Ripe for Propaganda Pickings, Ukraine Lab Theory Goes Viral
The conspiracy goes that the US was priming labs in Ukraine to release 'biological agents,' compelling Russia to invade Ukraine and capture the bio-labs.
Picture: UC Davis Biomedical Engineering Department’s TEAM BioInnovation Lab
There are still people–I suspect most of them working at newspapers–who will straight-faced tell you that covid-19 was a zoonotic spillover event involving a bat and a platypus intermediary host. The New York Times, just last month, seized on two unreviewed preprints and authoritatively declared, New Research Points to Wuhan Market as Pandemic Origin, even though the new research was based on old research provided by the Chinese.
But it makes no difference now. It may be that one day we discover that SARS-CoV-2 leaped from some animal to human beings at the Huanan Seafood Market, but in the meantime most ordinary people believe it leaked from the lab, and nobody in the world trusts biolabs anymore. Have we heard any conspiracies that the Russians are invading Ukraine to shut down markets that are believed to be trading wild game? No, because not even a conspiracy theorist nutjob is going to buy that one.
But, given a popular conspiracy that the US funded covid-19 by supporting research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it’s not hard to bring this crowd around to the idea: Woah, this biolab thing is way bigger than any of us thought.
Russia’s early struggles to push disinformation and propaganda about Ukraine have picked up momentum in recent days, thanks to a variety of debunked conspiracy theories about biological research labs in Ukraine. Much of the false information is flourishing in Russian social media, far-right online spaces and U.S. conservative media, including Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News.
The theories, which have been boosted by Russian and Chinese officials, come as U.S. officials warn that Russia could be preparing a chemical or biological weapons attack of its own in Ukraine.
Most of the conspiracy theories claim that the U.S. was developing and plotting to release a bioweapon or potentially another coronavirus from “biolabs”’ throughout Ukraine and that Russia invaded to take over the labs. Many of the theories implicate people who are often the targets of far-right conspiracy thinking — including Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden — as being behind creating the weaponized diseases in the biolabs.
Marc Owen Jones, associate professor at HBKU, specializing in disinformation and digital authoritarianism, in a tweed thread claims to have carried out …
…. an analysis of all accounts using the terms '#Ukraine' and 'bio labs'. I wanted to see which accounts were pushing this narrative the most, & which were the most influential. This is an analysis of around 20k Twitter interactions from approx 17k unique accounts
Some of the US influencers, says Owen Jones, appear to …
… come from conflating US diplomat Victoria Nuland’s mention of biological research labs with offensive biolabs, which the Kremlin are framing as some sort of bioweaponry nerve/covid/ethnicity based agent production facility.
For background on this, the Intercept has a good explainer.
There's also a trope of evidence being 'deleted' re these biolabs, obviously to bolster the conspiracy. It's being pushed by blue ticks, and Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, – but it's false
Dilyana is falsely claiming that the US Embassy in Kyiv is deleting documents pertaining to its biological threat reduction program. This is not true, the documents are still there, and Dilyana's 'site can't be reached' screenshot contains a different URL from embassy website
Interestingly, Dilyana’s tweet, which remember is incorrect, was then retweeted by the Chinese Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, who asked her 1.1 million followers what the US was hiding?
On March 9, Hua Chunying, assistant minister of foreign affairs, tweeted, “While #Russia revealed evidence of US-funded bio-program in #Ukraine, the #US embassy has been found deleting from its website all documents about 11 Pentagon-funded biolabs in Ukraine. What is the US hiding?”
Back to Owen Jones:
Of course Tucker Carlson content features heavily on the hashtag... He's obviously using it, like many republicans, as a stick to beat Biden with.
How it went from out-there fringe to Fox is unsurprising, but briefly as The Guardian tells it:
The conspiracy theory began in seeming obscurity. In the hours after Russia launched its aerial bombardment of Ukraine, the Twitter account of a longtime follower of the QAnon conspiracy movement remarked that some 30 biolabs were dotted across Ukraine.
In January, the Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva wrote a sensationalist piece accusing the US of conducting biological experiments on Ukrainian and Georgian soldiers. Gaytandzhieva has previously published overt Russian disinformation, and her reporting was picked up by pro-Russian channels. Gaytandzhieva was even awarded a journalism prize last month by a pro-Russian Latvian politician to “encourage her for new research”, according to a press release.
Around the same time, John Mark Dougan – an American in Moscow, on the lam from wiretapping and extortion charges in Florida – began posting a similar theory, citing a Ukrainian whistleblower. “Washington and its funded laboratories are playing a very dangerous game with these viruses,” he warned in a December 2021 video.
This disinformation laid the groundwork for the QAnon-linked conspiracy theory about Ukrainian biolabs in late February. In less than 24 hours, far-right US conspiracy site Infowars, which played a particularly acute role in promoting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, ran a story based on the allegation. The headline read: Russian Strikes Targeting US-Run Bio-Labs in Ukraine?
