Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian has promoted at least two blame-the-U.S. conspiracy theories about the outbreak of the coronavirus. Secretary of State Pompeo’s reaction to these allegations may have been sharp because the Chinese accusations so echo an infamous 1980s Soviet disinformation campaign – that the AIDS virus had originated at a U.S. Army laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The play so far . . .
Zhao tweeted on March 12 that “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” implying that Patient Zero was an American soldier who participated in the Military World Games, held in Wuhan in October, 2019. The New York Times provided details on March 17.
Second, Zhao retweeted information from “a known conspiracy site” that the virus came from the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick. See the roundup article in TheScientist.
TheHill reported that Secretary of State Pompeo spoke with China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi. According to State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, the Secretary “warned his counterpart against spreading ‘outlandish rumors.'” He also tweeted that Chinese officials were promoting “disinformation.”
The Soviet template
Study of an earlier disinformation campaign about the origins of the AIDS virus conducted by the Soviet Union and East Germany in the 1980s – Operation Infektion — anchors many academic courses that address propaganda, information operations, information warfare, disinformation, and the Cold War. Yet Steve Tatham of Influence Operations Ltd. recently wrote that “When I lecture on the 1980s Op[eration] Infektion students are often incredulous.” And in retrospect the Soviet campaign – and how it gained traction in many countries and societies around the world – seems bizarre.
For those who want to learn more about this long-discredited Soviet “active measures” campaign, here are three gateway sources.
- The New York Times ran an excellent three-part opinion video series, “Operation Infektion: Russian Disinformation from Cold War to Kanye” by Adam B. Ellick and Adam Westbrook on November 12, 2018. If the Times paywall presents a problem, the series is available on Youtube.
- The journal Studies in Intelligence published a superb retrospective, “Soviet Bloc Intelligence and Its AIDS Disinformation Campaign,” in its December 2009 issue.
- The 1987 report by the U.S. Information Agency’s Active Measures Working Group is still a must read. For the AIDS disinformation campaign, begin on page 33. Other sections of the report document more Soviet disinformation campaigns, helping to flesh out the informational dimensions of the Cold War.
And Chinese “germ warfare” disinformation during the Korean War
Finally, it’s worth noting that many Chinese still recall an even earlier disinformation campaign. In 1951, China supported North Korean accusations of American “germ warfare” aimed at North Korea and the nearby provinces in China’s northeast. The Chinese government and Communist Party organized major protest demonstrations throughout China, and the falsehoods were kept alive in China’s museums for decades. They continue in North Korea. “China’s False Allegations of the Use of Biological Weapons by the United States during the Korean War,” a 2016 Cold War International History Project working paper by Milton Leitenberg, is comprehensive.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.