Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 3 April 2020

China's man in America breaks with ministry officials on virus claims

The comments come after foreign ministry officials in Beijing suggested that the virus originated in a US military lab

China’s ambassador to the US reaffirmed his opposition to promoting theories that the virus that causes Covid-19 originated in an American military lab, in an unusual break with the country’s foreign ministry.

Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai said in an interview with Axios on HBO that he stood by his February 9 statement that it would be “crazy” to spread such theories.

Since his original remarks, Foreign Ministry officials in Beijing and ambassadors around the world have repeatedly posted statements speculating about a possible US origin for the virus, which was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

FILE PHOTO: China's ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai responds to reporters questions during an interview with Reuters in Washington, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo
China's ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai responds to reporters questions during an interview. Reuters, File

“Such speculation will help nobody. It’s very harmful,” Mr Cui said in the interview on Sunday. “Eventually, we must have an answer to where the virus originally came from. But, this is the job for the scientists to do, not for diplomats.”

Mr Cui’s comments represent a departure from those of Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who has publicly questioned whether the virus originated in China and even touted the idea that it may have been introduced by US Army athletes last autumn.

Such public differences are rare among Chinese officials who usually stay close to the Communist Party official line.

Mr Cui is appointed directly by President Xi Jinping and holds a vice-ministerial rank in China’s political hierarchy. That makes him two levels senior to Mr Zhao, whose official title is deputy director of the foreign ministry’s Information Department.

Mr Zhao continued to promote the theory Sunday, retweeting speculation from a Twitter user who goes by the name “the lizard king” that Covid-19 has been around in America “for a while.”

The user describes herself as “not an expert.”

The ministry spokesman’s statements have been echoed in official state media in recent days and have provoked anger in Washington.

President Donald Trump has taken to calling the pathogen the “Chinese virus” and has blamed the US’s outbreak on the Asian country’s early failures to control the disease.

“As you know China tried to say at one point – maybe they stopped now – that it was caused by American soldiers,” Mr Trump told reporters March 18. “That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen, not as long as I’m president. It comes from China.”

Meanwhile, China has also found itself in a tit-for-tat with the Trump administration over foreign journalists in Beijing.

Last week, authorities in the foreign ministry expelled at least 13 American journalists from Beijing and forced at least seven Chinese nationals to stop working for American news outlets there.

Asked by Axios about Mr Zhao’s comments, Mr Cui referred the question back to the spokesman and his authority as ambassador to speak on behalf of the Chinese government.

“Maybe you could go and ask him,” Mr Cui said. “I’m here representing my head of the state and my government.”

Updated: March 23, 2020 10:49 AM

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