NBC reports that by the day of the invasion far-right influencers, largely boosted by a QAnon Twitter account, @WarClandestine, “pushed the “biolabs” theory to new heights.”
Twitter said the account and others that pushed the biolabs theory were banned for “multiple violations of our abusive behavior policy.”
It won’t give pause to the assumption by the growing hoards of believers that all outward-facing statements by governments (and reports in the press) are lies.
Destroyers in the Strait Hours Before High-Level Call
Beijing sailed its aircraft carrier Shandong through the Taiwan Strait on today, shadowed by the The USS Ralph Johnson, a missile destroyer, the South China Morning Post reported an anonymous source as saying.
Taiwan also sent warships to keep an eye on the situation, the source said.
Taiwan’s defence ministry declined to comment, while Beijing and the US Navy did not immediately respond to requests for comment, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Chinese, US Fighter Jets Experience ‘Encounters’
American Lockheed Martin F-35s. Picture: Wiki Commons
The South China Morning Post reported that US jets and a Chinese jets have had encounters and at least one near miss.
Advanced Chinese and American fighter jets have had several encounters in the East China Sea, a source close to Beijing’s military told the Post, saying it reflected the high level of tensions between the two nations.
This came as a top US Air Force general said American Lockheed Martin F-35s had had at least one encounter with China’s J-20 stealth fighters recently in the East China Sea and that the US side was “impressed”.
US Pacific Air Forces commander Kenneth Wilsbach did not mention the time of the encounter, but the source said such close contact became more frequent in the second half of 2020, as tensions escalated between Beijing and Washington under the cloud of a likely “October surprise” in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Quote of the Day
Russia, Ukraine and China, courtesy of The Economist:
It is too soon to know if a winner will emerge from the fighting. But, on the other side of the planet, the world’s emerging superpower is weighing its options. Some argue that China will build on a pre-war friendship with Russia that knows “no limits”, to create an axis of autocracy. Others counter that America can shame China into breaking with Russia, isolating Vladimir Putin, its president. Our reporting suggests that neither scenario is likely. The deepening of ties with Russia will be guided by cautious self-interest, as China exploits the war in Ukraine to hasten what it sees as America’s inevitable decline. The focus at all times is its own dream of establishing an alternative to the Western, liberal world order.
Low-Immunity China, Faces Repeated Stringent Lockdowns
The South China Morning Post reports on the harsh conditions in Changchun–where snow continues to fall three weeks into March–a city in the locked-down northeastern “rust belt” of Jilin Province.
Even though the lockdown is nothing new for the people of Changchun, this time the situation appears to be much more severe. Hit by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the entirety of Jilin has been reporting more than 1,000 daily infections since Saturday – a figure no other mainland province has seen, with the exception of Hubei after the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan.
“Even if they contain the outbreak through lockdowns this time, they can’t eradicate the virus,” said Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health with the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
“The immunity level of the whole Chinese population is low. Facing Omicron, there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip, so there might be repeated stringent lockdowns, one after another.”
Huang’s comment has become a common theme in recent weeks. China’s zero-covid policy served it well while the rest of the world sniffled and–in some tragic cases died intubated—but now it’s rendered itself a low-immunity fortress with chinks that Omicron–nearly as contagious as measles, the most contagious virus known—are wriggling through.
What Hong Kong has had to put up with has been horrendous; what China is facing could be disastrous—and with global ramifications.
Well, the Chinese people are likely going to need all the strength and energy they can find.
Writing on the Wall for Manhattan Chinatown’s Chinese Street Signs
Photo: Wiki Commons
The New York Times has a great visual essay on the decline of bilingual Chinese signage in Manhattan.
Bilingual street signs have hung over the bustling streets of the city's oldest Chinatown for more than 50 years. They are the product of a program from the 1960s aimed at making navigating the neighborhood easier for those Chinese New Yorkers who might not read English.
These signs represented a formal recognition of the growing influence of a neighborhood that for more than a century had largely been relegated to the margins of the city’s attention. But as the prominence of Manhattan’s Chinatown as the singular Chinese cultural center of the city has waned in the 21st century, this unique piece of infrastructure has begun to slowly disappear.
Dip into the Times’ show. It’s a fascinating document.
Just Stay Calm and Socially Distance, Chinese-style
Biden, Xi Chat About Russia and Ukraine on the Phone
President Joe Biden is speaking tonight Beijing time with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as the U.S. leader looks to shore up global pressure on Russia to halt its war in Ukraine.
“This is part of our ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Thursday. “The two leaders will discuss managing the competition between our two countries as well as Russia’s war against Ukraine and other issues of mutual concern.”
It’s difficult to say how anything substantive can come of the conversation. China still does not admit that Ukraine is being invaded. Also, note above, the reports of destroyers in the Taiwan Strait, ahead of the talks.
