By Robert Sibley
Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2020 edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 95-104.
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. — Joseph Goebbels
AS CONSPIRACY THEORIES go, it is a good one. In mid-February last year Arkansas Senator (R.) Tom Cotton made headlines when he suggested that the source of the coronavirus spreading around the world was an accident at a Chinese bioweapons lab in Wuhan and not the city’s seafood market as widely believed.
“We … know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases,” Cotton told his Fox News interviewer (Feb. 16, 2020). “Now, we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says. … China’s obviously very secretive about what happens at the Wuhan laboratory.”
The mainstream media hastily dismissed Cotton’s speculations as a conspiracy theory. The Washington Post tracked down scientists to say there’s no evidence: “It’s a skip in logic to say it’s a bioweapon that the Chinese developed and intentionally deployed, or even accidentally deployed,” one scientist told the Post (Feb. 17, 2020). The New York Times called on experts to castigate Cotton’s “fringe theory.” (Feb. 17) Medical experts told CNN’s Jake Tapper (Feb. 16) there was “no evidence to date.” “I put it in the conspiracy theory bucket,” one expert said. Following these denunciations, the lab-accident theory dropped off the mainstream media’s radar.
Quelle surprise! Two months later the mainstream reversed direction. In a lengthy essay in Vanity Fair (Apr. 10), writer Joe Pompeo reported that the question of a Chinese coronavirus cover-up had gained the attention of officials at the highest levels of the British and American governments. “Just a couple of months after it had been knocked down and sent packing to the fringe, the lab-leak scenario has begun to rear its head once again, this time entertained by credible journalists,” he wrote.
Those credible journalists included the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. “U.S. intelligence officials don’t think the pandemic was caused by deliberate wrongdoing,” he wrote (Apr. 2). “But scientists don’t rule out that an accident at a research laboratory in Wuhan might have spread a deadly bat virus that had been collected for scientific study …
“Less than 300 yards from the seafood market is the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers from that facility and the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology have posted articles about collecting bat coronaviruses from around China for study to prevent future illness. Did one of those samples leak, or was hazardous waste deposited in a place where it could spread?”
In Britain, Glen Owen, the political editor of the Mail on Sunday (Apr. 4, 2020) reported that British intelligence was increasingly suspicious of the Chinese government’s narrative. According to Owen, this suspicion was discussed at an emergency meeting of COBRA — an acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A — composed of the politicians, bureaucrats, military and security officials, and experts formed to deal with crises. It seems British security services did not rule out a laboratory leak. “‘There is a credible alternative view (to the zoonotic theory) based on the nature of the virus,’” one official said. “‘Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan. It is not discounted.’”
SO, WHICH IS IT? Was there a conspiracy on the part of China’s rulers to cover up the source of the coronavirus? Or have we crawled under the rock of conspiracy theory? And how can we discern the difference and judge accordingly? Needless to say, the answers raise serious geopolitical questions regarding how the West deals with China in the future.
The virus clearly originated in Wuhan, but did it emerge from a wet market, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or from a Chinese lab researcher who became infected after contact with a virus-carrying animal? Beijing refused to allow foreign scientists to visit the Wuhan labs. They silenced scientists and doctors who tried to raise the alarm. And it is widely thought that China has vastly underreported the numbers of victims. The New York Times reported (Apr. 2, 2020) that the CIA warned the White House in early February that China’s coronavirus numbers could not be trusted.
For their part, Chinese officials showed no hesitation in deflecting responsibility for the virus and casting blame elsewhere. “The infection was first spotted in China but the virus may not have originated in China,” Zhong Nanshan, described as an infectious disease expert, said in a press conference (Feb. 27).
In early March, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters that “no conclusion has been reached yet on the origin of the virus.” On Mar. 12, he put out a series of Tweets saying that “it might be (the) US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” He challenged the American government to “be transparent” and “make public your data,” claiming that “US owes us an explanation!” Zhao’s claims were based on the presence of hundreds of American military personnel in Wuhan for the Military World Games in Oct. 2019.
This propaganda caught on quickly. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, (Mar. 22) drew on the idea to justify refusing American assistance. “Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more,” he said, adding it might be “specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians … You might send people as doctors and therapists … to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person.”
