Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got a close look at a controversial Chinese virology lab, darkening American views on China, and a whole lot more.
Situational awareness: U.S. officials say that in March, Chinese operatives spread false messages warning of a military lockdown in the U.S., intending to create panic, the New York Times reports.
Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images
China's highest-security virology center is at the center of debate, speculation and misinformation about how, where and when the novel coronavirus emerged.
Why it matters: Knowing the origin of the novel coronavirus is key to efforts to prevent future possible pandemics and could shape China's role in the post-pandemic world.
In the U.S., two similar-sounding theories link the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin of the coronavirus. One is very unlikely; the other is plausible but unverified.
Theory 1: The coronavirus was created as part of a Chinese bioweapons research program allegedly linked to the WIV.
Theory 2: The novel coronavirus was being studied at the WIV, and a lab accident resulted in the virus' accidental transmission to an employee who then unknowingly spread the virus in the city after leaving the institute premises.
Context: There is precedent in China — and other countries, including Singapore — where breaches in lab safety procedures resulted in disease outbreaks.
What they're saying: Shi Zhengli, a highly respected scientist who works at the institute and who has long studied coronaviruses that come from bats, said in February she could “guarantee on my life” that this coronavirus did not come from the lab, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Here are three key facts about the WIV:
1. It houses the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, which is China's only Biosafety Level-4 lab. That means it is the only facility in China permitted to handle the most dangerous known pathogens, including the Ebola and Lassa viruses.
2. The lab is located just under 9 miles from the wet market where some scientists say the outbreak may have originated.
3. The WIV is home to the Chinese scientists who sequenced the complete novel coronavirus genome in early January and who are now working on a vaccine.
The bottom line: The stakes are high for China. As the country seeks to demonstrate scientific heft, a spillover event at its most prestigious virology lab — and a subsequent cover-up — would be "another nail in the coffin of [President Xi Jinping's] personal reputation and the CCP's reputation on the global stage," Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said on a media call last week.
Two-thirds of Americans now view China unfavorably, up from 47% two years ago, according to data from Pew, which suggests the increasingly adversarial approach from Washington is spreading throughout the country, writes Axios' Dave Lawler.
The big picture: Americans have tended to view China negatively since 2013, but that sentiment has grown dramatically over the past two years amid the U.S.-China trade war and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic. In that time, the proportion of Americans who view China very unfavorably has more than doubled (15% to 33%).
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
China announced on April 18 it has created two new municipal districts to administer disputed regions in the South China Sea that are also claimed by other countries in the region.
Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party may try to "solidify and strengthen" its maritime claims while the world is busy dealing with the pandemic, said James Kraska, a professor of international maritime law at the U.S. Naval War College.
Context: Numerous Southeast Asian countries have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, but China claims almost the entire body of water and has built up massive artificial islands there, constructing airstrips and other military installations.
In recent days, the U.S. sent two warships into Malaysian waters in a show of force.
What they're saying: China "should cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity,” the U.S. State Department told Reuters on April 18.
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Why it matters:
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Scores of Chinese diplomats and embassies around the world have opened Twitter accounts over the past six months.
What they're saying: "What's behind China's perceived 'Wolf Warrior' style diplomacy is the changing strengths of China and the West," an April 16 article in the Chinese tabloid Global Times stated. "The days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone. China's rising status in the world, requires it to safeguard its national interests in an unequivocal way."
Below are some examples.
The bottom line: China wants other countries to know who's boss.
Party playbook: "Friends and enemies: A framework for understanding Chinese political interference in democracies" (German Marshall Fund of the United States)
Trade war: China tariffs stay, even as U.S. suspends some duties to aid importers (Reuters)
Arresting democracy: Under the cover of a pandemic, China is dismantling Hong Kong's last freedoms (Quartz)
Bonus: I talk with the Council on Foreign Relations' James Lindsay about U.S.-China relations and the coronavirus pandemic on the podcast The President's Inbox. Listen.
Image credit: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
We think of Russian spy stories as a 20th-century genre of storytelling, but imperial Russia retained a sprawling corps of intelligence-gathering bureaucrats that it sent to spy on Qing-dynasty China.
In "Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia's Quest for World Power" (Belknap Press, 2020), Georgetown University historian Gregory Afinogenov draws on never-before-seen material from Russian archives.
The big picture: Afinogenov's research shows that Russian intelligence on China was highly coveted in Europe, granting Moscow greater prestige among European powers.
Why it matters: Then, like today, an increasingly strident tone in the missives that Chinese diplomats sent to Russia indicated shifting geopolitical realities.
What they said: A letter, sent in 1764 by the Bureau of Foreign Tributaries in Beijing — roughly analogous to a foreign ministry today — revealed rising tensions between Russia and China: