In China and Russia, there were conspiracy theories that SARS was a US bioweapon. This is probably not true, but makes a semblance of sense compared to the unhinged, xenophobic COVID-19 conspiracy theories of the American right.
When SARS was spreading throughout China in the 2000s, a conspiracy theory, bolstered by a Russian scientist, began to spread. Some people in China, and Russia, believed that SARS was a bioweapon created by the US to sabotage China. In the US, no one thought twice about potential ulterior motives related to SARS, and very few Americans likely know about the SARS conspiracy theory.
In 2020, COVID-19 aka 2019-nCOV aka the Wuhan Coronavirus is spreading. Thankfully, it’s spreading much slower now, but it has already effected more people, for a longer amount of time, than SARS. But this time, Americans have conspiracy theories that point the finger at China.
This shows a change in American society, and although I’m not keyed into the nuances of everyday Chinese life, because I don’t live there, it seems there’s been a change in China society too. We can see these changes when we compare and contrast the reactions to coronavirus.
Before I go further, I do realize the broad generalization of “American society” and “Chinese society”. I want to make very clear that none of the conspiracy theories in this post were, or are, widely believed.
At the same time, conspiracy theories are heavily culturally bound. Conspiracy theories thrive in minutiae details. They are reactive to specific events. Because of this, conspiracy theories don’t reflect broader society, but they do reflect elements of society.
I also want to clarify that, as far as I know, there’s no Chinese conspiracy theories about COVID-19, but it’s totally likely that some people believe in one. Again, I’m kind of limited by not knowing Chinese, and not being in China.
Getting that out of the way: it makes sense to me why some Chinese people would believe the US would use SARS as a coronavirus.
The US obviously has it out for China. They’re surrounded militarily, and constantly demonized. It’s also not unprecedented for the United States to use biological warfare. It’s alleged and likely, though not confirmed, that the US has used biological weapons during the Korean War, and against Cuba.
Biological warfare is indeed tied to settler-colonialism, and the United States specifically, with smallpox blankets and other genocidal tactics. The US likely wouldn’t exist, at least not as we know it, if not for biological weapons.
That’s not to say the SARS conspiracy theory is true, but rather, it is a belief that aligns with elements of reality. If you’re reaching into conspiracy territory, this theory aligns with real-world geopolitics. In the same way, many American conspiracy theories are more rooted in reality than others. The theory that JFK was assassinated by the CIA is more rooted in the real-world and the dynamics within it, whether true or not, than QAnon, which is pure fantasyland shit.
The COVID-19 conspiracy theories on the other hand, make no sense. I’ll break down some of the theories.
The right-wing rag Washington Times, and douchebag Senator Tom Cotton both suggested COVID-19 is a biological weapon… made by Chinese scientists.
Some people, and this is the more QAnon spin, believe COVID-19 is a tool for population control created by Bill Gates.
Some people believe a vaccine was created before the coronavirus spread, with an implication that it was a money-making scheme, to spread a disease then sell the cure. The more prevalent implication is that the powers that be are using the coronavirus as a front to drug us up with something bad for us.
There are some other theories too, that are less about assigning blame, agency, and agenda. For example, grifters like Jim Bakker and Alex Jones have been selling silver as a cure-all. QAnon people like Jordan Sather have suggested drinking bleach to protect from the coronavirus.
There are surely more theories too. But this covers the most popular stuff, I’m aware of.
All of these theories beg the question: where’s the motivation? Why would Chinese scientists want to release a bioweapon amongst themselves?
The simple answer is they wouldn’t. The only way you could believe they would is if you’ve been bombarded with anti-Chinese, orientalist, and xenophobic rhetoric towards China. The only way you can believe the Chinese government would kill their own people, in such a sinister plot such as through bioweapons, is if you’ve dehumanized your conception of Chinese people, to the extent that it seems universal, and impose that dehumanization on the Chinese government itself.
The only logical explanation I’ve heard, is I’ve seen some people suggest the coronavirus was a tool to stop the Hong Kong protests. But there are several issues with that.
The most obvious one is the COVID-19 outbreak started over 1000km away from Hong Kong. Why would they do that? They could easily have planted the coronavirus in Guangdong, which is part of the same metro area as Hong Kong, and it’s where SARS started, so there’s a historical precedent of coronavirus outbreaks there.
The other obvious flaw with this train of thought is its approaching the situation in Hong Kong from a very western-lens. The western lens is that mainland China is an undifferentiated mass of drones, and the Hong Kongers, who are treated as having true autonomy, are rising up, and the Chinese government is trying to turn them into drones.
But here’s a surprise for you: the vast majority of mainland Chinese people think the Hong Kong protesters are a bunch of whiney babies. The Chinese government doesn’t need to stop the Hong Kong protesters because they’re already de-legitimized domestically.
The Chinese government and Chinese people, already know that the US will say whatever they can to make China look bad. So whatever the American press is saying about the Hong Kong protests has much less bearing on China than Americans think it does.
The point of all this is that conspiracy theories reflect an element of social reality within the context of the society that theory is from.
The SARS conspiracy theories in China is likely not true. I only say likely because I don’t know enough about it. But still, the evidence isn’t particularly convincing.
But we can see why people might believe it. It helps justify the true belief that the US has it out for China.
The logical basis for believing the American COVID-19 is much less logically coherent though. It has no material basis. It’s entirely rooted in the narrow, warped, hypernormal worldview presented by American media.