The word “rumor” has taken on a different meaning in China since the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was punished for trying to warn others about the spread of coronavirus.
Instead of doubtful hearsay, for many the word has come to suggest the inconvenient truths that authorities are trying to hide – just like Li’s attempt to expose a dangerous outbreak that has to date claimed more than 2,900 lives, including his own.
“Rumor is just a prophecy far ahead of our times,” says a quote widely shared online in China in recent weeks.
The idea speaks to the mounting anger among many Chinese people over what they see as heavy-handed government censorship, with unpleasant truths written off as “rumors” and truth tellers threatened or faced with punishment.
On Chinese social media platforms, authorities have paid a price for silencing the truth. In many posts, if the warnings of Li and other medical workers had not been muzzled, they could have raised more awareness among the public and perhaps better prepared them for the deadly outbreak, which has now sickened over 84,000 people and placed hundreds of millions under varying forms of lockdown.
But the overwhelming narrative on social media is that concealing the truth has caused another problem. Amid dwindling public trust, authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to combat potentially harmful disinformation.
Struggling with disinformation
Almost as soon as the outbreak spiraled into a public health crisis in late January, a dubious fringe theory started to spread: that the virus did not come from nature, but was man-made in a lab.
The conspiracy has been widely dismissed by scientists in China and the West, who point to research indicating that the virus is likely to have originated in bats and jumped to humans from an intermediate host – just like its cousin that caused the SARS epidemic.
The scientific findings, however, did not prevent the rumor mill from spinning, nor did the repeated attempts by authorities to stamp out the wholly groundless accusations.
As the virus continued to spread and kill, conspiracy theories became more elaborate, with many pointing to a high-level virology lab known to study bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, the ground-zero of the outbreak.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, an affiliate of the central government-run Chinese Academy of Sciences, runs the only lab on the Chinese mainland equipped for the highest level of biocontainment to research easily transmitted pathogens, such as coronaviruses.
The common gist of various rumors lies with the suspicion that the novel coronavirus might have escaped from the lab. In one version, a researcher was bitten by the bat he was studying and became infected with the virus; in another version, a graduate student at the institute was the “patient zero”; in an even more outlandish theory, that has since been popularized overseas, the lab was covertly working for the Chinese military to make bioweapons, and the virus was unwittingly leaked in the process.
No credible evidence was offered for the theories, which originated from unverified social media accounts.
The rumors were so rife in China that a lead virologist on bat-related viruses at the lab took to social media on February 2 to declare that she “guaranteed with her own life” that the facility had nothing to do with the outbreak. But that too failed to quell the rumors. The institute followed up by issuing a statement two weeks later to denounce the accusations. But still suspicions persisted.
Four days later, the facility issued yet another all-encompassing statement that listed and rebutted all the rumors that had swirled around the lab in one sweep.
The rumors, which continue to proliferate, have since drawn the rebuke of scientists around the world.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” wrote 27 prominent public health scientists in a joint statement published in the medical journal The Lancet on February 19.
Citing studies of the virus’ genetic makeup, they said scientific findings “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens.”
“Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumors, and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus,” the scientists wrote.
Nevertheless, some in China re