Others called the virus a Zionist plot, possibly an Israeli bioweapon. Turkish politician Fatih Erbakan, who is close to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reportedly said in a Mar. 6 statement “this virus serves Zionism’s goals of decreasing the number of people and preventing it from increasing.” He was, presumably, referring to Muslim people.
Algeria’s Al-Masdar blamed Israel for the coronavirus (Mar. 2, 2020). “A Zionist organization is behind the ‘Corona’ virus and the Zionist entity (Israel) claims to have discovered the vaccine,” said the headline. Jews invented the virus, distributed it, and possess the cure.
Voice of America published a report from Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency quoting Hossein Salami, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Mar. 7), who said: “We will prevail in the fight against this virus, which might be the product of an American biological (attack), which first spread in China and then to the rest of the world.”
France’s long tradition of anti-Semitism also re-emerged. On Mar. 24, the online news outlet La Monde Juif reported that a caricature of the country’s former health minister, Agnès Buzyn, a Jew, pouring poison into a well — a canard that led to pogroms during the Black Death in the 14th century — had been posted on Twitter. In less than 24 hours the post had received 1,300 “likes” and 700 retweets.
China made no effort to discourage these extrapolations. A Chinese vlogger known as “Ms. V” produced an episode of China View (Mar. 17) on China’s official Arabic-language TV repeating Zhao Lijian’s tweets, adding “it is expected that the ‘patient zero’ in China came from outside China.”
But even as Chinese officials promoted their conspiracy theories, there were those who claimed China’s Huawei was using 5G technology to spread COVID-19 as a bioweapon against the West. According to one theory, China had vaccinated its citizens to give them immunity and then began broadcasting 5G signals to infect unvaccinated Westerners. The Chinese regime was willing to sacrifice thousands of its own citizens to deflect the West from recognizing the plot.
The 5G theory inspired vandalism against cellphone tower installations, with a number of 5G masts set ablaze. In early May, Quebec, police investigated cellphone tower fires in the towns of Piedmont and Prévost, north of Montreal, and in Laval, following dozens of similar acts across Europe. The British government had to order social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to be more vigilant in curbing “crackpot” ideas.
HOW MIGHT WE account for the willingness of some to adopt what the historian Henry Commager referred to as the “paranoid explanation of things”? Why do powerful and influential people — dictators, ayatollahs, professors, journalists, presidential candidates — indulge in it? Obviously, it was politically useful for China and Iran to blame Americans and Jews. But do Khamenei and Erdoğan really believe the CIA or Mossad unleashed a virus specifically engineered to attack the immune systems of Muslims?
Conspiracy theories were once confined to the disgruntled and socially alienated. Today, says sociologist Frank Furedi, “we live in an age of competitive conspiracy-mongering.” While many will disdain the 5G fanatics, there are people who remain convinced the Russians arranged Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency despite no firm proof, and that Brexit was the result of a Russian plot to destabilize the European Union and undermine NATO.
Nor are elites any more immune to conspiracy-mindedness than the hoi polloi. Surely everyone remembers Hillary Clinton in 1998 describing her wayward husband as the victim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” More recently, in 2019, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh accused those who smeared him with sexual misconduct allegations to block his nomination were indulging in a “left-wing conspiracy.”
Ours may well be the Age of Conspiracy Theory. Within days of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, conspiracy theories flared on the Internet questioning whether it really was the work of Muslim terrorists. How could 19 ill-educated men gain control of four airliners and kill 3,000 people in a matter of minutes? How was it possible that the U.S. Air Force couldn’t intercept any of the hijacked planes? Some claimed the destruction of the World Trade Center was carried out by “deep state” operatives with the approval of President George W. Bush.
Nearly 20 years later a majority of Americans — 54.3% — believe their government isn’t telling the public everything about 9/11, according to a 2016 Chapman University Survey on American Fears. But then significant minorities remain convinced the U.S. government is concealing what it knows about “the JFK assassination, Barack Obama’s birth certificate, alien encounters, the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the moon landing … plans for a one-world government, the AIDS virus, and global warming.”
Surveys have shown more than three-quarters of Americans — and probably most Canadians — believe Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy, not a lone gunman. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, families of some of the victims tried to sue the U.S. government in the belief that federal agents had blown up the building to discredit right-wing groups. Many believe the American and Canadian governments are controlled by an elite secret society known as the Illuminati, intent on establishing a one-world government, the New World Order. Some are even convinced extraterrestrials known as Greys hold key positions in western governments and the United Nations.
