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COVID-19 Conspiracies and U.S.-China Relations

Foreign Policy Brief # 126 | By: Avery Roe | August 26, 2021

Header photo taken from: The Economic Times

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Photo taken from: Forsal

Policy Summary

Recently the Chinese state media has been quoting Wilson Edwards, a Swiss biologist and whistleblower, stating that the United States had been politicizing the origins of the COVID-19 virus and pressuring scientists to keep the truth quiet. This was until the Swiss Embassy tweeted that Wilson Edwards does not exist and the Chinese media began removing the references. It quickly became clear that this was the most recent in a series of state-sponsored COVID-19 conspiracy theories coming out of China.

As far as scientists can tell, COVID-19 naturally jumped from humans to animals. However, American intelligence officials are genuinely split between that theory and the theory that it came from a lab leak in Wuhan. This became clear, and higher profile, when President Biden called for additional investigation, including the exploration of the possibility that COVID-19 came from a lab. This eroded the trust between the Americans and Chinese further and led to the Chinese increasing their efforts to publish more conspiracy theories blaming the United States.

The Chinese government has come up with a wide variety of stories, most recently centering around a lab leak out of Fort Detrick. These theories are gaining traction online, with many Chinese citizens beginning to refer to COVID-19 as the “U.S. Virus,” a reference to former President Trump referring to it as the “China Virus.” As these theories and blame get traction they are significantly hardening the relationship between American and Chinese leadership, at a time when China’s new ambassador to the United States is trying to present himself as amicable and reasonable in attempts to deepen relations.

Policy Analysis

While American politicians and media have understandably been focused on conspiracy theories based in America, the repercussions of the Chinese theories and their contrast with American theories could be long-lasting. Both the Americans and the Chinese need to work towards a balance in seeking the truth, with healthy skepticism, but also trust in the scientists to determine what truly happened. Throwing accusations that have little to no basis in science is not helping anyone or anything.

Battling a pandemic would be one of the best times for two of the world’s technological superpowers to be working together to get everyone to the other side of this. Unfortunately, with all of the accusations being leveled at one another this is not the case between the United States and China. 

As the relationships between leaders have corroded the likelihood that they work together has declined. If both countries were to put their best minds together, there is no telling how positive the results could be in terms of COVID-19 treatments and prevention measures. 

Photo taken from: The Wall Street Journal

This brings the tension to a global scale as everyone could benefit from a U.S.-China collaboration in research. While it would be unrealistic to expect a completely amicable relationship it is imperative that tensions cool enough so that the Americans and Chinese can work together to find a way out of this pandemic, without regard to how it started.

The truth has been altered and weaponized in both countries for nationalistic purposes. Creating concern as to what will happen going forward. When the truth cannot be agreed upon, or at least investigated collaboratively, the commonalities between sides in a conflict are much more difficult to find. 

Leaving this as a precedent has the potential to allow future international conflict to become much more intense, and much more difficult to find a way out of, raising the importance even higher of the United States and China figuring out how to move forward together.

Photo taken from: Foreign Policy

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

UNICEF has published a field guide specifically focused on fighting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.

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