President Trump has declared a truce in the war of words with China over Beijing’s use of disinformation accusing the United States of spreading the deadly coronavirus pandemic, following a phone call last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Asked about China’s use of disinformation on Tuesday, Mr. Trump appeared to play down the Chinese campaign that was marked by a deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman citing accusations that the U.S. Army of first spreading the virus in Wuhan.
“They do it and we do it, and we call them different things and, you know, I make statements that are very strong against China, including ‘the Chinese virus’ which has been going on for a long time,” he said on Fox News.
Mr. Trump said the Chinese were not happy with his use of the term, but he also noted that doing so was a direct challenge to the disinformation campaign blaming the U.S. for the pandemic.
“When they said our soldiers did it, I said, ‘You mean the Chinese virus?’ ” he said. “And all of a sudden they call and they say, ‘Let’s talk nicely.’ Yeah, sure. Hey, every country does it, but they build it up and we handle that and they probably handled it. But countries do that.”
The shift in rhetoric is not limited to Mr. Trump.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has taken the lead in countering Chinese propaganda and disinformation, has been adamant in referring to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus.”
Mr. Pompeo reportedly also sought to include the term in a joint statement by Group of Seven foreign ministers during a virtual conference last week, but European leaders opposed the idea.
On Wednesday, Mr. Pompeo appeared to back off using the term. In an interview with reporters from Asia, Mr. Pompeo referred to the “COVID-19 outbreak” but did not use the term “Wuhan virus.” A day earlier, Mr. Pompeo avoided use of the term and instead referred only to “the virus” during a press conference.
Fox’s Brian Kilmeade questioned Mr. Trump about the terms based on reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times, triggering the president’s vehement dislike of both newspapers.
“When I read things in The Washington Post, I mean I can tell you stories that they write that are just the opposite,” he said. “They will do anything they can to hurt this presidency.”
“I don’t even understand it when you can get such fake news — New York Times is a totally dishonest paper,” the president added. “They are dishonest people. Washington Post, same thing. I’m trying to figure out for three and a half years who is more dishonest? Who is more corrupt? The Washington Post or The New York Times. When I figure it out I’ll let you know. We’ll have a special.”
Anti-Xi sentiment grows in China
Opposition inside China appears to be growing to President Xi Jinping, in the wake of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Recent unofficial posts on Chinese social media have been highly critical of Mr. Xi. Since assuming the senior position of general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in 2012, Mr. Xi has assumed more power and control than any leader in Beijing since Mao Zedong.
One of the most surprising political attacks appeared 10 days ago on the widely used Chinese social media outlet WeChat, an attack that, according to the Voice of America, appeared to originate within the ruling Communist Party.
Appearance of the anonymous open letter was surprising because WeChat is among the most censored outlets in China. For any critical post to appear and circulate widely suggests a gap in the tightly controlled censorship system and a powerful internal opposition to the president.
The post called for “an emergency enlarged meeting” of the CCP Politburo to discuss whether Mr. Xi should be removed from power — both as general secretary of the party and as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the ultimate organ of power in China today that controls the armed forces. The politburo includes about two dozen of the Party’s most senior officials who control everything in China, from its financial sector to the People’s Liberation Army.
The post was promoted by a Chinese “princeling,” as the offspring of the country’s leaders are called, and circulated widely beginning the weekend of March 21. It was eventually taken down by censors.
In it, the author listed numerous topics to be discussed at the emergency meeting, including whether to return to the more low-key policies of post-Mao reformer Deng Xiaoping and whether the CCP should be above the law.
Other topics called for debate included whether private companies or state-owned enterprises should be the main economic force and whether the private sector should be placed in charge of China’s vast state media apparatus.
Another focus would be on whether the Chinese government should be separated from the CCP, in reaction to the widespread “party-ization” — placing government agencies and ministries under Party control — that has occurred under Mr. Xi.
The article called for creation of a three-person group of senior leaders made up of Premier Li Keqiang, Vice Premier Wang Yang, and Vice President Wang Qishan. Mr. Wang is China’s financial czar who has close ties to Wall Street, including former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.
Mr. Xi’s popularity is said to have suffered the central leader in charge of responding to the virus outbreak that began in early December and mushroomed after authorities allowed as many as 5 million residents of Wuhan to leave the city for Lunar New year Celebrations.
Mr. Xi, according to a joint report by China and the World Health Organization, “personally directed and deployed the prevention and control work” as part of a “central leadership group” of officials.
The open letter followed another report critical of Mr. Xi produced by Ren Zhiqiang, a CCP member and real estate tycoon who was silenced in 2016 for online criticism of the president.
Mr. Ren earlier this year wrote an article harshly criticizing Mr. Xi’s handling of the virus outbreak with the biting headline, “A clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing to be an emperor.” Mr. Ren also said Mr. Xi was more interested in preserving his own power than responding the outbreak.
Mr. Ren disappeared following a speech in February by Mr. Xi and has not been heard from since.
China’s ‘Fox Hunt’ for dissidents
Chinese intelligence and security services are continuing to conduct covert operations inside the United States in a bid to arrest and repatriate Chinese dissidents and fugitives.
FBI counterintelligence agents have targeted the campaign, giving the Chinese intelligence program the code name “Fox Hunt.”
FBI counterspy efforts against the Chinese program are secret. However, China’s Fox Hunt program was mentioned recently in a speech by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam S. Hickey, a senior National Security Division official who is a key official in the Justice Department’s China Initiative, an ongoing crackdown on Chinese intelligence and technology collection operations in the United States.
Mr. Hickey said in a speech that after U.S. and allied law enforcement arrest or detain Chinese nationals suspected of crimes, China has retaliated by arresting and holding foreign nationals on trumped-up charges.
“On the other hand, when China seeks to track down its nationals accused of political or corruption crimes, they have refused to work with U.S. authorities to bring them to justice,” Mr. Hickey said. “Instead, [China] has been known to send agents known as ‘Fox Hunt’ teams to the United States and elsewhere to ‘persuade’ their fugitives to return to China.”
The Chinese squads enter under false pretenses to track down wanted individuals and force them to return to China.
A senior Justice Department official said China’s use of the Fox Hunt program remains a problem.
“I am struck by the extent to which China complains about so-called American unilateral law enforcement, but yet will send Fox Hunt teams here and will refuse to honor our process,” the official said.
“We extradite Americans all the time if there is an appropriate treaty. We send records. We make no effort to shield our citizens from the lawful due process of other nations. And you don’t get that from them.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.