Apr 22, 2020

Axios China

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.

  • If you have tips or feedback, email me at bethany@axios.com, or just hit reply.
  • Today's newsletter is 1,729 words, a 6.5-minute read.

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.

1 big thing: The Chinese lab at the center of the coronavirus controversy

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.

  • Virologists have determined this is highly unlikely. By looking at a virus' genetic material, it is possible to tell if it has been engineered in a lab. The coronavirus shows no such signs, as the World Health Organization also emphasized on April 21.
  • Some U.S. officials previously showed interest in this theory, but the scientific evidence debunking it has been persuasive.
    • There is also growing scientific evidence the virus originated in a bat and spread to humans via an intermediary animal, which would make it less likely it came from a lab.

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.

  • This is plausible, but as yet there is no direct evidence to support it.
  • It isn't possible to tell from looking at the coronavirus' genetic sequence if it jumped from animal to human in a lab or in a wet market (or somewhere else). Confirmation would therefore have to come from contact tracing and related measures by Chinese authorities.
  • This theory has gained significant traction within U.S. government circles.

Context: There is precedent in China — and other countries, including Singapore — where breaches in lab safety procedures resulted in disease outbreaks.

  • In 2004, the coronavirus that causes SARS was accidentally leaked from a facility in Beijing, infecting nine people and killing one.
  • Yes, but: That was a known pathogen studied in numerous labs around the world. The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was previously unknown to the scientific community.

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.

  • Scientists affiliated with the institute have studied coronaviruses for years, but it's not the only lab in China where coronaviruses are studied.

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.

Bonus: Americans' views of China darken dramatically
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

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%).

  • The trend is bipartisan, though Republicans (72% unfavorable) are more wary of China than Democrats (62%).
  • 9 in 10 Americans now view China as a threat, with 62% viewing China as a major threat — up from 48% in 2018.
2. Amid pandemic, China expands control over contested waters

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.

  • Chinese ships also trailed a Malaysian vessel operating in waters near Malaysia.

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.

  • "All countries that are concerned about China embellishing their position in the South China Sea and East China Sea should be concerned that this would be an opportunity while countries are preoccupied with COVID-19," Kraska told Axios.

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.

  • A 2016 ruling by an international court at the Hague stated that many of China's claims in the disputed waters have no basis in international law.
  • Beijing has ignored the ruling.

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.

3. New: The Axios app is here

Image credit: Axios

You asked for it! We're unveiling an Axios mobile app — an efficient, elegant experience that I definitely recommend you try!

Why it matters: 

  • One convenient place: Now you can read the Axios China newsletter, and all of our newsletters and stories, in one easy-to-access mobile location. 
  • It looks amazing: The app’s design is sophisticated, yet simple — allowing you to intuitively consume news in Axios’ signature Smart Brevity™ format.
  • Experience more Axios: The app captures our thinking on the future of news and newsletters — a watch-listen-read experience that includes more interaction with our journalists. You can sign up for push notifications for breaking news and get exclusive updates directly from me when important China-related news drops.

What's next: Please download the Axios app on your iPhone or Android device.

  • Have thoughts on the new app? Please reply to this email, or send them to app@axios.com.
4. China's "Wolf Warrior diplomacy" comes to Twitter

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Scores of Chinese diplomats and embassies around the world have opened Twitter accounts over the past six months.

  • Many of them are now using the social media platform to post accusations, boasts and name-calling directed at governments and individuals they feel have insulted China.
  • This aggressive strategy is known as "Wolf Warrior diplomacy," named after a patriotic Chinese action movie from 2017 in which a Chinese soldier saves the day in a series of adventures across Africa. (The film's popularity in China boosted it to become the highest-grossing non-English film ever.)

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."

  • But, but, but: The target of Chinese diplomatic ire often isn't Western countries, but developing nations like India and Venezuela.

Below are some examples.

  • Xu Hong, the Chinese ambassador to the Netherlands, called Trump's use of the phrase "Chinese virus" a "political virus to international solidarity and cooperation:"
  • Ji Rong, the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in India, tweeted that calls for China to provide financial compensation for the spread of the coronavirus abroad were "ridiculous & eye-catching nonsense."
  • The Chinese Embassy in Caracas criticized unnamed Venezuelan officials for referring to the coronavirus as the "Chinese" or "Wuhan" virus and ended the angry Twitter thread by telling the officials to "put on a face mask and shut up."

The bottom line: China wants other countries to know who's boss.

5. What I'm reading

Party playbook: "Friends and enemies: A framework for understanding Chinese political interference in democracies" (German Marshall Fund of the United States)

  • China analyst Matt Schrader's new report analyzes how the Chinese Communist Party projects political power abroad, using such tools as weaponizing access to its economy and cultivating elite intermediaries.
  • These strategies are "how the party stays in power in its own country, and how it’s trying to carve out space for its power internationally," Schrader told me. That means democratic governments shouldn't expect Beijing to change its behavior anytime soon.

Trade war: China tariffs stay, even as U.S. suspends some duties to aid importers (Reuters)

  • "The Trump administration said on Sunday that it would allow importers hit by the national health crisis to defer any tariff payments they owe the government for three months."

Arresting democracy: Under the cover of a pandemic, China is dismantling Hong Kong's last freedoms (Quartz)

  • Authorities arrested 14 pro-democracy leaders, including high-profile lawyers.
  • "The weekend's mass arrest is unprecedented in scale and prominence, and signals a major step-up in China's crackdown on the city's opposition movement."

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.

6. 1 history thing: Russian spies have targeted China for centuries

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.

  • In an 18th-century "cold war," Afinogenov told me, Russia and China competed for the "hearts and minds" of inner Asian peoples on the frontier between the two empires.

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:

  • "We were forced by necessity to respond rudely that you in every matter concoct excuses, do not do justice in anything, and consider neither your face nor your buttocks."
  • And in another note, referring to Catherine the Great: "We have never heard of the lord of a foreign kingdom being a woman, not a man. ... We laugh and have no words to continue such a discussion."