Freemasons, Norwegian salmon and even Bill Gates have been blamed for an upsurge in coronavirus cases in Beijing as nationalistic conspiracy theories are allowed to flourish in Chinese cyber space.
Some of the wild speculation has been deleted from the popular social media platform Weibo. But many rumours promoted by the government have spilled out into the real world, rattling foreign food imports and demonstrating the growing power of online rumour in China.
“In the end we’re left with a conflagration of nationalist sentiments and conspiracy thinking, fuelled by official media reporting,” said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Centre in the Netherlands.
“The party and state have already set the stage and provided the communicative resources for citizens to now interpret the crisis through a nationalist lens.”
The new outbreak in Beijing was discovered in one of the region’s largest seafood and vegetable markets. The total number of cases discovered since June 12 hit 183 on Friday, although authorities insist that the second-wave outbreak is now under control.
Executives at the Xinfadi market originally said the virus was detected on cutting boards used to prepare imported salmon. That soundbite was reported by state-owned tabloid Global Times, which focused on how the new outbreak may have been imported from overseas — and definitely not locally transmitted.
Officials from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention have since sought to dispel the rumour, noting that no traces of coronavirus had been detected on salmon outside of the market. But by that time it was too late. Chinese social media was swimming in theories on how the virus had been exported from Norway in chunks of frozen salmon.
Many social media users even began speculating that the pandemic that began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan may have been imported from a foreign country.
These theories support the government’s contention that the virus may have originated outside of China, and have helped push back against US president Donald Trump’s labelling of Covid-19 as the “China virus”.
“Coronavirus found on salmon: is that to say, the first case in Wuhan was also not from wild meat but imported seafood? Who first accused the Chinese of eating wild animal meat?” asked a user called Mydad on Chinese microblogging site Weibo.
After state media highlighted the fears that imported fish might be contaminated, salmon has been cleared out from grocery stores and restaurants in Beijing. The frozen fish was removed from several foreign grocers in Beijing on Thursday while many shops on China’s online marketplace Taobao have stopped selling salmon.
Social media in China is closely monitored by authorities in China and posts attacking the government or deemed too sensitive are often quickly removed.
But the conspiracy theories that have mushroomed following the latest coronavirus outbreak have been left alone on the platform.
“In general this is increasing in China,” King-wa Fu, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said of the spread of conspiracy theories on Chinese social media.
“But coronavirus is unprecedented and this type of information tends to circulate in times of uncertainty — not just in China but around the world.”
The latest outbreak has seen much of the online speculation take a staunch nationalistic tone, sometimes even latching on to conspiracies spread by rightwing activists in the US.
One Weibo post shared on Sunday took aim at Mr Gates. The post, which has been deleted, alleged that the virus may have leaked from a Chinese laboratory backed by the Microsoft co-founder.
Freemasons have also been attacked on Weibo. A number of posts over the past week blamed the secretive fraternal organisation as the source of the outbreak.
Weibo user Gufengdumian said: “Both Wuhan and Beijing’s outbreak started out in food markets. The initiator took advantage of such crowded places and careless mindsets. These terrible American Freemasons are determined to wipe out the Chinese.”
In the US, far-right bloggers have accused Mr Gates but in China investor George Soros is also suspected of being behind the spread of the virus.
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“Bill Gates has been criticised to death for coronavirus. Why doesn’t anyone suspect Soros?” Weibo user Chouniuba asked last week.
Zhao Lijian, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, has promoted the theory that the virus may have been intentionally transplanted to Wuhan by the US military. That led to fevered speculation on social media about the source of the virus.
“Groundless speculation about the origins of the pandemic did not begin with Zhao, but the case of his eye-catching tweets reveals how China’s changing propaganda tactics have interacted with mangled news reporting, social media conspiracy theorising, and underlying US-China tensions — all resulting in high-profile misinformation about a public health crisis,” Stanford University researchers Vanessa Molter and Graham Webster wrote in a report this year.