- The Washington Times
Monday, March 16, 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on China’s Communist Party to halt disinformation spread by propaganda outlets claiming the novel coronavirus was first spread in China by the U.S. Army.

Mr. Pompeo made the comments in a phone call Monday to Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Communist Party of China.

The secretary “conveyed strong U.S. objections to PRC efforts to shift blame for COVID-19 to the United States,” according to a statement issued by the State Department. “The secretary stressed that this is not the time to spread disinformation and outlandish rumors, but rather a time for all nations to come together to fight this common threat.”

Mr. Yang, according to state-run Chinese television, told Mr. Pompeo that any attempt to smear China for its efforts to counter the coronavirus “will not succeed,” Reuters reported. The Chinese senior diplomat also threatened unspecified retaliation about what he said were efforts by U.S. politicians to denigrate China’s efforts to fight the virus.

The exchange is the latest in Washington and Beijing’s growing war of words about the virus.

White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien had harsh criticism in remarks last week to The Heritage Foundation for China’s early handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr. O’Brien said that instead of using best practices for handling new diseases, “this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up.” Doctors who sought to disclose the virus were imprisoned or silenced, he added.

“It probably cost the world community two months to respond, and those two months … could have dramatically curtailed what happened in China and what is now happening across the world,” he said.

First hints of disinformation

Zhong Nanshan, a senior Chinese government scientist, first hinted in a late February press conference that the virus may not have originated in China. Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian promoted the conspiracy theory on Twitter by saying the virus was brought to China by the U.S. Army.

“It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Mr. Zhao tweeted. He urged people to read an article in a Canadian publication known for spreading Russian disinformation that claimed the Army had spread the virus in China. “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

China’s ambassador to South Africa retweeted the post and called it “more evidence” that the virus was “not so-called ‘made in China.’”

Some U.S. lawmakers have urged the Trump administration to launch a more aggressive campaign to counter Beijing’s narrative.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, denounced what he called a “shameless new chapter in China’s cynical campaign to control its own image.”

“America has worked to assist all countries — China very much included — suffering from this pandemic,” he said in an op-ed on Breitbart.com. “But we cannot stand by as Beijing’s lies result in economic decline and in lives threatened across the world.”

Chinese officials initially said the virus originated from a wild food market in Wuhan. However, some of the first people who contracted the flulike disease were not associated with the Wuhan seafood market that was thought to be the source.

Health researchers believe the virus originated in bats, jumped to another wild animal and then spread to humans.

Wuhan, however, is the location of China’s sole high-security biological research lab that is known to study coronaviruses, leading to speculation that the virus may have escaped from the laboratory through an infected worker or a lab animal sold to the market.

Uneven response

Prior to Mr. Pompeo’s statement, the State Department privately dressed down Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai over suspected disinformation efforts related to the pandemic. David Stillwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs delivered a diplomatic protest Friday, and Mr. Cui was later shown leaving the department in a video that went viral.

President Trump, who has said the pandemic was caused by a “foreign virus,” has also sought to play down the controversy. He told reporters, “I did read one article, but I don’t think that article was representative — certainly not of my conversations with President Xi — and they know where it came from. We all know where it came from.”

Lea Gabrielle, director of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which is charged with countering foreign disinformation, told The Washington Times on Sunday that the Chinese are “engaged in an all-out aggressive campaign to try to reshape the global narrative around the coronavirus, essentially to the degree of trying to provide an alternate reality of what has actually happened since December.”

She offered no specifics but said China’s propaganda efforts have “caused us to have to react with a full-spectrum activation of our own public messaging and diplomatic engagement, and really just having to push access to fact-based information by our own communicators so they’re able to counter these false narratives with local audiences.”

Michael Pillsbury, a China analyst with the Hudson Institute and unofficial adviser to President Trump, said the Chinese were using disinformation techniques learned from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, including a false report uncovered by U.S. officials claiming that the U.S. Army created AIDS, he said.

“There’s a social science theory that if you get your story out first, you get that first impression,” Mr. Pillsbury said on Fox News. “That’s what the Chinese seem to be doing.”

Mr. Pillsbury said China is also pushing the argument that it is “racist” to call the coronavirus the Chinese virus or the Wuhan virus.

“They’ve also gone further by telling stories that there were American soldiers [in China] for a competition, creating doubt about our motives,” Mr. Pillsbury said.

Spotlight on China

Christian Whiton is a former U.S. government official who has studied the use of foreign disinformation.

“I can understand why Secretary Pompeo doesn’t want to get in a tit for tat with a mere Foreign Ministry spokesman, but we’re missing a great opportunity to spotlight China’s lies and force people to ask why they are resorting to disinformation, and what that says about the stability of Xi Jinping’s government,” Mr. Whiton said.

Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said Chinese state-run media are continuing to spread the disinformation on a U.S.-origin of the virus.

“The demarche appears to have had no impact given the several articles used today from PRC state-sponsored press organs that continue to spout this lie,” he said.

“Our public diplomacy, which never recovered from the elimination of the U.S. Information Agency after the Cold War, is still a confused mess,” he said. “It brings to mind a quote by David Lloyd George about the intelligence bureaucracy: ‘It appears in the budget at quite a substantial figure, but when it comes to information it is not visible.’”

Rich Higgins, a former National Security Council staff member in charge of strategic communication, said the entire global pandemic is the result of the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to cover up the initial outbreak and refuse to allow outside specialists into the country.

“The U.S. government needs to expose and reinforce the [Communist Party’s] culpability in the current situation to the American public, the Chinese people and the international community,” Mr. Higgins said.

“In addition, the U.S. government needs to specifically call out the media interests in the United States that are busily parroting CCP talking points during this crisis.”

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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