Chinese army colonel says avian flu is an American plot against China

April 9, 2013

Health workers take a swab sample from a chicken in Hunan province, China. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

Colonel Dai Xu of the People's Liberation Army wrote online that the new strain of bird flu hitting China, known as H7N9, is an American "bio-psychological weapon" meant to destabilize China. The rant, posted to Dai's account on the Twitter-like service Weibo, had already been shared by more than 30,000 fellow users by the time that the South China Morning Post reported it on Monday. Dai now has a quarter million followers on Weibo, which is quite a platform.

In general, Chinese Web users appear to have rejected Dai's argument. In response to the criticism, though, he's only dug in. "It is common knowledge that a group of people in China have been injected with mental toxin by the U.S.," he wrote at one point. "I will not retreat even half a step." He urged Chinese officials to ignore the virus's apparent spread and argued that the disastrous 2003 SARS outbreak was also an American plot.

Dai's conspiracy theory does not appear to be widely held, although fears about the United States and its supposed secret desire to topple the Chinese Communist Party are not uncommon among Chinese officials. He is a lecturer at the National Defence University, giving him a not insignificant platform for his theories and the worldview behind them.

China's response to the H7N9 case has prompted concern among public health experts abroad. Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations recently argued that China is doing a much better job than it did with SARS in 2003, when officials long refused to acknowledged the outbreak and thus exacerbated its spread. He noted, though, that the government has been slow in reacting, possibly wary of drawing criticism.

Some Chinese officials, The Washington Post's William Wan reports, are telling citizens that a traditional herb made of tree root can prevent the spread of the new avian flu strain, which certainly does not appear to be true. Others have suggested acupuncture.

Few if any Chinese officials likely share Dai's somewhat paranoid theory that H7N9 is an American weapon. Still, some do appear to share his desire to downplay the virus, its potential seriousness and the scale of what would likely be required of the government to address it. That echo, however slight, of China's handling of the 2003 SARS outbreak is not a great sign for Chinese officialdom's desire to address H7N9 as completely as possible. But there have been positive signs as well, likely an indication that a significant number of officials do take the risks seriously.

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Max Fisher | April 9, 2013