Shenzhen Now Has More Billionaires than New York
Nikkei Asia reports that Shenzhen has leapt to the top of who’s got the most billionaires charts, inching ahead of decadent and decaying urban behemoth New York.
The Nikkei goes on to say:
China is "the world's absolute No. 1 when it comes to billionaires, with more than the next three countries combined," the Hurun Global Rich List 2022 said.
What a time to be Chinese, eh? And, if you can make it in Shenzhen, you can make it anywhere, as the song goes.
Taiwan on Hong Kong’s Travails–Just Watch the Movie
President Tsai Ing-wen hosted a private screening of “Revolution of Our Times” yesterday for campaign supporters, Youtubers, and celebrities. According to Tsai, Taiwan is the only country where the documentary has had a general release. After the viewing, Tsai urged the ‘international democratic alliance’ to support Hong Kong and its people.
If only Tsai’s administration could do as it says and make it easier for exiles from Hong Kong to settle in Taiwan. More than 35,000 people from Hong Kong became residents of Taiwan over the past five years but only about 7,000 have become citizens even though it takes just one or two years of residence to obtain full rights of citizenship.
The problem is that Taiwan changed the rules in 2019 to make it harder for Hong Kong residents who were born in China (of which there are many) to obtain residence or citizenship. The change also affected anyone who has worked for a state-owned Chinese enterprise (major employers in HongKong) or the Hong Kong government.
Everyone in these categories are now subject to opaque national security checks that can last for more than a year and often result in denial even after the Hong Kong resident has invested at least US$200,000 in Taiwan (one of the main ways to immigrate to Taiwan from Hong Kong).
Chinadiction has reviewed 18 administrative appeals by rejected Hong Kong nationals; all were denied with very sparse reasoning. Annie Chui from the now-defunct CitizenNews had an excellent report late last year on the plight of Hong Kong residents in Taiwan. According to the report, some Hong Kong exiles are giving up on Taiwan and trying to move to the UK and other friendlier destinations.
There are certainly real national security concerns for Taiwan, but perhaps a bigger issue is Taiwan’s ambivalence about immigration in general and ethnic Chinese immigration in particular. After all, uncontrolled immigration from China at the end of the Chinese civil war changed Taiwan permanently. With local elections coming up at the end of the year, Tsai and her administration continue to slow-walk immigration reform for people from Hong Kong despite using Hong Kong as an example of what could happen to Taiwan.
The Unsavory Truth about Taiwan’s Bomb Shelters
Old-school Taiwan bomb shelter. Picture: Wikicommons
Michael Turton had an interesting piece on Taiwan’s bomb shelters in the Taipei Times early this week. Turton notes, “Last week the government proudly announced that the nation had 105,000 designated bomb shelters, capable of holding over 86 million people.”
It’s difficult to say why Taiwan needs to shelter 86 million people, unless it’s planning to corral PLA invaders in them. But anyway such numbers are hugely inflated and next to nobody in Taiwan knows where their nearest bomb shelter is, Turton reports. In fact, you could own a building that has a basement that has been designated as a bomb shelter and you wouldn’t know it.
A Taichung municipality government official told Turton, the government does not tell building owners that their basement might become an evacuation shelter because then people might demand some kind of recompense. But the emergency laws are written so that in the event of an emergency like a war, the government can requisition the building without permission for whatever it needs. Nor, under the law, does it have to inform the owner of the status of his property.
ChinaDiction’s Michael Fahey followed up in Taipei. I decided to check out the shelter in the basement of my apartment building in Taipei. It is listed as having capacity for 260 people but has just 70 square meters of space at most. That’s about .9 square meters per person. Taiwan’s prisons require each inmate to have at least 2.3 square meters of space. The shelter also has no bathroom and water has to be pumped out of it after major rainfalls. Like many Taipei residents, I am trying to figure out where I might be able to camp on the East Coast if the missiles start falling in Taipei.
Taiwan’s Palace Museum Unprepared for Invasion
The director of Taiwan’s Palace Museum admitted that there is no plan in place to safely store its collections of 700,000 objects but promised to have one in three months, reports the Taipei Times.
National Palace Museum director Wu Mi-cha yesterday said that he does not know an ideal location to store historical artifacts on the museum’s collection if a war broke out in Taiwan, but pledged to stipulate an evacuation plan within three months and hold a drill in July.
“The National Palace Museum has more than 690,000 historical objects. If we were to hold a drill for a scenario of a war or an air raid, we would need to first divide the objects into different categories, simulate the packaging of these objects and safely move them to designated locations. This is no small matter,” he added.
“Evacuating historical objects is much more complicated than evacuating people, and frankly I cannot think of any place to store them at the moment. National security officials might know some very safe locations, but we do not know whether those locations can safely preserve historical objects as we do at the National Palace Museum,” Wu said.
Yesterday, 63 years ago, in 1959, the Dalai Lama embarked on his escape from Chinese-occupied Tibet. He arrived in India on March 30.