Foreign Policy

Why China Continues to Unfold COVID-19 Conspiracies

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

This week’s highlights: Beijing’s Conspiracy theories on COVID-19 undermine his diplomacy, Canadian businessman Michael Spavor is sentenced to 11 years in prison and China withdraws its Ambassador to Lithuania.

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The biologist who wasn’t

Chinese state media silently removed references to a source named Wilson Edwards, an alleged Swiss biologist and whistleblower for US coronavirus conspiracies, after the Swiss embassy publicly stated that Edwards did not exist. Edwards appears to be the invention of a small Chinese propaganda channel that was later copied by others – a practice sadly common in the state media ecosystem.

The bogus source is part of a recent trend in Chinese state media that attributed the coronavirus pandemic to a leak from Fort Detrick, the site of a major U.S. Army biological research laboratory. These conspiracy theories have gained traction in the media in recent months, in part in response to the increased interest of the US public in Wuhan laboratory leak theories and US President Joe Biden, who advocates further investigation.

While there are good reasons to be skeptical of the Wuhan lab’s leak theories, they have at least some facts in their favor: the presence of a high-security virus lab near the site of the first documented COVID-19 outbreak. Fort Detrick’s claims are comparatively nonsensical.

China’s widespread conspiracy theory, which began in earnest in 2020, can only worsen relations with the United States. The first wave of false allegations has already hardened US officials’ attitudes towards their counterparts in Beijing. The recent flurry of claims about Fort Detrick is now undermining the efforts of China’s new ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, to present himself as a sane and amiable figure.

Theories that COVID-19 originated in the US appear to have been successfully sold to much of the Chinese public; Around 53 percent of those surveyed in March 2020 said the virus was a US bioweapon. However, they have gained little in importance worldwide. Chinese attempts to shape the crowded pandemic conspiracy room – from cartoons to rap – have proven clumsy and clumsy. These tactics are in sharp contrast to those of the anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the pro-Trump government newspaper Epoch Times, which successfully established itself as a conspiracy channel despite a fraction of the budget.

Without developing ideological sympathies, new waves of Chinese nationalist propaganda are likely to flop in the West. But if Beijing improves its game, it could find more buyers in developing countries with existing distrust of the United States.

The trial of Spavor is over, and Kovrig is awaiting conviction. Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman detained by China as an apparent political hostage, was sentenced Wednesday to 11 years in prison on trumped-up espionage charges. Spavor was arrested in December 2018 in response to the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou for extradition to the United States by Canada. Another Canadian arrested at the same time, Michael Kovrig, is about to be sentenced.

The fall of the two Michaels ruined China’s reputation in Canada. But, as Sino-Canadian journalist Joanna Chiu points out, Beijing has wrongly detained Canadians and others of Asian descent for years without Ottawa getting a strong response. Even today, incarcerated Sino-Australian journalist Cheng Lei and others of Chinese descent receive less attention than white prisoners.

Spavor’s verdict isn’t the worst outcome, but it currently offers little hope of release, although some Westerners detained in China were deported long before their verdict. Meanwhile, compatriot Canadian Robert Schellenberg, a convicted drug smuggler whose sentence was increased to execution after Wanzhou’s arrest, saw the death penalty upheld in court on Tuesday.

Lithuanian ambassador out. China has withdrawn its ambassador to Lithuania and is demanding that Vilnius recall its own from Beijing after the country established a representative office in Taiwan. Typically, government retaliatory offices followed the diplomatic skirmish, including one that called Lithuania a “crazy, tiny country.”

In recent years, Lithuania has increasingly resisted Chinese influence in Europe, including withdrawing from an important Sino-Eastern European group. Its long history as a target of Russian imperialism makes it in part sympathetic to China’s threatened neighbors. Beijing is probably aware that these moves will only worsen its relations with Vilnius, but it tries to intimidate others through its extreme reaction.

Forbidden songs. Chinese authorities are forming teams to check karaoke playlists across the country for unapproved songs and instead encourage them to offer material that promotes “core socialist values.” When raids reach this level of pettiness, it’s not really about ideological threats. Instead, the initiative reflects a combination of extortionate opportunism and the officials’ need to demonstrate that they are doing something. The censorship machine has to justify its own existence.

Foreign Investment Risks. The recent crackdown on private companies has drawn attention to a long-established part of foreign investment in China: Variable Interest Entities (VIEs). Foreign ownership is illegal in many Chinese economic sectors, but VIEs bypass it: As part of the corporate structure, holding companies in offshore locations allow foreign companies to invest without giving them control of the company.

China has never legalized VIEs, but neither are they specifically illegal. The government often follows similar gray area strategies to experiment with openness – with the possibility of rollbacks. This tactic also lures people and companies into a feeling of complacency, the often false belief that things must go on as before.

Beijing has throttled some VIEs in certain sectors, most recently in combating private education, but recent hostility towards foreign listings suggests that VIEs in other areas could be targeted. Western investors and analysts in China still largely underestimate the risks of doing business in an authoritarian state without a meaningful rule of law.

Alibaba harassment. Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on private companies has had a surprisingly positive consequence: it created space for cases of sexual harassment and abuse. The rape and sexual harassment allegations published on Aug. 7 by tech giant Alibaba went viral and quickly resulted in the firing of several executives and promises to change corporate culture.

Feminist activists in China have worked for years to publicize and expose such cases, but censorship and the legal system have buried many previous efforts. But as with the recent arrest of superstar actor Kris Wu for alleged rape, the political winds have forced a stronger response. This does not mean that the authorities show sympathy for organized activism. Long-standing feminist groups are still being disbanded or forced to go offline.

Scientific journal under attack. Eight members of the editorial board of Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine, a scientific journal published by Wiley, have resigned over controversy over the publication of articles related to Chinese population engineering projects. While the journal is not a large one, the case shows how China’s growing interest in DNA collection, facial recognition, and ethnic identification is becoming a focal point in the global scientific debate.

Chinese scholars generally receive institutional recognition for publication in foreign journals, but that may change if Western publications begin to rule out ethically dubious papers related to government projects.

Tourists visit the Old Dragon’s Head section of the Great Wall in Qinhuangdao, China on July 9, 2009.Andrew Wong / Getty Images

Qinhuangdao: 1 million people

The port city of Qinhuangdao exemplifies the change in northern China from a border zone to the industrial heartland of the country over the centuries.

Qinhuangdao was originally a garrison town near the Shanhaiguan mountain pass at one end of the Great Wall, which was a major invasion route for northern horsemen. A sprawling array of fortresses built over the centuries became obsolete when the Qing Dynasty, even northern invaders, incorporated the areas north of the wall into their empire.

In the 19th century, Qinhuangdao had become an important part of North China’s coal infrastructure. It is still China’s main coal port, transporting fuel to the rest of the country and for export. Otherwise, it’s a sleepy town that stretches from the harbor to the mountains, attracting tourists to see where the Great Wall meets the sea at Old Dragon’s Head.

Qinhuangdao also includes Beidaihe District, a fishing village that has become a beach resort that is visited by CCP leaders for an annual retreat. Numerous other spas and hotels do their best with the mostly crowded coastline.

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