Zhao Lijian, China’s combative foreign ministry spokesperson, suggested in spring 2020 that U.S. military athletes brought COVID-19 to Wuhan, the central Chinese city that was ground zero for the pandemic.

The United States expressed outrage at the assertion, which is not supported by any public evidence, and Zhao’s colleagues did not step up to support him.

Fourteen months later, when Zhao resurfaced the idea, his boss Hua Chunying and the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece newspaper joined in, calling on the United States to “release the data” on the athletes and open up a military lab near Washington for investigation.

Beijing’s doubling down on fringe theories about COVID-19 is part of an upsurge in China’s attempts to deflect criticism on issues ranging from the pandemic to human rights, as it savages Western rights records, experts and diplomats say.

The prevailing view among scientists is that COVID-19 likely emerged in China, probably through the wildlife trade, although a theory it leaked from a lab in Wuhan has gained more attention recently.

Beijing’s aggressive strategy, while popular domestically, suggests it could be giving up on improving relations with the West as a siege mentality forms domestically, experts and diplomats say.

“They’re telling the rest of the world that they’re standing up for their interests,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “I’m sure it resonates well at home.”

She said she was not sure what China hoped to achieve diplomatically with the approach. “Maybe they want to very clearly signal to the United States, ‘Your approach is not working — try something else.'”

Chinese President Xi Jinping and former President Hu Jintao in October 2017. | REUTERS
Chinese President Xi Jinping and former President Hu Jintao in October 2017. | REUTERS

Asked about China’s strategy, Hua said on Friday that Beijing was willing to develop friendly relations with any country, including the United States, on condition of mutual respect.

But against what she called U.S. slander, she told a regular news conference, “Must we grin and bear it, never fight back, never shout back, like silent lambs? I think not.”

After seven months in power, U.S. President Joe Biden has largely kept the confrontational line on China of his predecessor, Donald Trump. High-level meetings between the two sides appear to have yielded little but bad feeling.

At a tense meeting in Alaska in March, China’s top diplomat publicly lashed out at U.S. foreign policy and treatment of minorities. His counterparts, seemingly caught by surprise, called it “grandstanding.” In Tianjin last month, both sides listed demands without appearing to negotiate anything, as China accused the United States of creating an “imaginary enemy.”

In China’s highly controlled media environment, a narrative has taken hold where the country is “under siege from the wider world,” said Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history and politics at the University of Oxford.

China has ridiculed a theory that COVID-19 escaped from the state virology lab in Wuhan — backed by Republicans in the U.S. Congress but not by U.S. intelligence agencies. Instead, Beijing is pushing the idea that the virus slipped out of a lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland, in 2019.

Countering allegations of genocide against mostly Muslim Uyghurs in the western region of Xinjiang, China has embraced slogans like “Black Lives Matter.”

China’s diplomats have increasingly mentioned human rights and Fort Detrick in their public comments, a Reuters review shows, spreading a message that Western countries are unqualified to criticize — and should themselves be investigated.

Some observers detected a more conciliatory tone when President Xi Jinping called in May for China to “struggle” for international public opinion while becoming more “loveable.” But his diplomats appear instead to have only doubled down on the offense.

“It’s ‘whataboutism’ and I think that they do it because they don’t have other strategies that are more effective,” Glaser said. If COVID-19 emerged due to official missteps by Beijing, “it paints China in a very poor light.”

The Forbidden City Museum in Beijing earlier this month. | BLOOMBERG
The Forbidden City Museum in Beijing earlier this month. | BLOOMBERG

Backed by diplomats and state media, over 25 million Chinese signed a petition for the World Health Organization (WHO) to probe the Fort Detrick lab, which temporarily closed over safety concerns in August 2019.

Asked for comment, the WHO referred to a statement on COVID-19 origin tracing calling for “all governments to depoliticise the situation.” The Fort Detrick lab did not respond to a request for comment but has told U.S. media there was no leak there.

This week China seized on the collapse of Afghanistan to Taliban insurgents as proof the United States is unqualified to talk about human rights.

China, traditionally opposed to “naming and shaming” in the U.N. Human Rights Council, this year started doing so in a “volte-face,” said a Western diplomat in Geneva.

“It is a lot about the domestic audience — chest-beating — but there is also a broader sense they are trying to shore up support with different rhetoric.”

Some Western diplomats say China’s aggressiveness is counterproductive and that the audience for the messaging was not clear.

“It was sort of scattershot,” a senior diplomat in Geneva said. “It was very defensive and reactive.”

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