A full year after an outbreak of a novel coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, the Chinese government last week finally relented to international pressure and granted access to a team of scientists from the WHO to investigate the origins of the disease. However, serious questions remain about whether the team would be able to carry out its investigation, free from the meddling hand of the Chinese state: The signs do not bode well.
The team was originally due to arrive at the beginning of this month; however, their visas were abruptly canceled while several of its members were already in transit. In July last year, two WHO scientists were allowed into China for three weeks, but were denied access to Wuhan and reportedly spent most of their time holed up in a hotel.
Chinese state media reports said that the scientists, who are now in China, would be allowed to stay for one month. However, half of this time would be spent in quarantine — although the 15 international sicentists had taken repeated COVID-19 tests in their own countries before traveling. This means they would have only two weeks to carry out their investigation.
Beijing is famous for harassing, surveilling and bugging foreign reporters investigating “sensitive” issues, such as human rights breaches or the mass incarceration of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang; the WHO team can expect similar treatment.
Beijing has already demonstrated that it is hell-bent on ensuring that blame for the pandemic is not pinned on China. Ever since the pandemic enveloped the globe, leaving a trail of death and economic destruction in its wake, Chinese officials have used their official Twitter accounts, state media and state-funded scientific research institutes to sow disinformation, stoke conspiracy theories and generally muddy the waters. This is what information warfare looks like in the 21st century.
Theories posited by the Chinese Communist Party propaganda machine include that the virus might have been released from a US Army biological defense research installation at Fort Detrick, Maryland; that it could be a dastardly plot cooked up by former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld; or that it could have originated in Italy, Spain, India, etc.
These are tactics straight out of the Kremlin’s cognitive warfare playbook, employed after the Russian Federation’s 2014 annexation of Crimea; its use of the nerve agent Novichok to poison Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter on UK soil in 2018; and the botched poisoning — again using Novichok — of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in August last year. The aim is to distract and discombobulate by flooding cybersphere with multiple alternative narratives that cause confusion, sow doubt and, ultimately, drown out the truth.
In addition to calling into question the origin of the virus, Chinese media outlets and politicians have waxed lyrical about China’s “superior” handling of the virus, while assiduously amplifying every crumb of criticism put forward by former US president Donald Trump’s political opponents. As a result, the global narrative shifted from criticizing Chinese leaders’ catastrophic failure to contain the virus, to guffawing at the Trump administration’s missteps as the US became overwhelmed by the pandemic.
On Friday last week, the US Department of State released a report calling into question the Chinese government’s initial official narrative that the virus came from a wet market in Wuhan. The report states that the US government has reason to believe the virus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after researchers there became sick as early as the fall of 2019 — well before the first officially identified case.
Whether the WHO investigators would reach the same conclusion — or even provided sufficient access to compile a meaningful investigation — remains to be seen. Based on past experience, do not hold your breath.
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