China’s coronavirus blame game crashes over infection-by-mail theory


Since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government ended a COVID-19 outbreak in the central city of Wuhan about two years ago, it has repeatedly sought to blame virus outbreaks on foreign sources. The final target is international mail.

Concerns grew in China last week that overseas packages could be contaminated with a coronavirus still potent enough to infect those who have come into contact with it. It all started when officials said Beijing’s first Omicron infection was a woman who handled a letter from Canada. This led local officials in the southern city of Guangzhou to order all residents who received overseas mail over a four-day period to get tested, and the State Post Bureau to warn people to be very careful with packages.

Social media users immediately began to ridicule the theory, with a doctor writing on the Twitter-like Weibo service that it would become an international joke. The message then disappeared from the doctor’s verified account. Thousands of netizens loved another lengthy missive on a popular verified account belonging to a virologist who explained the science behind why the virus was extremely unlikely to spread through international mail.

China then seems to be changing course. He Qinghua, an official with the National Health Commission, told a press briefing over the weekend that experts did not have enough evidence to say that unfrozen items from overseas transmitted COVID-19. He added that the coronavirus is mainly spread through close contact between people, echoing the official position of the World Health Organization.

The abrupt reversal in tone shows the pressures Chinese authorities face in managing the official narrative as they seek to contain growing outbreaks of Omicron while staging a successful Winter Olympics, which begin next week. Chinese propaganda outlets have long touted the Communist Party’s handling of the pandemic – marked by its strategy of eliminating all epidemics – as superior to the West, a stance that is now under intense scrutiny as that strict lockdowns and mass testing are generating more angst among the country’s 1.4 billion people.

Although the National Health Commission had the expertise to immediately refute the parcel claim, it may have waited to see what position most prominent supporters held in the party due to the “toxic political backdrop” of the China, even though the theory was “ruthlessly mocked”, Dominic said. Meagher, political scientist and head of the Australasia Strategy Group.

“The one-party system makes everything hyper-political because any question of jurisdiction immediately touches on the legitimacy of the whole system of government,” he said.

The consequences of any missteps on the virus are serious. Mr Xi has harshly criticized local officials as he seeks to avoid the harsh criticism the government has received even from within the country for its handling of the first outbreak in Wuhan, including accusations that he intentionally hid information that could have saved lives.

His government sacked key party leaders in Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, at the start of the pandemic. That trend has continued since, with 26 officials punished in Xi’an over an outbreak that sent the city of 13 million into complete lockdown for a month.

In addition to hitting local officials, authorities have regularly pointed the finger abroad — part of a playbook that extends beyond the virus. During sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, Beijing accused the United States of using a “black hand” to stir up trouble rather than address concerns about an erosion of political freedoms.

Days after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Twitter that the US military may have played a role in the spread of the virus. “Be transparent! Make your data public! The United States owes us an explanation! he wrote.

Last summer, as US intelligence agencies prepared a report on the origins of the virus commissioned by the Biden administration, the department regularly asked about US biolabs. A favorite target was Fort Detrick in Maryland, the same American facility that the Soviet Union falsely claimed in the 1980s to be the source of the virus causing AIDS.

Blaming strangers for the virus is beneficial in other ways. The strategy suggests that Mr. Xi’s government has everything under control and provides a ready excuse for any cases that breach Chinese defenses.

It also serves to stoke nationalism among a population burdened by the COVID-zero policy, which has required a litany of sacrifices. The closures have caused food and healthcare shortages like those seen recently in Xi’an and Tianjin, a port city near the capital.

Chinese people face frequent requests for virus tests and health codes to enter apartment buildings, shopping malls and subways. Earlier this month, the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s economic planner, urged people to avoid long trips during the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays, forcing the cancellation of family gatherings highly anticipated.

“Beijing wants its citizens to blame foreigners rather than the Chinese government itself,” said Neil Thomas, Washington-based China and foreign policy analyst at Eurasia Group. “Blaming COVID outbreaks on foreign mail is just one more example of the Xi Jinping administration’s concerted effort to use assertive nationalism to bolster its public legitimacy.” — Bloomberg

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