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In a rare interview, China's ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told "Axios on HBO" that he stands by his belief that it's "crazy" to spread rumors about the coronavirus originating from a military laboratory in the United States.

Why it matters: Cui called this exact conspiracy theory "crazy" more than a month ago on CBS' "Face the Nation." But that was before the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, began publicly promoting the conspiracy.

  • The fact that Cui distanced himself from his colleague's statements sends an important signal from the top Chinese government official in the U.S.
  • Top Trump officials, including the president, have expressed their outrage at Chinese officials for trying to spread the theory that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to China. The State Department even called in Cui to take him to task.

The big picture: There's not a credible epidemiologist in the world who has shown evidence that the virus originated anywhere but China. Scientists believe the virus emerged from animals sold in a market in Wuhan, where the first cases of the disease were discovered.

Driving the news: 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.
  • He also blamed people in Washington for spreading unfounded rumors — an apparent shot at Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has raised questions about whether the virus came from a biochemical lab in Wuhan, China. (There is no evidence for this, either, as Cotton acknowledged.)

Between the lines: Asked whether Cui's Foreign Ministry colleague had any evidence to support the conspiracy theory, Cui replied, with a slight smile, "maybe you could go and ask him."

Key exchange:

  • "Axios on HBO": "Well have you asked him, you're the ambassador?"
  • Cui: "No, I'm here representing my head of state and my government, not any particular individual."
  • "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."
  • "Axios on HBO": "OK, so we shouldn't take his words literally ... we shouldn't take them as a representation of the Chinese government, even though he's the spokesman?"
  • Cui: "Well you could try to interpret somebody else's statement. I'm not in the position, and I don't have the responsibility, to explain everybody's view to you."

What's next: "Axios on HBO" asked Cui what he made of Trump calling the coronavirus the "Chinese virus."

  • Cui said the World Health Organization, when it names new viruses, takes care to avoid connecting the virus to a particular group of people so as to "avoid stigma."
  • "I hope the WHO rule will be followed," Cui said.

Go deeper

Updated 22 mins ago - Economy & Business

Tax season nightmare ahead for understaffed IRS

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The IRS will start accepting 2021 tax returns in less than a week, and the filing delays and administrative headaches to come might eclipse last year — which was “one of the worst filing seasons," according to an independent advocacy agency within the IRS.

Why it matters: For taxpayers, especially with complex or paper filings, this means headaches, delayed refunds, and mistakes.

China builds its own movie empire

Expand chart
Data: Gower Street citing Comscore; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

China blocked all four of Disney's Marvel movies from being released in its theaters last year, a grim sign for U.S. film giants being squeezed out of the world's fastest-growing box office.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party is using domestic films as a key conduit for mass messaging aimed at achieving political goals, leaving little room for foreign views.

Why 401(k) rollovers are so annoying

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If you happened to change jobs recently, you may have tried to transfer your retirement account from your former employer into an Individual Retirement Account or your new employer's 401(k) plan. If so, you probably encountered a bureaucratic gantlet — and you're not alone.

Why it matters: Kludgey processes around retirement account transfers result in people losing track of their funds, giving up important tax advantages, or otherwise disadvantaging themselves and being less prepared for retirement.

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