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Chinese State Media Rehashes U.S. Biolab Conspiracy Theories, This Time with a Ukraine Angle
Much has been made of China’s unwillingness to commit to a firm position on the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Chinese government officials have been hesitant to openly support Russia, yet Chinese state media (CSM) outlets have regularly recycled Russian state media narratives about the invasion. Recently, CSM- and Beijing-aligned WeChat news outlets have taken on a more aggressively Kremlin-aligned stance, actively disseminating false information and breathing new life into familiar conspiracy theories.
Over the past several weeks, CSM outlets have begun circulating unfounded reports about the existence and role of alleged U.S.-funded biological weapons labs in the ongoing conflict. These falsehoods tie into a broader narrative of debunked COVID-19 conspiracies focused on U.S.-controlled biolabs in countries neighboring Russia, including Ukraine. The apparent CSM decision to circulate such content—much of it borrowed from Russia—signals a shift in China's approach to make use of the Ukraine crisis for its own rhetorical ends.
Stories claiming U.S.-linked biolabs in Ukraine as a public health risk appeared on Twitter and Telegram as early as February 24. Since then, discussions of Ukraine-based U.S. military biolabs have seeped into Chinese social media, alleging the U.S. deleted evidence that the Pentagon was funding these biolabs. This narrative was then amplified by CSM before being “confirmed” by Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) officials.
To anyone paying attention to CSM during the early pandemic, this messaging likely feels familiar. Back in March 2020, MFA Spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) was among the first Chinese government officials to promote the Fort Detrick conspiracy theory: a set of debunked claims alleging that the U.S. created the COVID-19 virus as a bioweapon that later leaked from a lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland. In a tweet from March 12, 2020, Zhao alleged “it might be US army [sic] who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” and urged the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to “be transparent.”
Two years have passed since Zhao’s conspiratorial tweets, which dominated CSM news cycles before fizzling by the end of 2021. The Fort Detrick narrative was promoted constantly by overt and covert entities ranging from government officials to CSM outlets to Spamouflage, a CCP-aligned disinformation actor responsible for thousands of inauthentic accounts. Considering how widespread this disinformation campaign was, it’s no surprise that the “bioweapon” narrative has been repurposed and aimed squarely at the war in Ukraine.
In early March, dozens of independent blogs on China’s popular messaging app WeChat began publishing articles about the secret network of U.S.-funded biolabs throughout Ukraine. The details of this conspiracy are murky and even contradict one another. Some users state Russian intelligence intercepted evidence of this network of U.S.-linked labs, while others claim Russian missiles have destroyed the lab sites entirely. Some note these facilities conduct animal research, others assert that they are being used to create weapons close to the Russian border. And while some source their material from Russian state media or Russian officials, others cherry pick quotes attributed to a U.S. Department of Defense official, attempting to add more credibility to their claims. To muddy the waters further, many of these claims also directly conflate the COVID-19 Fort Detrick conspiracies with labs in Ukraine, claiming that the U.S. is using other countries as “guinea pigs” for military experiments before intentionally leaking “finished products.”
Official CSM outlets have actively given oxygen to this theory. On March 1, CCTV’s military channel aired a segment about U.S.-funded biolabs in Kyiv and Odesa. The news segment cited an article published by The Rio Times (a Swiss-owned, English-language publication about Brazil and Latin America) on February 28 titled “Pentagon doesn’t want you to see these documents about biolabs in Ukraine.” The article relies on reporting from “investigative journalist” Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, whose work is regularly featured in pro-Russian media. It boosted Dilyana’s Twitter thread, which purported to show evidence of the U.S. embassy in Ukraine deleting documents from its website about these labs. The Rio Times piece highlighted what it referred to as suspicious outbreaks of disease in several Ukrainian cities, including cholera, Hepatitis A, and an unnamed “flu-like virus.”
By March 7, the story had been picked up by government officials. On March 8, Zhao addressed this theory at a press conference. When asked about the U.S. embassy “urgently delet[ing] information about the laboratory,” Zhao replied that the labs “store large quantities of dangerous viruses. Russia has also discovered … that the United States has used these facilities for biomilitary programs.” Zhao then offered similar refrains, calling for transparency, echoing his first Fort Detrick conspiracy tweet from nearly two years prior. Zhao’s remarks were further amplified across English-language CSM, including by Global Times and CGTN, and were promoted on the MFA spokesperson’s official Twitter account.
This isn’t the first time that CSM has sown conspiracies about U.S. biolabs. Last summer, a website called x-clue.com
So far, the early stages of this new iteration of the “bioweapon” narrative have mirrored those of the Fort Detrick conspiracy pushed by CSM. This incident also reflects the CCP’s frequently employed strategy of “Information with Chinese Characteristics”: censorship of narratives the Party doesn’t like, and amplification of narratives, including false ones, that align with its goals. Because the conspiracy was amplified so thoroughly by so many CCP-aligned actors, it’s likely that this narrative will continue to appear as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues.
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X-clue.com’s registration info is mostly opaque, only revealing that it was registered in the Chinese province of Jiangsu and is hosted on Alibaba Cloud. It's clear from analyzing its web presence, however, that Chinese State Media accounts for the lion’s share of citations for the website online.
These include Albanian, Arabic, Burmese, Czech, English, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Vietnamese, and Urdu. According to data from the CrowdTangle Extension, all but three of the site’s 33 citations on Facebook were from CSM outlets. The site had 30 public citations on Facebook in June 2021, and 33 as of March 2022.