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Chinese Official Pushes Conspiracy Theory U.S. Spread Virus

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 3/13/2020 Jason Scott and Iain Marlow
a group of people wearing costumes: BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 26: Chinese police officers wearing masks stand in front of the Tiananmen Gate on January 26, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of coronavirus rose to 1,975 in mainland China on Sunday. Authorities tightened restrictions on travel and tourism this weekend after putting Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, under quarantine on Thursday. The spread of the virus corresponds with the first days of the Spring Festival, which is one of the biggest domestic travel weeks of the year in China. Popular tourism landmarks in Beijing including the Forbidden City, Badaling Great Wall, and The Palace Museum were closed to the public starting Saturday. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission announced it will delay reopening schools from kindergarten to university. The death toll on Sunday rose to 56. The majority of fatalities are in Wuhan where the first cases of the virus were reported last month (Photo by Betsy Joles/Getty Images) © Photographer: Betsy Joles/Getty Images AsiaPac BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 26: Chinese police officers wearing masks stand in front of the Tiananmen Gate on January 26, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of coronavirus rose to 1,975 in mainland China on Sunday. Authorities tightened restrictions on travel and tourism this weekend after putting Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, under quarantine on Thursday. The spread of the virus corresponds with the first days of the Spring Festival, which is one of the biggest domestic travel weeks of the year in China. Popular tourism landmarks in Beijing including the Forbidden City, Badaling Great Wall, and The Palace Museum were closed to the public starting Saturday. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission announced it will delay reopening schools from kindergarten to university. The death toll on Sunday rose to 56. The majority of fatalities are in Wuhan where the first cases of the virus were reported last month (Photo by Betsy Joles/Getty Images)

(Bloomberg) -- A Chinese foreign ministry official pushed a conspiracy theory the U.S. army may have had a role in spreading the virus, highlighting growing tensions between the world’s biggest economies as both governments seek to deflect blame for the outbreak.

“It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman, said in a tweet. “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

He later followed up with another tweet urging his 284,000 followers to share an article arguing that the virus originated in the U.S. It was posted on a website promoting conspiracy theories, including articles lambasting the “Vaccine Deep State” and questioning whether Osama bin Laden ever existed.

On Friday in Beijing, Geng Shuang, another spokesman for the foreign ministry, said that “international society, including the U.S., has different opinions about the source of the virus. But China always believes that this is a matter of science which requires professional and scientific assessment.”

Geng was asked twice if the earlier tweets by his colleague, Zhao, represented the view of the Chinese government. “I think you may want to ask certain senior U.S. officials -- did they speak on behalf of the U.S. government when they attacked and smeared China recently?” he said in response to one question.

“What I said represents the Chinese government’s attitude,” he said, in response to the other.

With the coronavirus spreading from China into the U.S. and around the world, both nations are trading tit-for-tat claims about its origins. While it’s unclear whether Zhao was being facetious, earlier this month he became the first official in China to suggest that the virus didn’t originate there, even though he hasn’t provided any evidence for that claim.

Asked about the claim, Geng had said earlier this week that “the origin of the virus can only be determined by science” and expressed hope the issue would not be used to “stigmatize” any country.

The U.S. State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump’s Retweet of ‘China Virus’ Fuels Tensions With Beijing

President Donald Trump, who is facing an election this year, has sought to blame China for the virus as the outbreak slams global stock markets and threatens to push the world into recession. In a major prime time television address about the virus Wednesday night, Trump made numerous references to China, referred to the disease as a “foreign virus” and said “sweeping travel restrictions on China” imposed by the U.S. had prevented the scale of outbreaks now seen in Europe.

“It started in China and is now spreading throughout the world,” Trump said.

This isn’t Zhao’s first controversy on Twitter. While serving as China’s deputy chief of mission at its embassy in Islamabad in July, he posted a string of messages aimed at highlighting U.S. hypocrisy in criticizing Beijing’s human rights record at a time when Washington was ramping up criticism of detention camps in western China’s Xinjiang province.

Susan Rice Calls Chinese Diplomat a ‘Racist Disgrace’ on Twitter

Zhao mentioned everything from school shootings and income inequality to racial segregation, adding that if “you’re in Washington, D.C., you know the white never go” to the Southeast part of the U.S. capital, home to historically African-American areas. That tweet, which he later deleted, drew the attention of former U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, leading to an heated online argument.

“You are a racist disgrace. And shockingly ignorant too,” Rice tweeted at Zhao. Probably on the assumption that Zhao was based at China’s mission in Washington, she also addressed the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, who had recently joined Twitter. “Ambassador Cui, I expect better of you and your team. Please do the right thing and send him home.”

(Updates with Chinese foreign ministry’s response on the claims from fourth paragraph.)

--With assistance from James Mayger and Sharon Chen.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14@bloomberg.net;Iain Marlow in Hong Kong at imarlow1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ruth Pollard at rpollard2@bloomberg.net, Daniel Ten Kate, Karen Leigh

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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