Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.
Two spokeswomen for the United States and Chinese governments are battling it out in an increasingly tense war of words online over China's response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
As the Chinese government trumpets its response to the virus, the U.S. is accusing China of covering up a public health crisis and costing the world valuable time to take action.
“China has been updating the U.S. on the coronavirus and its response since Jan. 3,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on March 19. “On Jan. 15 the US State Department notified Americans in China US CDC's warning about the coronavirus. And now blame China for delay? Seriously?”
The next day, Morgan Ortagus, a US State Department spokeswoman, fired back on Twitter, responding that by January 3, Chinese authorities had already “ordered #COVID19 virus samples destroyed, silenced Wuhan doctors, and censored public concerns online.”
By Jan. 3, Chinese authorities had already ordered #COVID19 virus samples destroyed, silenced Wuhan doctors, and censored public concerns online. @SpokespersonCHN is right: This is a timeline the world must absolutely scrutinize. pic.twitter.com/W3se645U2Y
— Morgan Ortagus (@statedeptspox) March 20, 2020
“Lying and slander won't make the US great, nor will it make up for the lost time,” Hua Chunying tweeted in response, adding in a follow-up tweet that “China identified the pathogen in record short time & shared genetic sequence with the world which helped others with epidemic response.”
Ortagus said that was “nonsense” in a response with the hashtags #CovidCoverup and #ChinaTransparencyNow.
Fact check: The Chinese government didn't share the genetic sequence until after a professor in Shanghai did so on his own. The next day, your government shut down his lab for 'rectification.' #CovidCoverup #ChinaTransparencyNow
— Morgan Ortagus (@statedeptspox) March 22, 2020
The highly infectious coronavirus first appeared in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The virus has since become a pandemic, one that has infected roughly 350,000 people worldwide and killed more than 15,000. The coronavirus has spread to more than 35,000 people in the US and claimed at least 473 lives.
China has faced significant criticism for things like silencing doctors in Wuhan who sounded an early alarm, an action Beijing has admitted was “improper.”
“Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up,” White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien stated recently, arguing that China's response “probably cost the world community two months to respond.”
President Donald Trump has said repeatedly that he wishes China had informed the US about the coronavirus sooner. “They knew they had a problem earlier,” Trump said in a recent press briefing.
In response, the Chinese government has been trying to change the narrative on the coronavirus.
In addition to presenting itself as a global leader in a crisis and celebrating its response, Chinese government officials are also fueling speculation that the coronavirus could have originated outside of China, possibly in the US.
In mid-March, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian pushed a popular-but-unfounded coronavirus conspiracy theory on Twitter, writing that “it might be US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” He added that the “US owe us an explanation!” The Department of Defense said Zhao's statements were “absurd.”
As a global crisis, COVID-19 shd be an area of cooperation between nations. Instead, the Communist Party of China has chosen to promulgate false & absurd conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 blaming U.S. service members. #ChinaPropaganda https://t.co/gAkhEtlEfr
— Alyssa Farah (@PentagonPresSec) March 13, 2020
The White House has taken to calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” in response to Chinese attempts to shift responsibility to the United States. The Chinese government has taken great offense to that.
“Will self-deception and smearing China help with epidemic response?” spokeswoman Hua asked on Twitter Sunday.
Two Republicans in Congress, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, recently wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey urging him to ban Chinese government accounts, arguing strongly that the “the Chinese Communist Party is waging a massive propaganda campaign.”
The GOP lawmakers accused China of trying “to rewrite the history of COVID-19 and whitewash the Party's lies to the Chinese people and the world.”
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