Dr. Li-Meng Yan wanted to remain anonymous. It was mid-January, and Yan, a researcher in Hong Kong, had been hearing rumors about a dangerous new virus in mainland China that the government was playing down. Terrified for her personal safety and career, she reached out to her favorite Chinese YouTube host, known for criticizing the Chinese government.
Within days, the host was telling his 100,000 followers that the coronavirus had been deliberately released by the Chinese Communist Party. He wouldn’t name the whistleblower, he said, because officials could make the person “disappear.”
By September, Yan had abandoned caution. She appeared in the United States on Fox News, making the unsubstantiated claim to millions that the coronavirus was a bioweapon manufactured by China.
Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times
Overnight, Yan became a right-wing media sensation, with top advisers to President Donald Trump and conservative pundits hailing her as a hero. Nearly as quickly, her interview was labeled on social media as containing “false information,” while scientists rejected her research as a polemic dressed up in jargon.
Her evolution was the product of a collaboration between two separate but increasingly allied groups that peddle misinformation: a small but active corner of the Chinese diaspora and the highly influential far right in the United States.
Each saw an opportunity in the pandemic to push its agenda. For the diaspora, Yan and her unfounded claims provided a cudgel for those intent on bringing down China’s government. For American conservatives, they played to rising anti-Chinese sentiment and distracted from the Trump administration’s bungled handling of the outbreak.
Both sides took advantage of the dearth of information coming out of China, where the government has refused to share samples of the virus and has resisted a transparent, independent investigation. Its initial cover-up of the outbreak has further fueled suspicion about the origins of the virus.
An overwhelming body of evidence shows that the virus almost certainly originated in an animal, most likely a bat, before evolving to make the leap into humans. While U.S. intelligence agencies have not ruled out the possibility of a lab leak, they have not found any proof to back up that theory.
Yan’s trajectory was carefully crafted by Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese billionaire, and Steve Bannon, a former adviser to Trump.
They put Yan on a plane to the United States, gave her a place to stay, coached her on media appearances and helped her secure interviews with popular conservative television hosts like Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, who have shows on Fox. They nurtured her seemingly deep belief that the virus was genetically engineered, uncritically embracing what she provided as proof.
“I said from Day 1, there’s no conspiracies,” Bannon said in an interview. “But there are also no coincidences.”
Bannon noted that unlike Yan, he did not believe the Chinese government “purposely did this.” But he has pushed the theory about an accidental leak of risky laboratory research and has been intent on creating a debate about the new coronavirus’s origins.
“Dr. Yan is one small voice, but at least she’s a voice,” he said.
The media outlets that cater to the Chinese diaspora — a jumble of independent websites, YouTube channels and Twitter accounts with anti-Beijing leanings — have formed a fast-growing echo chamber for misinformation. With few reliable Chinese-language news sources to fact-check them, rumors can quickly harden into a distorted reality. Increasingly, they are feeding and being fed by far-right American media.
Wang Dinggang, the YouTube host contacted by Yan and a close associate of Guo, appears to have been the first to seed rumors related to Hunter Biden, a son of President-elect Joe Biden. A site owned by Guo amplified the baseless claims about Hunter Biden’s involvement in a child abuse conspiracy. They were picked up by Infowars and other fringe U.S. outlets. Bannon, Wang and Guo are now all promoting the false idea that the presidential election was rigged.
Big technology companies have started to push back, as Facebook and Twitter try to better police content. Twitter permanently banned one of Bannon’s accounts for violating its rules on glorifying violence after he suggested on his podcast that the heads of the FBI director and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, should be put on pikes.
But such mainstream notoriety has only bolstered their anti-establishment credentials. Wang’s YouTube following has nearly doubled since January. Traffic for two of Guo’s websites soared to more than 135 million last month, up from fewer than 5 million visits last December, according to SimilarWeb, an online data provider. Many conservatives who claim Facebook and Twitter censor right-wing voices are flocking to new social media platforms such as Parler — and Yan, Wang and Guo have already joined them.
Yan, through representatives for Bannon and Guo, declined multiple requests for an interview. So did Wang, citing The New York Times’ “reputation for fake news.”
In a statement sent through a lawyer, Guo said he had only offered “encouragement” for Yan’s efforts “to stand up against the CCP mafia and tell the world the truth about COVID-19.”
“I would gladly assist others seeking to tell the world the truth,” he said.
As the new year began, Wang was doing what he did best: attacking the Chinese Communist Party on YouTube. He railed against China’s crackdown on Muslims and pontificated on the U.S. trade war.
Then on Jan. 19, he suddenly shifted to the emerging outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. It was early in the crisis, before the lockdown in the city, before China had disclosed that the virus was spreading among humans, before the world was paying attention.
In an 80-minute show devoted to an unnamed whistleblower, Wang said that he had heard from “the world’s absolute top coronavirus expert,” who had told him China was not being transparent. “I think this is very believable and very scary,” he said.
Wang, who was a businessman in China before moving to the United States for unknown reasons, is part of a growing group of commentators who have emerged on the Chinese-language internet. Their shows, which mix punditry, serious analysis and outright rumor, cater to a diaspora that often does not trust Chinese state media and has few reliable sources of news in its native language.
Since starting his program several years ago, Wang, who broadcasts under the name Lu De, has emerged as one of the genre’s most popular personalities, in part for his embrace of outlandish theories. He has accused Chinese officials of using “sex and seduction” to entrap enemies, and urged his audience to hoard food in preparation for the Communist Party’s collapse.
His January show on the unnamed whistleblower combined the same elements of fact and fiction. He called his source, later revealed to be Yan, an expert but greatly exaggerated her credentials.
She had studied influenza before the outbreak but not coronaviruses. She did work at one of the world’s top virology labs, at the University of Hong Kong, but was fairly new to the field and hired for her experience with lab animals, according to two university employees who knew her. She helped investigate the new outbreak but was not overseeing the effort.
The episode caught the attention of Bannon, who said he started worrying about the virus when China began locking down. Someone, he didn’t say who, pointed out the show and translated it.
A few months later, Wang suddenly told Yan to flee Hong Kong for her safety, he explained in later broadcasts. Guo, his primary patron, paid for her to fly first class, he added.
On April 28, Yan quietly left for the airport. Her family and friends panicked but could not reach her, said Jean-Marc Cavaillon, a retired professor of immunology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris who has known Yan since 2017. A missing persons report was filed in Hong Kong.
Two weeks later, she resurfaced in the United States.
“I’m currently in New York, very safe and relaxed” with the “best bodyguards and lawyers,” Yan wrote on WeChat, in a screenshot seen by The Times. “What I’m doing now is helping the whole world take control of the pandemic.”
After Yan arrived in the United States, Bannon, Guo and their allies immediately set out to package her as a whistleblower they could sell to the American public.
They installed her in a “safe house” outside of New York City and hired lawyers, Bannon said. They found her a media coach, since English is not her first language. Bannon also asked her to submit multiple papers summarizing her purported evidence, Yan later said.
“Make sure you can walk people through this logically,” Bannon recalled telling her. Read from source….