Pompeo warns China against spreading 'outlandish rumors' about coronavirus

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoSusan Rice scolds Pompeo for using 'Wuhan virus' term Overnight Defense: Aircraft carrier captain pleads for help with outbreak | Pentagon shipment of ventilators delayed | Pompeo urges countries to be more 'transparent' with virus data US tells Maduro, Guaidó to 'step aside' in Venezuela MORE on Monday warned his Chinese counterpart against spreading “outlandish rumors” about the coronavirus pandemic.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Pompeo “conveyed strong U.S. objection to [China's] efforts to shift blame for COVID-19 to the United States” in a phone call with Yang Jiechi, director of China's Office of Foreign Affairs.

“The Secretary stressed that this is not the time to spread disinformation and outlandish rumors, but rather a time for all nations to come together to fight this common threat,” Ortagus said in a readout of the call.

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Pompeo also posted on Twitter accusing Beijing's government officials of promoting "disinformation" and "outlandish rumors."

"Spoke today with Director Yang Jiechi about disinformation and outlandish rumors that are being spread through official PRC channels," he said.

"The United States is sparing no effort to protect our people and contain the global #coronavirus pandemic. Beijing must acknowledge its role and be part of the solution."

Pompeo’s call with Yang comes amid conspiracy theories taking hold in Chinese media throwing into question the origin of the coronavirus and blaming the U.S. for the spread of the disease that was first detected in Wuhan, China.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the virus originated from animal-to-human transmission from a livestock market in Wuhan. The World Health Organization has said that COVID-19 is caused by a new virus that was unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan in December.

China has come under harsh criticism for initially failing to take seriously the growing threat of the highly contagious respiratory infection.

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White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said last week that China tried to cover up the coronavirus outbreak.

“Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up,” O'Brien said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “There's lots of open-source reporting from China, from Chinese nationals, that the doctors involved were either silenced or put in isolation or that sort of thing, so that the word of this virus could not get out.

Nearly three months into the worldwide spread of the disease, global health officials have praised China for its success in reducing the number of new infections and beginning to get the virus spread under control.

"China and other countries are demonstrating that spread of the virus can be slowed and impact reduced through the use of universally applicable actions, such as working across society to identify people who are sick, bringing them to care, following up on contacts, preparing hospitals and clinics to manage a surge in patients, and training health workers," the World Health Organization said in a statement on March 7.

Chinese officials have recently sought to shift the blame for the origin and spread of the coronavirus.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has suggested on Twitter that the U.S. is responsible for the outbreak of coronavirus, with his messages shared and retweeted by other Chinese diplomats. 

“When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” Zhao tweeted last week.

His comments drew a swift rebuke from the State Department, and the agency summoned China's ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, to say the U.S. would not tolerate the spreading of conspiracy theories.

“Spreading conspiracy theories is dangerous and ridiculous,” a State Department official told Reuters. “We wanted to put the government on notice we won’t tolerate it for the good of the Chinese people and the world.”

Jessica Brandt, head of policy and research for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan and transatlantic initiative that tracks state-backed media in authoritarian countries, said the battle over the coronavirus narrative amounts to an “information contest.”

China is using its media to promote their country’s response to coronavirus, aid to European countries like Italy, and attack the shortcomings of the U.S. response to the viral outbreak, she said.

“It's fascinating to watch an information contest play out in real time. Beijing appears to be capitalizing on weaknesses in our [the U.S.] coronavirus response, using it to emphasize fissures in the transatlantic relationship and to highlight the chaotic nature of our political system,” she wrote in an email to The Hill. 

"Beijing is happy to lift up its way of doing business as a model of effective governance. Recent turns of events on coronavirus create a good moment for that.”

Updated at 5 p.m.