While Chinese and World Health Organization experts continue to search for the source of a new strain of bird flu that has infected at least 23 and led to seven deaths in eastern China, one senior Chinese military official says he knows what’s going on.
According to Dai Xu, a Chinese Air Force colonel and military strategist, the H7N9 virus is part of a U.S. conspiracy to sow panic in the world’s most populous nation that Chinese authorities should simply ignore.
A hawkish commentator known for making inflammatory statements, Col. Dai publicized his bird flu theory in a message posted to the popular Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo late Saturday night. The post, since forwarded more than 30,000 times, goes as follows:
As for this recent bird flu fad, China’s top government departments shouldn’t talk it up, otherwise it will be just like SARS in 2003! At the time, the U.S. was fighting Iraq and feared China might take advantage of the situation, so it deployed a bio-psychological weapon against China. The country was thrown into turmoil, just as the U.S. had hoped. Now, the U.S. is trying the same old trick. China should take a lesson from before and respond calmly.
An earlier version of the post, since deleted but preserved in screenshots by multiple other users, ended on a different note: “A few may die, but that’s not even one-thousandth of the deaths from car accidents in China.”
Col. Dai came under an almost immediate barrage of mockery and criticism from other microbloggers angry at him for making light of a potential epidemic. Among them was former Google China head Kai-fu Lee, who zeroed in on the car-accident death benchmark. “So then isn’t the invention of cars by Germany and the U.S. a conspiracy a thousand times as large?” he wrote on Sina Weibo, appending an animated nose-picking emoticon.
The comments even drew criticism from Hu Xijin, the usually hawkish editor of the Global Times newspaper, where Col. Dai works as a columnist. While saying military officials should in general be encouraged to express their views, Mr. Hu said he didn’t side with the colonel. “I don’t agree with Dai Xu’s take on H7N9 bird flu. I think what he said is too superficial and I don’t believe his analysis,” the editor wrote. “His image and reputation will pay a price.”
Col. Dai stood firm in the face of opposition, addressing his critics in a series of defiant posts over the weekend. “To demonstrate my contempt for the bird flu and for you, I ate half a Daokou-style braised chicken yesterday,” he wrote in one riposte on Sunday.
The colonel’s conspiracy theory didn’t come up at a joint news conference hosted by the World Health Organization and China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) in Beijing on Monday, though officials there promoted the same basic message: Don’t get too worked up.
“We really only have sporadic cases of a rare disease,” WHO China mission representative Michael O’Leary told reporters, emphasizing that authorities had yet to find a case of human-to-human H7N9 transmission. “This is not a time for overreaction or panic.”
Mr. O’Leary said the WHO was in talks with China about sending a team of experts to provide on-the-ground assistance in investigating the disease, but added that the offer of help was not a reflection of any failure by China in handling the situation. He said the WHO was “very satisfied and pleased” with the level of co-operation it had seen from Chinese authorities.
China has begun “basic research” into a H7N9 vaccine but would only push to produce a vaccine if evidence emerged that the virus had become capable of jumping from person to person, said Liang Wannian, director of the NHFPC’s H7N9 prevention and control office. “We are confident we can keep the disease under control,” he said.
[UPDATE, April 9, 3:00pm: Sticking by his guns, Dai Xu set off a new round of guffaws on Tuesday, calling for the death those had previously criticized him. “I said those creatures attacking me are dogs,” he wrote in a post on Sina Weibo that has since been deleted. “If they’re not spitting nonsense, they’re doling out insults – completely impervious to reason. They should be killed!”]