Cui Tiankai. Photo: Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images

The State Department is commending China's ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, for distancing himself from a coronavirus conspiracy theory that the spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry has been pushing.

Driving the news: "We welcome Ambassador Cui's comments calling the Chinese Foreign Ministry's statement a 'crazy thing' that blamed the U.S. Army for the #coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan," the State Department's spokesperson Morgan Ortagus tweeted on Tuesday.

  • "Saving lives is more important than saving face."

Why this matters: China's pushing of this conspiracy theory has inflamed what is already an extremely fraught relationship between the superpowers amid a global pandemic. Ortagus' tweet, coupled with Cui's more conciliatory statements in an interview with "Axios on HBO," may signal the end of the fight over this conspiracy theory.

The backstory: In a rare interview, Cui 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.

  • 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.

Reality check: 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.

Go deeper: More highlights from the Chinese ambassador's "Axios on HBO" interview

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