We can look to North American culture to at least partly account for this conspiracy-mindedness. Thousands of books have been published on the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 (See Fred Litwin’s “Did the CBC Solve the Kennedy Assassination?” in THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Spring-Summer 2018). On television, The Fugitive, Invaders, Millennium and The X-Files have devoted fans, as do films from The Manchurian Candidate and Oliver Stone’s JFK to Sandra Bullock’s computer-conspiracy thriller, The Net (“If They can get to me, They can get to anyone!”). The 2012 film Harodim portrays a U.S. Navy intelligence officer who spends a decade after 9/11 tracking down the world’s most wanted terrorist only to discover that the World Trade Center attacks were planned by a secret society that used mind-control techniques to get Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden to do its bidding. Of course, this secret cabal owns much of the world’s wealth and has infiltrated the American government.
My favourite in this genre is the 1997 Mel Gibson-Julia Roberts film Conspiracy Theory with Gibson as Jerry Fletcher, a paranoid fanatic who is tracked by black helicopters. The movie’s villain, psychiatrist Dr. Jonas, played by Patrick Stewart, appears to be modelled on Dr. Ewen Cameron, the Canadian psychiatrist who received CIA funding in the 1950s and 1960s for his brainwashing experiments involving LSD.
Given this Zeitgeist, it is no wonder that the list of conspiracy theories continued to grow in the early decades of the 21st century. After Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished in March 2014 in midair over the Indian Ocean, historian Norman Davies suggested the 239 people aboard were victims of the first “remote hijacking.” Terrorists, he wrote in his book Beneath Another Sky, may have gained control remotely of the plane’s autopilot system and redirected it to land or crash in Antarctica, where it remains undiscovered.
Conspiracy theorists also claim the massive explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, killing 11 crewmen, was an act of sabotage by environmental terrorists wanting to discredit the oil industry. Similarly, the 2019 fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was said to be the work of Muslims or Jews or the French government.
As conspiracy theories go, I’m fond of what those in the know refer to as SLAP, or Secret Large-scale Atmospheric Program. According to this imaginative theory, the water condensation trails — or contrails — from jet airliners are actually a toxic experimental mix of barium, strontium, and aluminum. A secret U.S. government program produces such contrails (a.k.a. “chemtrails”) for everything from population control to weather modification. According to a 2016 study published by the Carnegie Institution for Science about 17% of people around the world believe in a chemtrail conspiracy. Never mind that the study listed 77 atmospheric scientists and geochemists who dismissed the theory as utter nonsense.
It seems that in the last decades of the second millennium and on into the third millennium millions succumbed to “conspiracy psychology,” to borrow Henry Commager’s phrase.
REAL CONSPIRACIES do exist. Islamist terrorists did conspire to topple the World Trade Center. You might even say the 20th century was a long series of conspiracies: the Russian Revolution, the emergence of the Nazis, the Cold War, CIA and KGB plots to overthrow governments, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the rise of Muslim terrorism. In 1986, Soviet leaders conspired to cover up the true extent of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Iran’s theocrats have conspired to acquire nuclear power by subterfuge while denying their conduct. In the 1930s, Winston Churchill was pointing to an authentic conspiracy when he warned about German rearmament. Hitler’s conspiracy theory swirled around Jews, Bolshevism, and a racial struggle for world domination (See “Did Hitler Read Hobson?” on p. 88 of this issue).
That last point is crucial: Conspiracy theories generally reflect a non-existent conspiracy and, as such, reveal a particular worldview or psychic condition. Conspiracy theories can range from ones like the Freemasons’ quest for world domination and the death of Princess Diana to Volkswagen executives conspiring to fudge emission test data and work colleagues out to get you fired. In many cases, no empirical evidence is necessary to support it: speculation suffices. In fact, lack of evidence is often considered proof.
Scholars suggest that in an age of anxiety marked by social and political upheaval — everything from terrorism and demographic change to natural disasters and financial uncertainty — such theories are a psychological coping mechanism, an effort to extract meaning and sense from incomprehensible circumstances. People who find the modern world too complex, too uncertain, too uncontrollable, find in conspiracy theories the way to regain control.
