BANGKOK — A series of conspiracy theories promoted by the Chinese state media, which accused the United States of engineering the coronavirus as a bioweapon, is finding a large audience in Thailand thanks to uncritical coverage by some news agencies.
From the accusations that US military hid vases of the virus in Wuhan to speculation that the US unleashed the coronavirus in Italy to stop them from using Huawei 5G network and an article written by a Holocaust denier – all of these outlandish claims were carried by some of Thailand’s most popular TV and news sites, a survey by Khaosod English found on Thursday.
They were often lifted or translated directly from Chinese state media agencies, or suggested by news sites who challenge the audience to “connect the dots” and build dubious links between different events. A political scientist said the trend may reflect an increasingly pro-China stance among some Thai media, while a media watchdog said simple critical thinking would have easily debunked those hoaxes.
“The US, China, and even Thailand are all affected so badly. If some country was going to use their virus as a weapon, then why was there no precaution put in place for their own people?” Thai Journalist Association chairman Mongkol Bangprapha said. “By common sense, it’s obvious that neither of the countries did it.”
Yet reports on Nation TV, Banmuang, and some other media agencies imply it was the United States who manufactured and released the virus in a bid to contain China’s rise as a new geopolitical superpower – a narrative that’s rapidly gaining traction in Thailand.
‘The Virus is From America, Not China’
One example could be found In the March 16 episode of “Investigative Hour” program by Nation TV, titled “Covid-19: Biological Warfare or Conspiracy Theory?”, in which the show’s host discussed the narrative with a complete seriousness.
The segment features an interview with Tanong Kuntong, Director of Communications from Bualuang Securities, who said the coronavirus – just like SARS, avian flu, and swine flu – was the latest form of biological warfare brought over by the West, similar to European explorers bringing Old World diseases to the New World.
“After Trump became president, China was beset with many wars. These were the trade war, tax war, technology war where Huawei’s 5G was blocked and its founder’s daughter arrested. [The US] then supported the Hong Kong mob, supported the Xinjiang mob, and went into the South China Sea,” Tanong said in the show. “The sequence is definitely abnormal.”
Tanong goes on to note that countries with high COVID-19 numbers all had pre-existing disputes with the US: from South Korea and Japan to Iran. The most bizarre accusation, however, is in regards to Italy.
“Italy is a G7 country. In the north of Italy is Lombardy that announced closure. The city of Milan has a AC Milan football club. But also they will roll out a 5G cooperation between 5G and Huawei. America has always been against Huawei,” Tanong said decisively while wagging his finger.
Another purveyor of such conspiracy theory is veteran media mogul and former pro-establishment activist Sondhi Limthongkul, who recently started an online talk show called Sondhitalk.
“China or America?” begins a dramatic episode of Sondhitalk, which has been viewed more than 4 million times after it was posted Saturday. He soon answered his own question, saying that the coronavirus was spread by the US military who hid the man-made virus in “two or three” large vases under the US consulate in China’s Wuhan city.
“One hundred percent, the virus is from America not China. All the evidence points to the US,” Sondhi said. “The US media and human rights organizations IO are slandering China.”
Made in China, Imported by Thai Media
Many of their talking points appear to share a similarity with reports published by Chinese state media such as CGTN and Xinhua as part of what some experts believe to be a concerted disinformation campaign on a global scale.
On March 23, CGTN published an English translation of an opinion column implying that the US government concealed COVID-19 flu deaths. The article also tied the closure of a US military laboratory at Fort Detrick to the coronavirus epidemic by suggesting that viruses may have leaked from the installation.
Another oft-reused narrative accused the US military of carrying the coronavirus with them to Wuhan when they visited the city for the 7th Military World Games. Top government officials in China also repeated the speculations, though a Chinese ambassador to the US dismissed them as “crazy” rhetorics.
