As scientists continue to study how the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Wuhan, China, and around the world, the infection’s early pathways have proven fertile ground for speculation and conspiracy theories. Although COVID-19’s earliest origins may remain uncertain, the story of one volley in the ongoing U.S.-China blame game shows that misinformation about the disease can be traced to specific speculations, distortions, and amplifications.
A hostile messaging war between U.S. and Chinese officials seeking to deflect blame for the pandemic’s harms has included the U.S. president labeling the pandemic a “Chinese virus” to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson spreading unfounded speculation that the U.S. military had a hand in introducing the virus to Wuhan. That speculation fed off of widely debunked theories that the virus was human-engineered and the fact that U.S. military personnel took part in the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019.
On March 12, Zhao Lijian, a deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, took to Twitter with a video clip in which U.S. Centers for Disease Control chief Robert Redfield said some patients who died from COVID-19 might not have been tested. Zhao added: “It might be US army [sic] who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”
Lijian Zhao shares a tweet alleging U.S. military involvement in introducing the virus to Wuhan.
A few hours later, Zhao shared an article from a conspiracy site entitled “Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the US.”
Another Tweet by Lijian Zhao claiming to have evidence for a U.S. origin of the virus.
Zhao’s implication that the United States and its military could be behind Wuhan’s outbreak, even inadvertently, sparked outrage. The U.S. government summoned Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, over the remarks. Cui later publicly disavowed the U.S. military conspiracy theory, and Chinese officials have not further amplified it.
Groundless speculation about the origins of the pandemic did not begin with Zhao, but the case of his eye-catching tweets reveals how China’s changing propaganda tactics have interacted with mangled news reporting, social media conspiracy theorizing, and underlying U.S.-China tensions—all resulting in high-profile misinformation about a public health crisis.
An examination of social media posts across Weibo, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit in English, Chinese, and Japanese reveals the context and pathways that brought this particular conspiracy theory to Chinese state media and diplomatic channels. Weeks of speculation and online conspiracy theorizing about military links to the virus’ origins or emergence, combined with a broadening uncertainty about the circumstances of Wuhan’s outbreak and increasingly brittle U.S.-China rhetoric, laid the groundwork for Zhao’s inflammatory tweets and the reaction that followed.
Speculation or conspiracy theory writings about a potential role for the U.S. military in Wuhan’s outbreak circulated weeks before Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, amplified the idea on Twitter.
Since several platforms have pledged to remove disinformation related to the origin of the coronavirus, and our research started in mid-March, some materials could have been removed. Still, speculation about a U.S. role can be traced at least as far back as January. Though the earliest speculation did not necessarily catch on, some early references include:
January 2: a Chinese-language YouTube channel had shared a video dismissing the idea that the pneumonia in Wuhan was the result of U.S. genetic warfare, which could imply at least some dissemination of the idea prior to this.
January 20: a Twitter user claimed the virus was 90% similar to one that had earlier been reported to a U.S. viral gene database.
January 21: another Twitter account wrote plainly that the “pneumonia of unknown origin in Wuhan” was caused by a “biochemical weapon developed by the U.S. military.”
January 31: a video appearing to be an old TV segment on alleged U.S. biological warfare during the Korean war was shared to YouTube with a title asking, “Were SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 U.S. Plots?”
By February 1, Twitter activity included speculation that the virus was linked to U.S. attendance at the Military World Games, which took place in Wuhan in October 2019—an idea that featured in the conspiracy theory article Zhao shared almost six weeks later. One account posted messages in response to CNN and BBC reporting claiming that the virus emerged near the hotel where U.S. participants stayed.
A Tweet posted verbatim several times suggesting a link between the Wuhan Military World Games, the U.S. military, and the coronavirus outbreak; here in a reply to a Tweet by CNN
The earliest instance of allegations of U.S. involvement that we found on Facebook was a Chinese-language post on February 6 linking to a now-removed YouTube video with the title, “The United States Made the Wuhan Virus 5 Years Ago? Causes Human Infection With Infectious Pneumonia. Situation Out of Control.” The YouTube channel behind the removed video, however, is still active and has posted another video on the conspiracy theory to its 246,000 followers.
A post on 新聞世界 (“News World”) alleges U.S. involvement in the COVID-19 outbreak and links to a video titled “美国5年前制造了武汉病毒？可致人感染传染性肺炎。局面失控。” (“The United States Made the Wuhan Virus 5 Years Ago? Causes Human Infection With Infectious Pneumonia. Situation Out of Control.”)
On February 21st, a now-deleted Japanese TV report suggested that COVID-19 had been active in the United States in 2019. This report was shared in various posts on Facebook and Chinese social media, which used the report as evidence to speculate that U.S. military participants in the Military World Games might have carried the virus with them.
A Facebook page sharing Chinese social media posts and an image from a Japanese TV report that had suggested COVID-19 was active in the United States in 2019. The post raises conspiracy theories.
Chinese state media has carried a variety of narratives about the pandemic over time, and indeed it has carried competing theories as expressed by different sources. In general, however, over the period from January leading up to the attention-getting Foreign Ministry tweets in March, reporting shifted from suspicions of animal origin to questions about whether the virus could have been carried to Wuhan by humans from another location.
January 29: The foreign-facing state broadcaster CGTN noted that although “the exact origins of this virus are still unknown, medical researchers believe it originated from an animal.”
