U.S. Army sergeant Maatje Benassi was among several hundred U.S. service men and women who traveled to Wuhan to take part in the Military World Games in October. But, according to a widely-believed conspiracy theory, the 52-year-old road racing cyclist carried something else with her on her trip to China: The coronavirus.
The story has no grounding in fact. It was a fairy tale dreamed up by U.S. conspiracy theorist George Webb in Washington, DC. But the Communist Party of China (CCP) has promoted it so aggressively within China that it has become accepted knowledge among the Chinese populace that the U.S. military imported the coronavirus to Wuhan and began the pandemic that has killed over 50,000 people and infected more than a million worldwide.
It’s difficult to say how many Chinese people accept the conspiracy as true, but the CCP’s promotion of the idea across social networks WeChat and Weibo, as well as amplification through state-run TV, has made it inescapable in Chinese society. Indeed, any Chinese person who disputes that narrative on social media can have their account shut down and their families arrested.
What is unique to China is the inability for most citizens in the country to fact-check the claims being made by official CCP outlets, or to seek any independent information outside China’s Great Firewall, which blocks access to most western news outlets and other sources of information, such as Google and Wikipedia. Chinese citizens are fully aware that their government censors criticism of Beijing on WeChat and Weibo while pushing messages that portray it in a positive light. They’re also aware of the consequences for challenging that or for seeking outside information.
Research published this week by the Stanford Internet Observatory shows that the seeds of the conspiracy go back at least to January, when news of the virus in Wuhan. It is unclear when the conspiracy theory was first floated or by whom, but it had gained enough traction by the turn of the year that on Jan. 2, a Chinese-language YouTube channel shared a video dismissing the idea that the pneumonia in Wuhan was the result of U.S. genetic warfare.