“Societal crisis situations — defined as impactful and rapid societal changes that call established power structures, norms of conduct, even the existence of special people or groups into question — have stimulated belief in conspiracy theories,” write Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen Douglas, social psychologists at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the University of Kent, in a 2017 paper. “Evidence suggests that the aversive feelings that people feel when in crisis — fear, uncertainty, and the feeling of being out of control — stimulate a motivation to make sense of the situation, increasing the likelihood of perceiving conspiracies in social situations.”
“These events — coronavirus, 9/11, global financial collapse — all represent significant disruptions in our day-to-day routines,” said Edwin Hodge, a University of Victoria sociologist, in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen (Apr. 11). “With large-scale social disruption, it’s something you’re forced to deal with, and many people lack the requisite expertise or knowledge to fully understand all the complex variables behind these disruptions. If you’re distrustful of the government, you might (say): “‘They’re lying to us. They know what’s really happening and they’re not telling us.’ That makes sense to you. And it’s more comforting. Conspiracy theories help the believer to impose order on a disordered universe.”
Even Canadians, cocooned in their peaceable kingdom, are prone. When Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said in March she was “strongly opposed” to an American proposal to send troops to the border to intercept illegal immigrants in response to the pandemic, she evoked, however unconsciously, a made-in-Canada conspiracy theory about the United States’ hidden aspirations. These tap into the notion that Fort Drum, a huge U.S. Army base near Watertown, N.Y., is a potential launching pad for a future invasion of Canada, positioned as it is within a short tank drive of Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. Why else, the theorists say, would the United States locate a major base so close to the border? They point out that as recently as 1939, the American government had official plans to invade Canada on the books. (That Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces have no means to repel such an invasion is rarely mentioned.)
TO DISMISS SUCH thinking would be to miss the implications of paranoid explanations. For nearly three centuries, Westerners have staked the future on their faith in science and technology and followed secular ideologies that promised to bring Heaven down to Earth. But now in the wake of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, Chernobyl and Bhopal, the resurgence of diseases once thought eradicated, the possession of nuclear technology by half-mad theocrats, the fact that millions still live in abysmal conditions; the inability of states to adequately defend against social and economic upheaval; all of this makes people sceptical of the ability of science and technology to deliver an earthly paradise.
“Everybody took it for granted that science would put an end to the irrational streak in humanity,” says University of Pennsylvania scholar Ted Daniels, the publisher and editor of The Millennial Prophecy Report. “It never did, really, but for a long time the Enlightenment was a big success and nobody paid much attention to the irrational side of things. But it seems that the rational roosters proclaimed the Dawn of Reason much too soon.
“When a charismatic figure like Kennedy is killed people simply cannot believe that a single madman could get that close to the center of power and shake the world. It’s just too unbelievable; there has to be some enormous power at work, something more powerful than an apparent whim. Conspiracy theories are more comforting than believing our world is hovering over an abyss, that we are always close to chaos.”
There is much irony in this. Those who look to conspiracy theories to explain what’s gone wrong with the Enlightenment project are actually expressing their own hope and desire for meaning. We do not like leaving things to chance, we cannot abide a meaningless and chaotic world, and so we look to connect the dots. Conspiracy theory, as Dieter Groh says, “represents a permanent temptation for us all.” In that sense, conspiracy theories, like ideologies, are fantasies to justify, excuse, or attempt to explain the use or abuse of power. Or, put differently, they are an attempt to find meaning in life because old belief systems are seen to be discredited, and a life without meaning or purpose is hard to bear.
There may be nothing wrong in the search for meaning, per se. But there is a lot wrong with finding meaning at the expense of reason and, in too many cases, sacrificing the lives of others to fulfil the fantasy of a perfected world: in short, scapegoating. The notion that if we could only rid ourselves of a few bad things or bad people all would be well is often the first step down a bloody road. As Daniel Pipes, the author of Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From (1997), writes: “The killing fields begin by turning citizens into saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries and spies, and then go on to make them into vermin, dogs, bacteria or just ‘garbage.’ No other set of ideas so thoroughly transforms neighbors into enemies worthy only of extermination.”
To succumb to conspiracy theories is to surrender to the kind of mystification and credulity often characteristic of a pre-modern, or neo-pagan, mentality. Unable to cope with a rapidly changing and seemingly incoherent world, people look to anything no matter how irrational and superstitious — witchcraft, charismatic politicians, ideology, extreme religiosity — that might ward off fear and anxiety.
SO HOW DO YOU distinguish between the reality of a conspiracy and the unreality of a conspiracy theory? While there is no conclusive test, conspiracy theories share a set of characteristics that I have borrowed from Daniel Pipes.
