- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2020

Chinese officials and state-run media outlets appear to be backing away from inflammatory recent charges that the coronavirus pandemic was started by the U.S.

However, the war of words between Washington and Beijing continued, with both sides claiming they are spreading false information about the virus that first surfaced Wuhan, China, in December.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, the spokesman who first raised questions of whether the U.S. Army has spread the virus, offered a more conciliatory tone on Monday. “We should unite to deal with the epidemic and carry out international cooperation to save more lives,” he tweeted.

Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai also signaled a toning down of China’s anti-U.S. tone in a television interview.

Asked by HBO Axios about Mr. Zhao’s comment, Mr. Cui said only, “Maybe you should go ask him.”

The envoy in February had dismissed claims the virus came from a U.S. lab as the result of people saying “crazy things.” “That was my position then and that’s my position now,” Mr. Cui said in the interview broadcast Sunday.

But there remain frictions between Washington and Beijing: State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus sharply challenged Chinese officials’ claims that they had recognized early on in the pandemic that the deadly virus as “highly pathogenic.”

“Nonsense,” Ms. Ortagus tweeted. “You call it ‘highly pathogenic’ now, but last month your officials blocked a WHO report from calling [COVID-19] a ‘dangerous pathogen.’”

The State Department spokeswoman pointed to a Financial Times report that said doctors in Taiwan warned the World Health Organization in December about the dangers of the virus. The WHO, which has largely praised China’s response, did not report on the spread until late January.

Also on Twitter, apparent Chinese bots — personas with few followers that only dispatch scores of anti-U.S. tweets — stepped up their attacks on the U.S.

And China Global Television Network, the government’s main international broadcaster, last week posted a report asking a series of questions about the coronavirus designed to raise suspicions of a U.S. role in the crisis.

The questions suggested the virus came from the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick in Maryland, a biological defense research laboratory and asked if American soldiers who took part in a Wuhan military sporting competition in October covertly brought the virus to China.

Mr. Cui was called in to the State Department earlier this month and warned by Washington to back off from the disinformation campaign.

After initially adopting the WHO designation of COVID-19, President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior officials have begun using the terms “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus.”

Additionally, senior U.S. officials have begun highlighting what they say was China’s early mishandling of the virus outbreak, concealing data on the seriousness of the threat.

Mr. Trump on Sunday again blamed China for not providing early information about the threat.

“I wish they told us three months sooner that this was a problem,” he said. “We didn’t know about it. They knew about it and they should have told us. We could have saved a lot of lives throughout the world.”

In recent days, China has shifted its propaganda narrative to assert that such terms as “Chinese virus” were racist — though many people in China refer to the illness as “Wuhan flu.”

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, was asked if Mr. Cui’s comment that the made-in-the-U.S. conspiracy was “crazy.”

“The origin of COVID-19 is a matter of science that requires scientific and professional assessment,” Mr. Geng said. “There is a clear consensus by WHO and the international community that a virus should not be linked to specific country, region or ethnic groups and such stigmatization should be rejected.”

The spokesman noted U.S. news reports on an internal White House notice calling for a government-wide program to highlight China’s cover-up of coronavirus information.

“I just can’t help asking who is really spreading misinformation to mislead the public? Mr. Geng asked.

Mr. Pompeo, in a video posted on Twitter on Friday condemned the false stories and warned that disinformation should not be allowed to undermine U.S. efforts to response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Global Times, considered among the most hardline anti-U.S. propaganda organs, stated in an editorial on Monday that the United States and China should “put solidarity above geopolitics,” and suggested Mr. Trump was being misled by his advisers.

“We call on the U.S. to immediately recalibrate its China policy, putting aside geopolitics and work with China to combat the fatal virus,” the paper said.

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

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