this article as an official threat from the US government, the way people in America are talking about the article in Xinhua that threatened to cut off medical exports. That would certainly stir up a lot of anger and fear among the Chinese–many otherwise apolitical people would probably support greater military installations in the South China Sea to protect against “America”‘s threat of privateering. That would be quite dangerous. It’s just as dangerous for us to treat anything anybody in China says as their official government position.

  4. Gravatar of Shyam Vasudevan Shyam Vasudevan
    11. April 2020 at 18:51

    I think there is a difference should be held between positions stated by members of China’s brutal ruling dictatorship versus politicians in the United States who are subject to regular elections. If China had a democracy, it would be easier to differentiate between statements of the CCP and statements of their government officials

  5. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    11. April 2020 at 20:17

    Sure, they could use the term CCP more often instead of China.

    I have noticed that even NYT and WP authors very often don’t do this. Are there any good theories as to why many authors from said papers don’t do this? I have 2-3 theories on this, but I don’t want to influence anyone.

    Apart from that I agree with Shyam. China is ruled by a totalitarian regime, every statement by officials and citizens of China will sooner or later be influenced by the CCP anyhow.

  6. Gravatar of D.O. D.O.
    12. April 2020 at 09:16

    Treating “others” as undifferentiated uniform mass is a well-known psychological phenomenon. Professional journalists should try to correct for that.

    That said, Sen. Cotton is much more important figure in the US then some Chinese ministry spokesman in the world. Remember, it was Cotton who led Repubs opposition to Obama’s Iran deal and it was Cotton’s immigration proposal that was adopted by the White House. Establishment Republicans do not like or trust Trump and would rather have a different leader, but they very well may look to Cotton for their foreign policy views. At some point in the future, the world (both formal and informal leaders) should think really hard about what international system of reporting and control over new viruses (again formal and informal) should look like and the US has much higher chance to be influenced by the views of Sen. Cotton than China by rumblings of some foreign ministry official big mouth.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. April 2020 at 09:38

    KG, Good analogy.

    Ben, As usual, I have no idea how your comment relates to anything in my post.

    Mark, Interesting that this didn’t get coverage in the US media; another example of our double standard. Do you know if there is a link to the original article?

    Shyam, You said:

    “If China had a democracy, it would be easier to differentiate between statements of the CCP and statements of their government officials”

    I agree, but would you agree that statements by Chinese officials often do not reflect official Chinese policy? I frequently see examples of Chinese officials disagreeing with each other. Do we have any evidence that this wacky conspiracy theory is now official Chinese policy? What is that evidence? Sometimes these theories appear in Chinese media, but wacky conspiracy theories appear on Fox News, which is basically an arm of the Trump administration.

    D.O. That’s a reasonable point.

  8. Gravatar of Nick Ronalds Nick Ronalds
    12. April 2020 at 10:35

    Your post is a useful corrective. Ascribing actions and opinions to a country is a common form of sloppy journalism that encourages dumb ideas.

    But there is a difference between opinions aired in the Chinese media in that those opinions will likely have the imprimatur of the central government. For one thing, the media are run by the party. For another, every Chinese company, every business, is required by law to have within it a party structure, answerable up the party chain of command. Again: every business, every company, every organization of any sort. Corporate decisions made by a company’s board of directors better have been approved by its party representative or it could be overturned, as foreign join venture partners discover to their dismay if they didn’t already know. Is there anyone unaware that in China (the PRC), someone who makes public statements at odds with the party line is likely to suffer disagreeable consequences? And hence that such statements are relatively rare?

  9. Gravatar of TMC TMC
    12. April 2020 at 13:46

    Cotton claimed it may have been leaked from a lab, which it may have been. More than the US believe this may be true as the bat in question doesn’t live in that area. The debunked claim is that it was engineered in a lab, which seems to be extremely unlikely, but is a claim that Sen Cotton didn’t make.

    We go from Cotton’s quote ““Now, we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there, 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 said.”

    To: “There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered,” said Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University. “The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded.”

    Again, he claimed neither that it was engineered, nor that it was deliberately released.

  10. Gravatar of Ken B Ken B
    12. April 2020 at 14:20

    I think one can reasonably treat the Chinese Communist Party as an actor in this, and “China” is just a figure of speech referring to them. China did lie, China did suppress information, China did hassle doctors. In each case this was an action of the CCP exercised through governmental apparatus. China allowed flights, China expelled journalists. Lots of contexts, one actor.
    There is no comparable actor that “America” can refer to in so many contexts.

