Facing global anger over their initial mishandling of the outbreak, the Chinese authorities are now trying to rewrite the narrative of the pandemic by pushing theories that the virus originated outside China.
In recent days, Chinese officials have said that packaged food from overseas might have initially brought the virus to China. Scientists have released a paper positing that the pandemic could have started in India. The state news media has published false stories misrepresenting foreign experts as having said the coronavirus came from elsewhere.
The campaign seems to reflect anxiety within the ruling Communist Party about the continuing damage to China’s international reputation brought by the pandemic. Western officials have criticized Beijing for trying to conceal the outbreak when it first erupted.
The party also appears eager to muddy the waters as the World Health Organization begins an investigation into the question of how the virus jumped from animals to humans, a critical inquiry that experts say is the best hope to avoid another pandemic. China, which has greatly expanded its influence in the W.H.O. in recent years, has tightly controlled the effort by designating Chinese scientists to lead key parts of the investigation.
By spreading theories that foreigners are responsible for the pandemic, the party is deploying a well-worn playbook. The Chinese government is rarely willing to publicly address its own shortcomings, often preferring to redirect attention elsewhere and rally the country against a common enemy.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has led a vigorous effort this year to play down his government’s early failures in the crisis, instead arguing that the party’s success in containing the virus shows the superiority of its authoritarian system.
While recent studies have indicated that the coronavirus may have infected people in the United States and elsewhere earlier than previously thought, researchers still believe the most likely explanation is that it started circulating in China.
Edward Holmes, a professor at the University of Sydney who has studied the coronavirus, said the idea that the virus originated outside China seemed to be gaining traction for political purposes. “It lacks scientific credibility and will only further fuel the conspiracy theories,” he said.
Chris Buckley contributed reporting. Albee Zhang contributed research.