China sidesteps spokesman's claim of U.S. role in coronavirus outbreak

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang sidestepped questions on Friday about whether Beijing blames the United States for the coronavirus, a day after another spokesman suggested the U.S. army could have planted it.

“The international community, including the U.S., have different opinions about the origin of the virus,” said Geng.

Geng did not directly comment when asked whether his colleague Zhao Lijian’s comments were consistent with Beijing’s official views on the virus, which first surfaced late last year in China’s central city of Wuhan and has now infected more than 100,000 people globally.

The origin of the virus is a scientific matter and as such scientific views should be listened to, said Geng.

On Thursday, Zhao tweeted in English and Chinese: “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 accompanied his post with a video of Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying that some Americans who had seemingly died from influenza later tested positive for the new coronavirus.

A hashtag referring to Zhao’s posts was trending on the Chinese social media platform Weibo on Friday with more than 89,000 mentions.

Zhao, an avid and often combative user of social media, debuted on Feb. 24 as the foreign ministry’s newest spokesperson. He was previously based at China’s embassy in Pakistan, a close ally of China.

Earlier on Thursday, his boss and the ministry’s top spokesperson Hua Chunying, retweeted the same video of Redfield and said “It is absolutely WRONG and INAPPROPRIATE to call this the Chinese coronavirus.”

Twitter is blocked in China, though Chinese diplomats have taken to the platform with increasing gusto, tweeting in English aiming at a foreign audience.

Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Writing by Se Young Lee and Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Peter Graff