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. April 2020 at 09:29

    Nick, You said:

    “Is there anyone unaware that in China (the PRC), someone who makes public statements at odds with the party line is likely to suffer disagreeable consequences?”

    I agree. That’s why I suspect that this wild conspiracy theory was not the “party line”. Why else would the Chinese ambassador to the US call it “crazy”?

    BTW, there is often a difference of opinion among Chinese leaders on various issues, but they do speak with one voice on sensitive issues like Tibet, Taiwan, etc. The disagreement tends to be over issues like the economy.

    TMC, He certainly left the impression that he was supporting the other loony voices on the right, like former White House chief of staff Bannon. When you say it couldn’t have come from the animal market, people read that as “It was engineered”. The implication was clear, in context.

    Ken, You said:

    “China did lie, China did suppress information, China did hassle doctors.”

    I’m afraid you don’t know much about “China”. Who was the number one loser in the suppression of warnings from local doctors by “China”? It was “China”. The central government was irate when they learned that the local government in Wuhan had covered up the problem, and promptly fired the leadership. That local censorship created an enormous and avoidable headache for the national government. To view “China” as a monolith is a huge mistake. It’s a very messy and decentralized system.

  12. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    13. April 2020 at 13:33

    Countries do talk, though their government officials, and just the other day China banned all papers that attempt to explain the origins of Covid-19. And Ben Cole is right, except the April article in NR he cites uses obsolete material, since it mentions pangolins as in intermediate host when that’s been disproved, which, incidentally, also disproves the Nature paper that supposedly rebuts that C-19 virus came from China since the Nature paper claims C-19 virus is found in pandolins. Cite that pangolins are not the cause of C-19 virus: March 26, 2020 paper: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/covid-19-no-evidence-coronavirus-jumped-pangolin-people (“The pangolin viruses, however, lack a feature seen in SARS-CoV-2 that may have helped the virus make the leap to humans — a hint that the virus may have acquired an adaptation in another, not yet identified, animal before spreading around the globe. “)

    For those of you not up to speed on this issue, my apologies, but this short comment is not a tutorial. Do your own research, and you’ll see that the Covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) is a close cousin of this chimeric virus, SARS-CoV, developed in 2015 at the U. of NC (Chapel Hill) by, inter alia, two Wuhan bioweapons researchers who are still prominent today in Wuhan. Read the NIH paper on this chimeric virus: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4797993/

  13. Gravatar of TMC TMC
    14. April 2020 at 08:53

    Scott, no, he sounds quite reasonable, and you seem to be reading into his comments things he he didn’t say or even imply.

    WAPO now reporting : “U.S. officials warned in January 2018 that the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s work on “SARS-like coronaviruses in bats,” combined with “a serious shortage” of proper safety procedures, could result in human transmission and the possibility of a “future emerging coronavirus outbreak.”

    Cotton was likely right.

  14. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    14. April 2020 at 20:45

    (CNN)”Despite evidence from infectious disease experts suggesting otherwise, nearly 30% of Americans in a new Pew poll said they believe the novel coronavirus was likely created in a lab.

    The latest poll from the public opinion fact tank shows that misinformation around the virus is still king, even as fact checkers and public health officials work furiously to dispel it and save American lives.”



    From what I read, many experts think the virus is artificial and many do not.

    Dr. Ray Lopez said COVID-19 is artificial.

    This CNN spin on a lead of a story…must make Beijing happy.

  15. Gravatar of myb6 myb6
    16. April 2020 at 11:09

    The censorship/coverup is *ongoing*. Highly doubt that’s not coming from the uppermost CCP levels at this point.

    Chinese theories about an American origin: it’s a pretty hard fact the virus came from China. Plus, with a state so concerned with speech controls, it’s reasonable to treat memes given so much rope as at least state-sanctioned.

    Cotton jumping the gun: probably incorrect about virus being engineered but not a hard fact and certainly wasn’t when he spoke. Cotton quite possibly correct about the lab. Yes, he needs to be far more careful with what comes out of his mouth, but the violations aren’t equivalent.

    We’ve had the suggestive “what are the odds it’s a coincidence” since the beginning, meanwhile circumstantial evidence has been building. Wapo (that crazy nest of MAGA) oped:

    Yes, yes, if the virus leaked from that lab it doesn’t excuse any of the American nor European incompetence. However our incompetence doesn’t excuse Chinese incompetence nor intentional disregard for billions of non-Chinese.

    I feel like everything I just wrote is painfully obvious. Yet here we are.

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