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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

Mike Allen, author of AM
34 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Fauci's offensive against "craziness"

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

After becoming a top punching bag for the right, Dr. Anthony Fauci is defending himself with a sharp new edge, arguing that an attack on him is an attack on science.

What he's saying: In comments to Kara Swisher on her New York Times "Sway" podcast, shared first with Axios, Fauci says: "It is essential as a scientist that you evolve your opinion and your recommendations based on the data as it evolves. ... And that's the reason why I say people who then criticize me about that are actually criticizing science."

Afghanistan's president coming to Washington on Friday

Ashraf Ghani, left, president of Afghanistan, and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As the U.S. troop withdrawal accelerates, President Biden will welcome Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, at the White House on Friday.

Our thought bubble: Axios politics editor Glen Johnson, who traveled to Afghanistan while working for Secretary of State John Kerry, said inviting both Ghani and Abdullah to Washington shows the administration’s respect for the delicate balance of power in the country.

Educators face fines, harassment over critical race theory

People talk before the start of a rally against critical race theory being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Va. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Elementary school teachers, administrators and college professors are facing fines, physical threats, and fear of firing because of an organized push from the right to remove classroom discussions of systemic racism.

Why it matters: Moves to ban critical race theory are raising free speech concerns amid an absence of consistent parameters about what teachings are in or out of bounds.

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