Is the Chinese Foreign Ministry distancing itself from coronavirus conspiracies?

Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, avoided directly criticizing his colleague Zhao Lijian, but his message was clear: Don’t listen to that guy.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 has continued, through Sunday (March 22) morning, to push the conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus might have originated in the United States.

A few hours after Zhao’s most recent conspiratorial tweet, an interview with the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Cuī Tiānkǎi 崔天凯, was published by Axios. Cui avoided directly criticizing Zhao, but his message was clear: Don’t listen to that guy.

In our interview, which aired Sunday, “Axios on HBO” quoted back to the ambassador a statement he made on “Face the Nation” Feb. 9: “There are people who are saying that these virus [sic] are coming from some- some military lab, not of China, maybe in the United States. How can we believe all these crazy things?”

Cui told “Axios on HBO” he stands by that statement. “That’s my position then and that’s my position now.”

Cui added that we should leave it to the scientists to describe where the virus originated and said it’s “very harmful” for journalists and diplomats to speculate about its origins…

“Axios on HBO”: “Does he [Zhao] speak for the Chinese government, or do you?”

Cui: “I am the representative of China in the United States.”

Bloomberg notes: “Cui is appointed directly by Xi and holds a vice-ministerial rank in China’s political hierarchy, two levels senior to Zhao.”

Perhaps Zhao has gotten the message: His most recent tweet spun no conspiracies, but rather featured two pictures of cherry blossoms and a wish to “unite to deal with the epidemic and carry out international cooperation to save more lives.”

According to Bloomberg reporting, though “Zhao’s approach had been vocally welcomed by many inside the foreign ministry,” another official “expressed relief that Cui had disowned Zhao’s ‘dangerous’ remarks.”

Gady Epstein, the China Affairs Editor of the Economist, adds that Cui is “an old hand in diplomacy…who is almost certainly on his last posting, [and] has never been on the same page with the younger generation of diplomat colleagues who tweet this disinformation.”

Meanwhile, state media seized on a paragraph of an NPR story that quoted the Italian expert Giuseppe Remuzzi as saying, “They remember having seen very strange pneumonia, very severe, particularly in old people in December and even November…This means that the virus was circulating, at least in [the northern region of] Lombardy and before we were aware of this outbreak occurring in China.” See, for example, in Xinhua: Italian doctors saw strange pneumonia cases before China’s COVID-19 outbreak, report says.

—Lucas Niewenhuis