The Biologist Who Wasn’t
Chinese state media outlets are quietly removing references to a source named Wilson Edwards, a supposed Swiss biologist and U.S. coronavirus conspiracy whistleblower, after the Swiss Embassy publicly pointed out Edwards does not exist. Edwards appears to be the invention of a minor Chinese propaganda outlet, subsequently copied by others—a practice that is unfortunately common in the state media ecosystem.
The fake source is part of a recent trend in Chinese state media to blame the coronavirus pandemic on a leak from Fort Detrick, the site of a key U.S. Army biological research laboratory. Those conspiracy theories have gained force in the media in recent months, partially in response to surged interest in Wuhan lab leak theories among the U.S. public and U.S. President Joe Biden endorsing further investigation.
Although there is good reason to be skeptical about the Wuhan lab leak theories, they have at least some facts in their favor: the presence of a high-security virus lab near the site of the first documented COVID-19 outbreak. The Fort Detrick claims are comparatively nonsensical.
China’s widespread conspiracy theory push, which began in earnest in 2020, can only worsen relations with the United States. The first wave of false accusations already hardened U.S. officials’ attitudes toward their counterparts in Beijing. The recent rush of claims about Fort Detrick now undercuts efforts by China’s new ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, to present himself as a reasonable and amiable figure.
Theories that COVID-19 originated in the United States seem to have been successfully sold to much of the Chinese public; around 53 percent of those polled in March 2020 said they believed the virus was a U.S. bioweapon. However, they have gained little global traction. Chinese attempts to shape the overcrowded pandemic conspiracy space—from cartoons to rap—have appeared bumbling and inept. These tactics contrast sharply with those of the anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and pro-Trump administration newspaper the Epoch Times, which successfully established itself as a conspiracy outlet despite operating on a fraction of the budget.
Without any ideological sympathies to tap into, new waves of Chinese nationalist propaganda are likely to flop in the West. But if Beijing ups its game, it might find more takers in developing countries with existing suspicions of the United States.