Conspiracy theorists tend to posit conspiracies as the ultimate force behind historical events. Economic factors, demographic shifts, scientific advances, and even religious beliefs are all symptoms of an underlying conspiracy. While serious thinkers find historical events much too complex to be reduced to a single cause, conspiracy theorists claim to possess a master blueprint. As historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964: “The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy.”
They also demonstrate a psychology of contradiction. Those who believe in a conspiracy theory effectively admit they are victims of persecution. At same time, though, they are asserting themselves as special. As David Gorski observes in his essay, “Medical conspiracy theories and COVID-19” (May 18): “Conspiracy theories are about secret or hidden knowledge, knowledge that only the believers … possess, knowledge to which the average person … is not privy. Holding such knowledge makes the believer feel special, superior, greater than all the ‘sheeple’ out there ...
The believer is also simultaneously a victim of persecution and a hero. One element common to the most attractive conspiracy theories is that something is very, very wrong with the world and that it is not an accident that this something is so wrong. Rather, it’s wrong intentionally, usually as the result of a dark conspiracy of powerful forces that is doing causing the wrong and hiding its involvement. Naturally, the believer perceives himself to be a victim of this ‘wrongness,’ and his waking up to his victimhood and deciding to fight against it lets him claim the mantle of hero.
Also paradoxically, conspiracy theorists are consummate rationalists in asserting irrational and logically incoherent beliefs. They deny accidents, the contingency of events, or even human stupidity. They insist that every effect has a distinguishable cause, that nothing occurs randomly or is indeterminate. As Daniel Pipes writes, conspiracy theories, require a “chain of deception so complex, an intelligence so formidable, and a cast of accomplices so large (and silent) that the whole scheme collapses of its own implausibility. The more elaborate an alleged plot is, the less likely it exists.”
How, then, do we inoculate ourselves against conspiracist psychology? In their e-book, The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, authors Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook argue for what they call “cognitive empowerment” — thinking analytically rather than relying on intuition in responding to anxiety and uncertainty. “Conspiracy thinking is associated with feelings of reduced control and perceived threat. When people feel like they have lost control of a situation, their conspiracist tendencies increase. But the opposite also applies. When people feel empowered, they are more resilient to conspiracy theories.”
People who are primed by a sense of control over their lives, a sense of meaning and purpose, are less likely to succumb to conspiracy theories. This priming can be fostered at the societal level if social and political decisions are perceived as fair and just. In other words, a healthy body politic possesses antibodies against the virus of conspiracy theory. Or, as Lewandowsky and Cook put it: “Citizens’ general feeling of empowerment can be instilled by ensuring that societal decisions, for example, by government, are perceived to follow justice principles. People accept unfavourable outcomes from a decision if they believe that procedural fairness has been followed.”
Lewandowsky and Cook also advocate “pre-bunking” people against the misinformation and disinformation that feeds conspiracy thinking. “If people are preemptively made aware that they might be misled, they can develop resilience to conspiratorial messages,” they write. “If people are made aware of the flawed reasoning found in conspiracy theories, they may become less vulnerable to such theories.”
On this point, the principle of Cui bono? — Who benefits? — is clearly applicable as a first step in pre-bunking yourself. If you know who benefits, who gains and who loses in the struggle for power, you know who is likely to indulge in conspiracy theory.
THE PRE-BUNKING principle brings me back to COVID-19 and China’s role. There’s no question the coronavirus originated in China. To call it the “Wuhan virus” reflects this reality, and it is not racist or xenophobic to use that appellation. That said, I don’t think China deliberately conspired to infect the world — although the idea is not in itself implausible, given the government’s appalling human rights record. But China has conspired to promote conspiracy theories to save face and avoid culpability.
China’s conspiracy began well before the rest of the world heard about the virus. Its first case “can be traced back to Nov. 17,” the South China Morning Post reported (Mar. 13). Even more disturbing was a May 8 report from the London-based NBC News Verification Unit citing an intelligence document containing an analysis of cellphone data that purports to show Chinese officials shut down the Wuhan laboratory studying coronaviruses in early October. “The report … says there was no cellphone activity in a high-security portion of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from Oct. 7 through Oct. 24, 2019, and that there may have been a ‘hazardous event’ sometime between Oct. 6 and Oct. 11,” says NBC. “The document says its analysis suggests the pandemic began ‘earlier than initially reported’ and ‘supports the release of COVID-19 at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.’”
