China Peddles Russia's Claim That U.S. Has Bioweapons in Ukraine

China, ostensibly neutral on Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, took a significant step into Moscow's camp on Tuesday when a government official repeated a Russian conspiracy theory about the existence of U.S.-funded biological weapons in the country.

At a regular press briefing in Beijing, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, read out a Russian media report about the alleged discovery of a "military biological program" in Ukraine in the days after the large-scale offensive began.

The United States should publicly disclose information about its biological research facilities in the country, Zhao said.

It comes less than 24 hours after Chinese state broadcaster CGTN published a report by Russia's Defense Ministry, whose spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said on Sunday that Russian forces had found evidence of attempts by Ukraine to destroy traces of bioweapons, including "lethal pathogens" allegedly used as part of a "military biological program financed by the U.S. Department of Defense in Ukraine."

Russia's TASS agency quoted Konashenkov as saying Moscow had information that hazardous pathogens including plague, anthrax, cholera and tularemia had been destroyed.

The U.S. government has warned since before the invasion began about Russian officials and media spreading disinformation that could be used as a pretext to attack Ukraine, and has said that allegations that the U.S. or Ukraine were developing biological or chemical weapons in the country were completely false.

Zhao said recent reports of American bio labs in Ukraine had "indeed attracted a lot of attention" due to the "large number of dangerous viruses" stored there, calling the discovery "the tip of the iceberg."

China Peddles Russian Conspiracy About U.S. Bioweapons
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian speaks at the daily media briefing in Beijing, China, on April 8, 2020. Zhao repeated a Russian conspiracy theory about the existence of U.S.-funded bioweapons in Ukraine during a press conference in Beijing, China, on March 8, 2022, on the 13th day of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

"Given the current situation, bearing in mind the health and safety of people in Ukraine, the surrounding areas and even around the world, we call on all relevant parties to ensure the safety of these laboratories," he said. "In particular, the U.S., as the party that knows these laboratories the best, should publish relevant specific details as soon as possible, including the types of pathogens stored and the research conducted."

Zhao's response was reported by TASS in a classic case of disinformation recycling. A report on Monday by the Atlantic Council think tank's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) had picked the familiar story apart, saying the Kremlin was rehashing old narratives to claim Ukraine was constructing dirty bombs and bioweapons.

The DFRLab report said Moscow had a long history of accusing the West of developing biological agents, dating back to the Cold War, and that the Kremlin has repeatedly used forged documents, including false signatures, as part of previous disinformation campaigns.

The Kremlin has been laying the groundwork for its Ukraine-based conspiracy theories for some time, according to U.S. intelligence that had predicted likely "false-flag" narratives as a pretext for invasion. Already a week earlier, pro-Russian channels on messaging service Telegram had circulated a wild QAnon theory that painted Putin's war as an effort to strike at non-existent bioweapon facilities supposedly run by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Nearly two weeks into the war, China continues to say that its position on the conflict is based on the merits of the situation. It has not offered its outright support to Putin, but it has come down hard against the U.S. and NATO's presence in Eastern Europe.

The ease with which Beijing began to peddle Moscow's bioweapon conspiracy this week also fits nicely with its unsuccessful attempts to propagate the idea that COVID-19 originated in an American military research facility in Maryland. Russia collaborated with China to promote the alternate "lab leak" theory last year.

A U.S. intelligence report last year into whether COVID could have been accidentally released from a lab in Wuhan, China, came back inconclusive.