Made in China has never been more contentious. This week, a major diplomatic dispute broke out when Washington accused Beijing of exporting the Covid-19 epidemic.
On Wednesday, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien weighed into the row when he insisted the coronavirus was covered in Chinese characters.
“This virus did not originate in the United States, it originated in Wuhan,” he said at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank based in the US capital.
“Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up,” O’Brien added.
Twenty-four hours later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian fired back when he suggested in a bizarre claim that the US army may have brought the deadly disease into China.
Without proving a shred of evidence, he posted a video of Robert Redfield, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifying before Congress.
When asked whether there may have been deaths attributed to influenza that could have been the result of Covid-19, Redfield replied: “Some cases have been actually diagnosed that way in the United States today.”
His answer was vague enough to fuel yet another conspiracy theory.
“CDC was caught on the spot. When did patient zero begin in the US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals?” Zhao tweeted. “It might be [the] US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! [The] US owes us an explanation!”
During the past few weeks, the outbreak has spread rapidly in the US. Up to 1,600 people have become infected with the death toll climbing to 41. In China, more than 80,000 people have been infected with the death toll close to 3,200.
While the World Health Organization refuses to confirm the origin of the virus, the epicenter was in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, where most of the deaths occurred.
Yet the heavily-censored state-controlled media have been peddling a different line as it tries to change the narrative. Global Times, owned by the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, set the tone in an editorial. It said:
“With its inability to fight the epidemic, the US political circle has shifted blame abroad, particularly on China. US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien has launched the latest attack, claiming that China initially ‘covered up’ the epidemic, which cost the international community two months.
“This is by far the most shameless remark in Washington trying to shift blame regarding the epidemic. A country’s overall understanding of an outbreak is always a process, but since January 20, China’s warnings of the outbreak have been deafening.”
What is missing from that editorial is that the first officially confirmed case in Wuhan was on December 8. Twelve days later, that figure had increased to 60 after whistleblower Li Wenliang was silenced and threatened with a prison sentence.
When the ophthalmologist was finally heard and hailed as a “People’s Martyr,” he was chronically ill with the disease and finally died. Immediately, accusations of incompetence were leveled against President Xi Jinping’s administration for its early response to the catastrophe, as well as reports of a “cover-up” by officials in Wuhan.
Even the December 8 date is now being challenged. A report in the South China Morning Post revealed that Chinese authorities had identified at least 266 cases of Covid-19 last year with the earliest on November 17.
“Early moves by the Chinese government to conceal the nature and scale of the situation, coupled with their strident domestic restrictions, cast widespread doubt on the reliability of epidemiological surveillance,” Dominic Meagher, the chairman of the Australasia Strategy Group, said.
“A history of official dishonesty and a chronic lack of transparency added to the problem,” he wrote for the Lowy Institute, the Sydney-based think tank.
The World Health Organization has taken a more charitable view and praised Beijing for its handling of the crisis. In turn, that has provoked astonishment in other parts of the world.
Yet the WHO is in a difficult position as it tries to help coordinate a global response.
“There was no way they were going to make everyone happy. But it should be remembered that the WHO produces a crucial amount of data and operational guidelines,” a former high-level WHO official told Asia Times.
“Every infectious disease has an epidemic curve, but it tends to vary from country-to-country,” the official, with experience in pandemic preparedness and response in Southeast Asia and Africa, added.
So far, more than 135,000 people in at least 110 countries have become infected in less than three months. According to the WHO, the death toll has now reached nearly 5,000.
Still, Christl Donnelly, a professor of statistical epidemiology at Imperial College London, said that the genetic analysis of coronavirus samples collected from around the world showed a common ancestor in China.
“This is not in any way blaming a particular country,” she told the AFP news agency.
China will probably not see it that way.