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What position, if any, does the Chinese government have on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Do they acknowledge that the virus first infected humans as a result of it jumping from an animal to a human, or do they have some other theory such as it being the result of biological weapons research?

Do they regard Wuhan as a major hotspot in the spread of the disease?

  • Wuhan as a hot spot is already a done fact, although not exactly "major" any more compared with other later hot spots. Before the pandemic, it was well established this extended family of corona virus is found with great variety in a particular bat cave so a lot of theories has been established based on this. In reality very little is known at the very early stage of the spread. – user3528438 May 19 at 17:03
  • One could as the same: does the US have an official position? Pompeo says there's "enormous evidence" it came from Chinese lab. Does that make it the official position of the US though, when e.g. the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, saying "it’s inconclusive, although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural. But we don’t know for certain."? – Fizz May 19 at 19:37
  • Oh, and apparently one needs follow the news closely for all the twists and turns of the US position edition.cnn.com/2020/05/17/politics/… – Fizz May 19 at 19:43
  • @Fizz that’d make an interesting question, but I’m interested in China’s position because they’re the ones complaining about Australia’s inquiry/enquiry into the origins of the pandemic. I’ve also asked questions on this site about whether other countries have had their travel bans based on expert advice, and also whether Trump’s anti-vaxxer views have affected the US government, so I’m hardly singling China out. – Andrew Grimm May 19 at 22:30
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    @Fizz In addition, it is plausible that an authoritarian, one-party state that arrests medics (not sure if it was a doctor or a researcher) is more likely to have a monolithic view on what has happened. – Andrew Grimm May 19 at 22:33
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As far as I'm aware, the Chinese government as a whole has no official position on the origin of the virus. It is, however, possible to piece together a position based on local government actions, state media reporting, and actions of individuals within the government.

At the beginning of the outbreak, in January, a paper was published in the medical journal The Lancet by several Chinese medical professionals, which noted the outbreak, and found that 66% of infected patients had been in contact with a seafood market in Huanan. It also notes that "an epidemiological alert was released by the local health authority on Dec 31, 2019, and the market was shut down on Jan 1, 2020.", which shows that the local government at the very least was aware of the market being an infection vector, if not the initial origin of the disease.

However, a later report published in February by another team of Chinese scientists challenged this finding:

The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was instead imported from elsewhere, said researchers from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Institute for Brain Research.

The team, led by Dr Yu Wenbin, sequenced the genomic data of 93 SARS-CoV-2 samples provided by 12 countries in a bid to track down the source of the infection and understand how it spreads.

What they found was that while the virus had spread rapidly within the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, there had also been two major population expansions on December 8 and January 6.

This later study was quickly picked up by Chinese state media - the Global Times reported its conclusions, as well as pointing out that other countries had reported multiple sources of infection:

Patients from Australia, France, Japan and the US - countries with wider samples - have had at least two sources of infection, and the US in particular has reported five sources, the study said.

In March, certain individuals within the government, most prominently Zhao Lijian, spokesman and deputy director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ information department, made various accusations alleging that the virus originated within the US:

Zhao urged his more than 287,000 followers in two tweets on Friday morning to widely share an allegation from a Canada-based conspiracy website that the coronavirus – which has become a global pandemic – originated in the US rather than the Wuhan seafood market that is thought to be its source.

“This is so astonishing that it changed many things I used to believe in,” he wrote on his official account.

A spokesman for the US embassy in Beijing declined to comment on Zhao’s tweets.

The allegation was apparently linked to the US Army’s participation in the international Military World Games held in Wuhan in October, which drew competitors from more than 100 countries.

Over the last few weeks, as the international push for an investigation into the origins of the virus at the World Health Assembly increased, the Chinese government initially opposed an investigation into the origins of the virus, with Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng saying in an interview on April 30th that:

We are candid, and we are open. We support professional exchanges between scientists, including exchanges for reviewing and summarizing experiences. What we oppose, however, is unfounded charges against China. One should not accuse China first and then run so-called international investigations just to make up the evidence. This is arbitrary investigation based on the presumption of guilt. That is what we firmly oppose. As I said just now, the WHO-led expert group visited Wuhan timely. As for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it is open to international communication. Ever since its establishment, it has received visits by many international scientists, including those from the United States. Just recently, the head of the Institute took an interview with a foreign media, and made it clear that the Institute has neither the intention nor the capacity to engineer any kind of virus.

Interestingly, in the same interview, Le also tacitly acknowledged the Chinese government's involvement in the spread of the US military origin theory:

Janis Frayer: There have been some state media that have reported this theory that the virus was actually linked to the US military. And this is a theory that was amplified on social media by Chinese embassies, some Chinese ambassadors. Is this an official Chinese position? If not, why allow this disinformation?

