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China state media erases references to fictitious Swiss biologist

COVID 19. Free Image from PXphere

The original version of this post was written by Rhoda Kwan and published in Hong Kong Free Press on August 11, 2021. The following version was edited is published by Global Voices under a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

Several Chinese state media outlets have scrubbed references to a Swiss biologist ‘Wilson Edwards’ from articles published in recent weeks.

The move comes after the Swiss embassy issued a statement on August 10 saying no Swiss citizen by the name of Wilson Edwards exists, and no academic articles had been written by any biologist with that name.

The Swiss embassy’s statement read,

In the last several days, a large number of press articles and social media posts citing an alleged Swiss biologist have been published in China. While we appreciate the attention on our country, the Embassy of Switzerland must, unfortunately, inform the Chinese public that this news is false.

A screenshot of the now-deleted ‘Wilson Edwards’ Facebook page via HKFP.

In a Facebook post from July 24, an account under the name ‘Wilson Edwards’ claimed to have witnessed the US attempting to ‘politicize’ the World Health Organization's (WHO) continuing efforts to uncover the origins of the coronavirus. The ‘biologist’ said,

I have the impression that WHO’s new plans, which include lab audits, are largely politically motivated… The WHO sources told me that the U.S is so obsessed with attacking China on the origin-tracing issue that it is reluctant to open its eyes to the data and findings.

It also questioned the international health body’s independence, accusing the US of attempting to place its own experts on the team responsible for the second phase of the probe.

The post also quoted a ‘source’ as saying that US President Biden would ‘spare no effort’ to ‘rebuild US influence in the organization’ and ‘seek to dominate key issues.’

While the fictitious account has been removed from Facebook, the post is accessible on a Twitter account attributed to ‘Wilson Edwards':

@ZhaoyinFeng, a reporter from BBC, pointed out quotes from ‘Wilson Edwards’ first appeared in a news outlet Voice of South Pacific owned by Beijing Zhong Xin Chinese Media Service Company, which publishes news stories about Fiji:

The claims were later picked up by Chinese state media, including People’s Daily, China Daily, Global Times, and CGTN, which all accused the US of politically manipulating the WHO’s probe into the origins of COVID-19. One week after the original post, People’s Daily published an opinion article with the headline, ‘US attempts to overturn report, leveraging WHO into political tool: Swiss biologist’.

The Swiss embassy also pointed that the ‘Wilson Edwards’ Facebook account was created on the same day of the post and only had three friends: ‘It is likely that this Facebook account was not opened for social networking purposes’, said their statement.

It also called on the Chinese press and netizens to take down posts featuring the disputed biologist, saying it is likely a case of ‘fake news’.

Earlier this year, a team of WHO experts carried out a probe in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected. The investigation report said the theory that the virus leaked from a lab was ‘unlikely’. However, critics have questioned whether China granted the team full access to the available data. Beijing has since rejected plans for the second phase of the probe.

As of August 11, CGTN, People’s Daily, and China Daily all appeared to have removed references to Edwards from their articles, while the Global Times removed an article by CGTN from its site altogether.

The removed article, entitled ‘Covid-19 origin tracing: Claim emerges of “intimidation” from the US,’ was last accessible on the Global Times on Tuesday afternoon. Copies were still available via Google’s cache tool.

HKFP reached out to the outlets for comment.

The debacle is the latest development in an ongoing dispute between China and the US about the origins of the coronavirus, in which both sides have claimed the virus was leaked from a lab on the other’s soil.

Although state media outlets have either deleted or removed references on their reports to ‘Wilson Edwards’, Hu Xijin, the chief editor of Global Times, wrote a Chinese post on Weibo arguing that the biologist was using a pseudonym for protection:

那个账号使用化名,这远没有一些人所说的那么重要,这在互联网时代是披露内情者常用的自我保护方法之一。最重要的是,那篇文章讲的事情是不是真的。当然了,如果该文作者能够署上真名,文章的冲击力会更大,但如果他说的都是真的,就是不敢署真名,传递给我们的额外信息就是:美国的打压太严厉了,围绕溯源问题上已经在西方形成了广泛的寒蝉效应,没有人或者很少有人敢使用真名说真话了。

The pseudo account is not that important; it is a self-protection measure adopted by whistleblowers in the Internet era. What matters most is the validity of the content. Of course, if the writer can use a real name, the post would have a more significant impact. But if what he said is real, but he dare not use his real name, the incident reveals that the influence of the U.S is too repressive that it has resulted in a silencing effect in Western society. As a result, very few dare to use real names to speak the truth.

This is not the first time Beijing has relied on Western ‘expert’ personas to bolster its narrative.

In April, a CGTN article written by a French journalist named Laurene Beaumond disputed reports of mass human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang region. Beaumond had allegedly lived in the region for years.

French paper Le Monde later ran an article saying that no French reporter by that name existed. In response, the Global Times published a piece asserting that the journalist was a real person using a pseudonym and demanded Le Monde apologize.

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