- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2020

China is overreacting to the Trump administration’s efforts to compete with Beijing, stepping up disinformation like recent official efforts to blame the global pandemic on the American military, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.

The U.S. is seeking to treat China as a peer competitor and is seeking equal treatment in strategic competition, the official said.

“Because we’re resisting in the media space, in the economic space, [the Chinese] are having a much more difficult time advancing their interests,” the official said in a briefing for reporters. “So, we’re getting a much more shrill narrative from the PRC.”

Critics say the State Department has provided a relatively muted response to Chinese disinformation, taking several days to respond and limiting the protests to diplomatic exchanges initially with little public criticism.

The most flagrant example, the official said, was Zhao Lijian’s tweet. Mr. Zhao is the deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry information department and tweeted last week that “it might be [the] U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”

“Zhao Lijian tried to attribute the global pandemic to the American military,” the official said. “That is just irresponsible and unacceptable.”

That lie was disseminated widely on Chinese social media platforms and propaganda outlets. Several Chinese ambassadors in foreign countries picked up the U.S. Army claim and tweeted it out.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Wednesday said China rejected President Trump’s multiple tweets Tuesday and Wednesday calling it the “Chinese virus.”

Asked for evidence behind the claim that the virus was brought to China by the U.S. military, Mr. Geng said, “The origin of the coronavirus is a matter of science that requires professional, science-based assessment. We firmly oppose certain high-level U.S. officials and Congress members using it to smear China and the epidemic prevention efforts and progress made by the Chinese government and people.”

The State Department lodged an official protest with Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai last week over the charge, but the official on Wednesday refused to reveal what was said in the meeting. Both President Trump and the State Department official on Wednesday defended the use of the terms “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” to describe the pandemic, denying it was a racist “dog whistle.”

“Ebola is related to the Ebola River,” the official said, noting 20 to 30 viruses are named for geographical locations. The term is common and widely used inside of China, the official said.

President Xi Jinping “used that term over and over again,” he added. Chinese social media outlets, including Weibo, still use the term “Wuhan pneumonia.”

“That’s what they call it,” the official said. “They don’t call it COVID. We should stop wrapping ourselves around the axle on the exact terminology.”

On another front, China on Tuesday retaliated against new Trump administration restrictions on Chinese state-linked news organizations in the U.S. by expelling more reporters for U.S. news organizations. The State Department defended its placing restrictions on Chinese outlets as seeking reciprocity.

“We’re just looking for reciprocal treatment,” the U.S. official said. “If you want to be a great power, expect to play on a level playing field.”

The official declined to say what additional steps the State Department plans to take following the latest expulsions.

The official faulted China for its initial mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak late last year that has spread throughout the world with more than 200,000 infections.

“This is life and death. People are dying from this,” the official said. “This is something that is destroying people’s lives and destroying the global economy.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered early on to send experts to China to help deal with the epidemic, but Beijing officials refused the offer for weeks.

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

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