It also needs to be remembered that Li Wenliang, the 33-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan who issued the first warning to the world about the coronavirus in telling friends online in December about patients showing SARS-like symptoms, was accused by the authorities of “making false comments” and forced temporarily out of his job. When he returned to work, he contracted the coronavirus — never mind the World Health Organization’s statement via Twitter (Jan. 14) citing the claims of Chinese health officials that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It wasn’t until Jan. 20 that President Xi Jinping admitted to the crisis, by which time thousands were dying, including Li Wenliang, and the virus was spreading around the world.
Amazingly, many westerners accepted the Chinese propaganda narrative. China didn’t owe the world an explanation of its misconduct. Rather, the world owed China a demonstration of its anti-racism. In a stunning display of political correctness, Italian officials urged people to hug Chinese tourists to demonstrate their inclusiveness. In Canada, the country’s top public health officer, Theresa Tam, used her appearance before the House of Commons Health Committee (Jan. 29) to say she was “concerned about the growing number of reports of racism and stigmatizing comments on social media directed to people of Chinese and Asian descent.” On the same day, Counsellor Kristyn Wong-Tam, Vice Chair of Toronto’s Board of Health, worried that “there will probably be more harm caused by racism, xenophobia, discrimination, racial taunts … than will be harmed by the coronavirus.”
BUT IT WASN'T long before the geopolitical consequences of China’s behaviour became apparent. In an interview with Global News (Apr. 8), Stephanie Carvin, a professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, observed that the promotion of conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins and the claims of others that 5G technology spreads the coronavirus were the products of disinformation campaigns planted on social media networks by “state actors” operating on behalf of China and Russia. “The overarching goal of any conspiracy theory is that you undermine trust in public institutions,” she said. “And in this case, during a pandemic, it could produce real harm.”
Global News cited a report from the social media analytics firm Datametrex, which studied five million social media posts during March looking for the sources and promoters of virus-related conspiracy theories. Datametrex determined that by February, Russian online accounts and state media were pushing the theory that an American bioweapon was the source of the coronavirus.
“‘What the Chinese diplomats did is to encourage a particular conspiracy theory that shifted the blame away from China, and that effort has been successful,’” said Datametrex official Zachary Devereaux. “‘Now the theory is out there on social media, and the consequences of this could be significant. If the citizens of countries like India and China believe it, it could lead to major changes for international politics, business and foreign nationals living abroad.’”
The European External Action Service, an agency that conducts research on behalf of the European Union, reached a similar conclusion. “Despite their potentially grave impact on public health, official and state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and — to a lesser extent — China, have continued to widely target conspiracy narratives and disinformation both at public audiences in the EU and the wider neighbourhood,” the agency said in a special report entitled COVID-19 Disinformation released on Apr. 24.
This wording is actually a diluted version of the EEAS’s original report, according to Reuters (Apr. 24), which revealed that China attempted to block the EEAS report because it was so critical of the communist regime. While the report was eventually released, “some criticism of the Chinese government was rearranged or removed.”
You have to wonder about the original because what was released was certainly damning. “We see continued and coordinated push by some actors, including Chinese sources, to deflect any blame for the outbreak of the pandemic … Many reports confirm a high level of coordination between different parts of the Chinese system in messaging and amplification of messages across different languages and communication channels, including the use of overt and covert tactics.”
Sydney, Australia’s Daily Telegraph highlighted just how extensive China’s conspiratorial conduct may be. The paper reported (May 4) that it had obtained a 15-page research document prepared by the intelligence agencies of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada that make up the Five Eyes coalition. The document concluded that as early as December China deliberately suppressed or destroyed evidence of a coronavirus outbreak in an “assault on international transparency.”
Equally damning, the dossier states that Chinese authorities denied the virus could be spread between humans until Jan. 20, “despite evidence of human-human transmission [in Wuhan] from early December.” In silencing doctors who raised concerns — eight Wuhan doctors who warned about the virus were detained and condemned by authorities — and in refusing to provide live samples to international scientists seeking a vaccine, the Chinese regime allowed the “endangerment of other countries,” the dossier concluded.