Some of those conspiracy theories ended up finding their way to Thai media. For instance, PostToday, a business news site owned by Post Publishing, republished a series of articles originally written by Xinhua called “Chinese, Japanese Media Suggest the US Is the Real Source of Coronavirus.”
Banmuang news website on March 16 republished a similar story originally written by China Media Group, the network that operates CGTN. The article suggests that the coronavirus is a US-made disease that used the flu season as a cover-up.
“Let’s look at the timeline: the US’s flu season began in September,” the article said. “In October, the US military came to Wuhan for the 7th Military World Games, participated by many nations. In December, the first COVID-19 patient in Wuhan showed their symptoms.”
The article continued, “The US admitted to having flu deaths. So we should be wary of COVID-19’s origins. …The closure of Fort Detrick in July raises even more questions.”
Public Post Online also went out of its way to translate portions of an article by former CIA officer and Holocaust denier Philip Giraldi, titled “Who Made Coronavirus? Was It the U.S., Israel or China Itself?” and published it on March 8.
The translated article, “Ex-CIA Exposes ‘Coronavirus’ a Biological Weapon Created in a Lab,” said the US and Israel might have “colluded” in bioweapon researches and created the coronavirus as a weapon against Iran and China.
“If one suspects Israel and/or the United States, the intent clearly would have been to create a biological weapon that would damage two nations that have been designated as enemies,” part of the article said.
Strangely enough, an article translated into Thai language and published on March 3 by Xinhua News Agency’s Thai edition outright dismissed the notion that the coronavirus is an engineered bioweapon.
The article quoted scientists saying that the virus most definitely has a natural origin, not man-made, though it insisted on the implications that the pandemic may have originated outside China.
Pro-China Sentiment Rising?
It is unclear how many people read those conspiracy theories and take them as facts. The stories are often shared widely on chat applications and spread in circles that sometimes involve high-ranking officials.
One Khaosod English staff member also recently received one such article via Line, sent by a retired general who once worked in national intelligence.
International relations scholar Thitinan Pongsudhirak said it’s not uncommon for a nation to exploit crises for their political gains, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is no exception.
“If it began in a third country [apart from US and China], it wouldn’t be a great deal like this,” Thitinan said. “Indeed, the virus spread from China, but the ability to contain it is different between each country. In this case, China seems to have it under control, while it appears to be worsening in the US and Europe. Thus, they begin to lay the blame.”
Thitinan, who teaches at Chulalongkorn University, said he’s not surprised to see the war of words between the two superpowers since the tensions between them have been high in recent years, though he noted that the media coverage leaning toward China may reflect a common sentiment in the larger society.
“Thai society has been more sympathetic towards China for a long time,” the professor said. “Therefore, the media reflects what the society thinks and that’s why you can see China-written pieces being widely circulated in Thailand.”
Mongkol, the Thai Journalist Association chairman, believes the media agencies peddling anti-US conspiracy theories are in the minority. A lot of news sites also have the habit of just copying and pasting contents published by other sources, he said.
“These kinds of news are usually republished items from foreign news sources. We’re not seeing any deep investigative reporting where Thai reporters are interviewing academics or finding additional sources,” Mongkol said. “They just echo the back-and-forth accusations from the larger superpowers.”
He added, “I don’t think Thai media fully believes the accusations. Rather, they might be just trying to discredit one side, or interpreting it as a Cold War type of conflict.”
Mongkol also called on Thai media to stay neutral between the two superpowers and commit to impartial news coverage.
And not everyone buys the conspiracy theory pinning the blame on the US. In a Facebook news thread of an article by Kom Chat Leuk news site, which discussed the attempt by a Chinese official to implicate the US for the coronavirus, some comments reject the claim.
“Conspiracy theories are made up without any evidence,” user Aiiyarai Aiiz Sawatdisaan wrote. “I think it’s just a crazy excuse from China. “If they were going to make a bioweapon, wouldn’t they make one with a 100 percent death rate? Healthy people can recover from it.”
Additional reporting Tappanai Boonbandit.