Le Yucheng: Chinese government officials, the general public and individual citizens are outraged as some US political figures are using COVID-19 to slander China. They are entitled to express their feelings, to question and rebut those slanders by various means. Here in China, business leaders, customs officials and diplomats are working so hard and around the clock these days to produce and pool together supplies for COVID-19 response in the US. But what we have heard all the time is bashing and slandering against China by some US politicians. Try to put yourself in our shoes: how would you feel if you were the Chinese people? Even worse, a Republican campaign memo goes so far as to advise the candidates to address COVID-19 issues by directly attacking China. Such flagrant moves have taken political manipulation to a level beyond anyone's imagination. Of course the Chinese people find them unacceptable, and have every right to express their outrage.

Finally, at the 73rd World Health Assembly, President Xi gave a speech which has been reported as Xi supporting a "WHO Investigation Into Coronavirus Origins". Looking at the transcript of the speech, I'm not sure that it goes that far - the relevant part states:

China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 after it is brought under control to sum up experience and address deficiencies. This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner.

It doesn't seem clear to me that a review of the global response would necessarily include an analysis of the origins of the virus, but that remains to be seen.

In conclusion, then, the Chinese government has not published an official position on what it believes the origin of the virus to be. Clearly, however, it acknowledges that Wuhan was a major hotspot - this is confirmed by the local government shutting down the Huanan seafood market and the quarantine that initiated in Wuhan. I'm not aware of there being any government position on the initial spread of the virus specifically being identified as from animal to human.

State media, and individual government officials, have supported claims that place the origin of the virus as outside of China, and central government has done little to inhibit the spread of this information.

The current position of the Chinese government appears to be that it will support an independent international investigation led by the WHO, but that now is not the right time - speaking to the BBC, Chen Wen, a Chinese diplomat said:

"We are fighting the virus at the moment, we are concentrating all our efforts on fighting against the virus. Why talk about an investigation into this? This will divert not only attention, it will divert resources.

"This is a politically motivated initiative, I think no-one can agree on this... It would serve nobody any good."

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  • Why quote April 24 news from a low-ranking diplomat as the "latest" Chinese position? (We're in mid-May.) Given the number of twits the US position(s) had... – Fizz May 19 at 20:16
  • @Fizz it's a nice quote, and this does appear to be the latest Chinese position - support of an international "unbiased" investigation, but that now is not the right time. I'm not sure what the relevance of the US position is here? – CDJB May 19 at 20:20
  • because in the latest declarations they no longer claim it's "politically motivated" initiative (after many countries singed up to it.) – Fizz May 19 at 20:21
  • @Fizz I think reading between the lines of Xi's statement to the WHA that is clearly his implication: "This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner" - as opposed to...? – CDJB May 19 at 20:24
  • In case it wasn't obvious, the US position turns/refinements are relevant by analogy in terms of... turns/refinements. If I quote you the mid-April Pompeo stuff, is that 100% representative for the US mid-May position? – Fizz May 19 at 20:29
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The April 24 news cited in final paragraph of the other answer as China's latest position is a little bit misleading. That was China's reaction to the earlier Australian and US calls for an investigation.

What China's representatives have said more recently (May 18-19) after the adoption of the WHA resolution (advanced by the EU, but also supported/pushed by Australia and many other countries):

“The draft resolution on COVID-19 to be adopted by the World Health Assembly is totally different from Australia’s proposal of an independent international review,” a Chinese embassy spokesman said in an emailed statement.

“To claim the WHA’s resolution a vindication of Australia’s call is nothing but a joke.”

The WHA is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization. [...] Australian diplomats worked with the European Union to gather support from the majority of nations at the WHA to support the resolution which was put forward by the European Union, Australia said.

“We welcome the fact that the World Health Assembly has supported overwhelmingly the decision and the advocacy of the Australian government there be an independent investigation into COVID-19, its origin and its handling around the world,” Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told a radio station.

Australia would make sure it was an independent investigation and hoped “that everybody will cooperate with that, including Chinese authorities”, he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday told the assembly that China would support a comprehensive review of the response to the coronavirus after the pandemic is brought under control.

The WHA resolution outlines a review will occur at the “earliest appropriate” moment.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Monday the resolution wording of an “impartial, independent and comprehensive” evaluation, which included “an examination of the zoonotic origins of the coronavirus”, had met Australia’s requirements.

So yes, China simultaneously backs up an investigation into Covid-19 origins at the "earliest appropriate" moment (which China says it's not now) and (still) simultaneously derides those who called for an investigation into China in particular.

(I've included the Australian response in the quote for balance, but I won't comment on it because it's not the main topic here.)

There's some punditry e.g. from CNN that this delay in investigation is likely to substantially benefit China, in terms of avoiding a lot the potential fallout.

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