Inside China's high-stakes campaign to smear the United States over coronavirus

If you listened to Chinese state-run media, you'd think President Trump went to China and released vials of COVID-19 on groups of unsuspecting men, women and children.

Beijing has been bending over backward trying to convince the world that the United States is the real culprit behind the quickly spreading virus that's already claimed more than 4,600 lives across the globe.

It's a high-stakes strategy for the Asian nation fighting to keep its superpower status amid a national lockdown and palpable anger over claims that Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus, at first covered it up, triggering a worldwide health and economic crisis.

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The Chinese government has already published a book in English -- with translations in the works in French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic -- touting its handling of the deadly disease.

"A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combatting COVID-19 in 2020" is a mishmash of glowing state media reports on the accomplishments of President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party and the dominance of the Chinese system in fighting the crisis.

At best, China's aggressive new campaign can be chalked up to ambitious propaganda.  At its worst, it's a reckless display from a country that has actively misled the world while working overtime to save its own skin, foreign affairs expert Gordon G. Chang told Fox News.

Chang believes Beijing has been laying the groundwork for a PR attack against the United States for more than a month, first by throwing doubt on the origin of COVID-19 and second, by slamming America's handling of previous diseases like the swine flu, which decimated China's pork industry.

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On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.

“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 said.

A few days earlier, Lin Songtian, China's ambassador to South Africa, said: "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.'"

Vague and misleading statements like the one from Lin are ripped right out of China's propaganda playbook and attempt to sow doubt about the global crisis.

Chinese officials have also pushed back on the expression "Wuhan coronavirus" -- saying the name used frequently by U.S. conservative commentators unfairly stigmatizes the world's most populous country.

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Chang said it's just another tactic in China's playbook, carefully choreographed to make Americans look petty and racist.

"This an all-out assault on the United States," Chang said.

In December, when the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, many media around the world began referring to it as the "Wuhan virus." But last month, the World Health Organization renamed the illness COVID-19 so as not to link it to a specific location or group of people.

The name change didn't stop some, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who blew past warnings and deliberately referred to it as the "Wuhan virus" after China's foreign ministry called it "highly irresponsible" to do so.

President Donald Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, went even further Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," O'Brien said at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington. "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. It probably cost the world community two months."

O'Brien said if experts would have had those two months to get ahead of the spread of the virus, "I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened both in China and what's now happening across the world."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the Communist Party is pointing the finger at the U.S. so it can dampen discontent back home.

“The Chinese military portal Xilu.com recently published an article baselessly claiming that the virus is ‘a biochemical weapon produced by the U.S. to target China,’" Rubio said.

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, has frequently used the term "Wuhan virus" on the Senate floor.

Earlier this week, several social media users took House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to task when he referred to it as "the Chinese coronavirus."

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Instead of backing down, Chang believes officials should keep calling COVID-19 the "Wuhan virus" and push back on accusations of racism.

"This isn't a Republican thing. We all need to unite and for people to say, 'this is racist' is irresponsible," Chang said. "There is no race known as Wuhanese."

Chang also said calling COVID-19 the "Wuhan virus" or "Chinese coronavirus" keeps pressure on the Chinese government and forces it to be held accountable by the rest of the world for its initial response to the global crisis, which was widely regarded as abysmal.

China, though, is using everything in its arsenal to paint itself as a global hero, rewriting history and going so far as to demand a thank you for containing the virus as long as it did.

"We should say righteously that the U.S. owes China an apology, the world owes China a thank you," an editorial on state news agency Xinhua read.

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Also peculiar is that Beijing -- which is normally quick to censor news -- has refused to step in as a wave of anti-American conspiracy theories flood the internet. Among the rumors is that the U.S. created the coronavirus to make China look bad as well as one that accuses the government of covering up thousands of deaths by classifying them as the regular flu.

"It's more than just some disinformation or an official narrative," Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley's Schools of Information, told The Washington Post. "It's an orchestrated, all-out campaign by the Chinese government through every channel at a level you rarely see. It's a counteroffensive."