Some western leaders finally began raising doubts about China’s handling of the pandemic. “We’ll have to ask the hard questions about how (the virus) came about, and how it could have been stopped earlier,” said British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab. The governments of Germany, Poland and Poland and the Netherlands objected to China’s threats to withhold shipments of medical supplies if it was criticized. Even the European Union supported the Australian government’s call for an independent international inquiry.
By comparison, Canada’s political leaders were shamefully supine. Prime Minister Trudeau ducked questions about whether Canada supported the Australian initiative. On Apr. 2, the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute co-sponsored an open letter — signed by more than 100 China experts, scholars, and political figures from around the world — highly critical of China’s “cover-up and mishandling of the spread of COVID-19.” China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, denounced the letter as a “malicious slander.” The Liberal government didn’t protest the ambassador’s claims, much less defend the principles of free speech. And only in late May, long after 62 other nations had agreed, did the Liberal government squeak assent to Australia’s call for the WHO to undertake an inquiry.
This is not surprising. Trudeau said in 2013: “There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China” and the way its “basic dictatorship” can respond quickly to a crisis. Trudeau’s apparent unwillingness to join other Five Eyes members in calling for an investigation was matched only by his unwillingness to speak out against the ongoing detention of the two Canadian businessmen, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been in a Chinese prison since 2018 while Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive awaiting a court decision on an American extradition request, enjoys house arrest in her luxurious Vancouver home.
Trudeau’s ministers have been little better. In early April, Health Minister Patty Hajdu accused a journalist who questioned infection numbers provided by the World Health Organization and China of “feeding into conspiracy theories.” In other words, Hajdu appeared to believe the Chinese regime rather than the intelligence services of Canada’s allies.
Does trade with China take precedence over the health (and lives) of Canadians? Perhaps the principle of cui bono needs to be applied, particularly when you consider the courage shown by the editors of the German newspaper Bild, which published a “corona invoice” on April 15 saying China owed Germany €150 billion in reparations.
WHEN THE CHINESE embassy in Berlin denounced Bild for “stirring up … xenophobia and animosity,” the paper’s editor, Julian Reichelt, excoriated the apparatchiks for their hypocrisy, noting that the Chinese government routinely silences those who question the country’s leaders, systematically spies on the population, and refuses to close animal markets that have been the source of viruses (Apr.17).
“Your embassy tells me that I am not living up to the ‘traditional friendship of our peoples,’” Reichelt wrote. “I suppose you consider it a great ‘friendship’ when you now generously send masks around the world. This isn’t friendship, I would call it imperialism hidden behind a smile — a Trojan Horse. You plan to strengthen China through a plague that you exported.”
Other aspects of China’s conduct reinforce that judgment. The country’s dictators have hinted at their willingness to blackmail Western nations if they don’t kowtow. The Chinese “news” agency, Xinhua, an organ of the government, pointed out in a Mar. 4 article that China has “strategic control of medical products” and “more than 90% of imported drugs are related to China. The implication is that at this time … (if) China declares that medicines meet domestic requirements and ban exports, the United States will fall into the hell of a new pneumonia epidemic.”
Nor have the Chinese hesitated to resort to bribery. In an obvious effort to derail any pandemic inquiry by the WHO, President Xi Jinping suddenly pledged $2 billion to support the health agency’s virus-related research. I think it’s fair to say we already know what the results of the investigation will be.
With bribery, bullying and blackmail part of China’s geopolitical repertoire, adding conspiracy theory is but a small step. China’s leaders have clearly joined the ranks of history’s paranoid explainers in promoting conspiracy theories to mask their own failures. Conspiracy theories, as I have argued, are psychological projections to deflect or avoid fear and uncertainty, a means to deny guilt and responsibility. As such, conspiracy theorists unconsciously betray what they want to conceal. Indeed, from a Freudian perspective China’s elites have revealed themselves during this crisis to possess narcissistic personalities.
Such personalities know at some never-to-be acknowledged level that their egotistic public performances hide deficiencies in moral character. Rather than undertake the honest self-reflection necessary to understand and heal their deficiency, China’s leaders, like many before them, project their internal inadequacies outwards in adopting conspiracy theories that deny their culpability and scapegoat others. In doing so they failed in their duty of care to the world.
Will Western leaders — including Canada’s — recognize this failure, recognize the nature of the Chinese regime, and respond accordingly? Perhaps the old Russian proverb applies: “Whoever starts a conspiracy plants a seed.”
* Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2020 edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 95-104.