China's foreign ministry on Monday objected to the expression "Wuhan coronavirus" — saying the name will "stigmatize" the country — following remarks from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The objection marks the latest from Beijing leaders and the country's state-controlled media, which have gone as far as to claim that the coronavirus outbreak, which was first reported in the central province of Hubei, may not have started in China at all.
The new coronavirus was first reported to the World Health Organization in December last year, after emerging in the central city of Wuhan. Since then, COVID-19 has spread to more than 100 countries, infected over 100,000 people and killed at least 3,800 globally. Most of those infected and killed so far were in China.
Asked about Pompeo's use of the term at a scheduled press briefing on Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry said it was a "despicable practice" to call the virus the "Wuhan coronavirus."
"Despite the fact that the WHO has officially named this novel type of coronavirus, (a) certain American politician, disrespecting science and the WHO decision, jumped at the first chance to stigmatize China and Wuhan with it. We condemn this despicable practice," said Geng Shuang, a ministry spokesperson. He was commenting on Pompeo's use of the term "Wuhan coronavirus."
There were similar comments last week.
"It is highly irresponsible for some media to dub it 'China virus,'" said Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson last Wednesday. "We firmly oppose that."
However, respected AIDS researcher David Ho said the coronavirus very likely originated from China. He told the Voice of America (VOA) last week that given what researchers know about SARS, COVID-19 and coronaviruses found in other animal species, "I have very little doubt that the origin is China."
Ho said there were opportunities to improve the research on the SARS virus, which caused an outbreak 17 years ago, and that would have better prepared the world for the current outbreak. However, political will and commitment to funding "simply disappeared" after the outbreak, he added.
Last week, Pompeo hit back against suggestions from China that the global outbreak of the coronavirus could have originated outside that country.
"No less (an) authority than the Chinese Communist Party said it came from Wuhan," Pompeo told CNBC last Friday. "So don't take Mike Pompeo's word for it. We have pretty high confidence that we know where this began."
But according to the Chinese foreign ministry's transcript, Zhao said there was "no conclusion" to the origins of the virus yet and emphasized the comments of famed SARS researcher, Zhong Nanshan, who said that even though the epidemic was first reported in China, it didn't necessarily originate in the country.
"We should all say no to 'information virus' and 'political virus.' By calling it 'China virus' and thus suggesting its origin without any supporting facts or evidence, some media clearly want China to take the blame and their ulterior motives are laid bare," said Zhao.
An official account for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a tweet on Mar. 4 that China was "still tracing the origin" of the coronavirus. "Its origin is not necessarily in China," the tweet said.
Chinese Communist Party-linked newspaper Global Times also attacked Pompeo's use of the term "Wuhan virus."
"Pompeo's move not only exposes malicious US intentions toward China without regard to common sense, but also hits a new low in his personal conduct," said the newspaper's opinion piece published on Sunday. "Instead of devoting energy to strengthening their country's defenses against the virus, some US politicians are keen to blame China and pass the buck to Beijing."
That may win some hearts and shift the perception that China did not contain the virus effectively in its early days, said one analyst.
"Perhaps other countries are not dealing with the outbreak as competently as might have been expected. And so, by contrast, China is portraying itself to have done a very good job in those early days — even though we know that perhaps it was more mixed as a response," said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia.
There's "a switch in gear for the propaganda machine in China where they are talking about sending masks overseas, sending assistance to other countries that need it, talking about these kind of laudable medical achievements that they've made and how they can share the information," said Kassam in a Friday podcast.
"They started dispelling or trying to dispel the idea that the virus came from Wuhan and so, with that shift, I think you have a lot of countries that need help that don't have the health-care systems to deal with this and suddenly, maybe China is a helpful ally to them again," Kassam added.
China's State Council Information Office, which oversees publicity for the Chinese government overall, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kassam's analysis.
China is now calling on the world to fight the epidemic together and saying that "rumors and prejudice" must go.
"The epidemic is a global challenge. The right move should be working together to fight it, which means no place for rumors and prejudice," Zhao said at the same press briefing last week. "We need science, reason and cooperation to drive out ignorance and bias."
Chinese foreign diplomats have also been on the defensive recently — most notably on Twitter, which is blocked in the mainland. China's ambassador to South Africa said in a tweet on Sunday: "Although the epidemic first broke out in China, it did not necessarily mean that the virus is originated from China, let alone 'made in China.'"
Global Times has pointed fingers at some countries which it said was "slow to respond" to the outbreak.
"Many countries are slow in responding to COVID-19. Coronavirus overwhelmed hospitals in Wuhan in a short time. China dispatched over 40,000 medical workers to support Wuhan," the paper's chief editor tweeted recently. "No other country has this mobilization capability. They must try utmost to prevent situation from worsening."
State media has also said the world and the United States should "thank" China for taking extreme measures to contain the coronavirus, which would have otherwise spread even further, instead of imposing travel restrictions on Chinese citizens.
"Now, we should say righteously that the U.S. owes China an apology, the world owes China a thank you," said an editorial on state news agency, Xinhua, which was translated by CNBC and which was first posted on the social media account of Huang Sheng, an investor.