Trump escalates the COVID-19 blame game as China’s European embassies push counternarratives

Foreign Affairs
A screenshot from a short animated video published by Xinhua comparing the Chinese and American responses to COVID-19. The Statue of Liberty Lego figure is paraphrasing a comment from Donald Trump in February

The rhetorical climbdown from the U.S. and China that we noted in late March was never going to last long, and indeed, American politicians other than President Trump never really stopped trying to outcompete each other in their “tough on China” rhetoric, as it increasingly resonates with most Americans.

This past week saw escalations from both sides, though arguably the most worrying aspect of the new trend is that Trump — by far the single most influential individual who regularly comments on U.S.-China relations — appears to be embracing the unsubstantiated theory that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan.

The Financial Times reports (paywall):

Asked on Thursday if he had seen information that gave him a “high degree of confidence” that the virus emanated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, Mr Trump told reporters: “Yes, I have.”

When pressed on what had given him the confidence to make the claim, the U.S. president said: “I’m not allowed to tell you that.”

It should not surprise anyone that there is no confirmation that such information exists. The FT notes:

At the same event, however, Mr Trump said his administration was still investigating the origins of the virus, in comments that partly undermined his confidence in the evidence that he had been shown.

“Senior Trump administration officials have pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak,” the New York Times reports. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement yesterday confirming that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether COVID-19 “was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan,” but in comments to the Wall Street Journal a spokesperson denied that this investigation was the result of political pressure.

Trump has also suggested, in his typically vague and rambling way, that COVID-19 could have been intentionally spread to the world by China. “It’s a terrible thing that happened, whether [China] made a mistake, or whether it started off as a mistake and then they made another one, or did somebody do something on purpose,” he says in this clip posted by Bloomberg TV.

The Chinese government is also spinning conspiracies again: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson account posted on Twitter on April 27:

Growing doubts over the U.S. government’s handling of the #COVID19, e.g. When did the first infection occur in the U.S.? Is the U.S. government hiding something? Why they opt to blame others? American people and the international community need an answer from the U.S. government.

On the other hand, Xinhua published an unusually well-made video yesterday (some of their past attempts have been cringeworthy or nonsensical), featuring Lego figures representing China and the U.S. and skewering President Trump’s negligence. The video was reposted by the Chinese embassy in Paris, which has an active and often combative social media presence.

In Germany, the Chinese embassy “posted…a 4,600-word rebuttal of 16 common criticisms of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, depicting Beijing itself as a victim of disinformation,” Axios reports. While a few of the points are misleading, many of them are well founded, including the first one: There is no evidence that China created the novel coronavirus in a lab.

More articles on the origins of the virus, and the blame game:

Guterres’ remarks come after U.S. President Donald Trump reignited his war of words with China during an interview with Reuters on Wednesday. Trump said he believes China’s handling of the pandemic is proof that Beijing “will do anything they can” to make him lose his re-election bid in November.