February 10: CGTN shared a video on its Facebook page labeled “Facts Tell” and dismissing “bogus claims” in coronavirus-related conspiracy theories. It stated that the coronavirus is not man-made and argued against a Washington Times article speculating that the virus might have escaped from a Wuhan laboratory.
Chinese broadcaster CGTN’s February 10 video states that the novel coronavirus is not man-made
February 22: The Global Times — a provocative and often nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily — cast doubt on the geographic origin of the virus, citing a Chinese study claiming that the coronavirus did not originate in the Huanan Seafood market as originally believed.
February 23: A Global Times article published by People’s Daily Online referenced the now-deleted Japanese TV report speculating that COVID-19 might have been active and misidentified as influenza in the United States in 2019. The article quoted social media speculation that U.S. participants in the Military World Games in October might have carried the virus to Wuhan
February 27: The prominent Chinese doctor Zhong Nanshan remarked at a press conference that the geographic origin of the virus was still unknown and that it could have come from outside of China. His comments were carried widely, including by CGTN.
March 11: The People’s Daily on Facebook mentioned the Huanan Seafood Market as the “potential origin” of the virus.
Over a period of six weeks, official Chinese media references broadened uncertainty about COVID-19’s origins from an unknown animal to an unknown place.
By March 4, uncertainty about the geographic origin of the virus had made it to the Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s podium, where Zhao Lijian argued against the idea that the pandemic was a “China virus” and referenced Zhong Nanshan in saying that the outbreak first appeared in China but it may not originate there. The Chinese Embassy in South Africa amplified that point on Twitter on March 8.
Zhao was not only expressing uncertainty about origins; he was pushing back against persistent efforts to label SARS-CoV-2 a “Chinese virus” weeks after the World Health Organization had designated the disease “COVID-19” in part to avoid stigma related to geographically-linked names like “Wuhan Coronavirus.”
The criticism aimed at China’s government over its handling of the outbreak had been wide-ranging, and U.S. officials had also engaged in some conspiracy theorizing of their own. Senator Tom Cotton, for instance, had advanced a number of unfounded or speculative theories about the virus’ origin in late January and February. A conspiracy theorist talk radio website had also claimed “proof” that the virus was a Chinese military bioweapon in an article rated “false” by Politifact.
By the time Zhao was pushing the U.S. military import theory and his Foreign Ministry colleagues were questioning whether the virus came from China at all, therefore, the U.S.–China blame game dynamic over the virus had already incorporated unsupported theories.
Still, Zhao’s March 12 speculation on Twitter that “It might be US army [sic] who brought the epidemic to Wuhan” drew widespread public attention, as Chinese government spokespeople had long made even their more inflammatory claims from the podium, as opposed to on Twitter.
Zhao’s tweet was in part based on testimony by U.S. CDC Director Robert Redfield that it was possible some U.S. deaths assumed to be caused by influenza were actually COVID-19 cases—a message Zhao’s boss Hua Chunying, the ministry’s top spokesperson, also leveraged to argue “It is absolutely WRONG and INAPPROPRIATE to call this the Chinese coronavirus.”
This louder, more assertive online behavior from Chinese diplomats could well be the new normal. Reuters reported that Chinese leader Xi Jinping issued handwritten instructions last year to show a “fighting spirit.”
Ultimately, Zhao’s attention-grabbing tweets and statements from the Foreign Ministry podium may or may not set the tone for future Chinese government messaging. The international reaction, and Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai’s repudiation of the most blatant misinformation, may have changed the landscape for now.
Outside the halls of officialdom, however, social media remains a fertile and shifting ground for speculation and conspiracy theories. When searching for “新冠病毒” (“novel coronavirus”) on YouTube on March 22, 2020, the second autocomplete search suggestion was “The novel coronavirus is an American genetic weapon” (““新冠病毒是美国基因武器”). Trying the term again today, on March 31, however only yields the top result from the March 22 search Li Yongle, a popular YouTube channel various educational videos on various topics. This suggests Google-owned YouTube is still, as promised, taking measures to restrict disinformation related to the origin of COVID-19.
Screenshot from March 22, 2020: “The novel coronavirus is an American genetic weapon” (““新冠病毒是美国基因武器”) is now the second autocomplete suggestion in YouTube if one searches for “novel coronavirus” in Chinese (“新冠病毒”). Suggestions have since been restricted.
On Chinese video sharing platform Watermelon Video (西瓜视频), the first suggestion when searching for “U.S. Army” (“美军“) on March 23 was “What did the U.S. Army do in Wuhan” (“美军到武汉干什么”). Today it is the fourth suggestion.
Screenshot from March 23, 2020: On Chinese video sharing platform Watermelon Video (西瓜视频), the first suggestion when searching for “U.S. Army” (“美军“) is “What did the U.S. Army do in Wuhan” (“美军到武汉干什么”). Today (March 31) it comes fourth.
In times of uncertainty, speculation, and political blame games, continued vigilance is key when it comes to assessing and sharing information—even, or sometimes especially, when it comes from state channels. Social media companies need to maintain their efforts to proactively remove unfounded speculation and disinformation on their own platforms, regardless of who posts it. Citizens and journalists should question the intentions an actor promoting online content may have before possibly amplifying misleading voices. The COVID-19 pandemic makes careful handling of information and fact-based decision-making even more crucial than usual.