China’s ambassador in the United States has denounced speculation on the origin of the coronavirus after his fellow diplomats openly promoted dubious information about the pandemic. Ambassador Cui Tiankai said speculating about the origin of the virus was “harmful” during an interview on US television programme Axios on HBO , filmed last Tuesday and broadcast on Sunday. He distanced himself from claims made by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian that the virus may have originated in the US. “Eventually, we must have an answer to where the virus originally came [from],” Cui said. “But this is a job for the scientists to do, not for diplomats, not for journalists to speculate, because such speculation will help nobody.” The comments represent an oblique rebuke of fellow Chinese diplomats who spread unproven claims that the US may have been responsible for starting the global pandemic. Cui made the comment after Zhao, the most active tweeter in the Chinese government, triggered an uproar by saying on Twitter that the US military may have brought the coronavirus to China. Several other Chinese diplomats, including the Chinese ambassadors to South Africa and Egypt, have retweeted Zhao’s posts suggesting the virus had an American origin. The US State Department summoned Cui on March 13 to protest about Zhao’s claim that the US army may have brought the virus to China. China’s top diplomats ramp up defence of Beijing amid coronavirus crisis American and Chinese politicians have increasingly engaged in a blame game over the virus, which has infected more than 340,000 people globally. The Donald Trump administration has pushed US officials to hold Beijing liable for the pandemic, citing Chinese authorities’ early missteps in responding to the crisis, according to American news and opinion website The Daily Beast. Trump himself has insisted on referring to the “Chinese virus” , defying the World Health Organisation’s 2015 warning against naming a pathogen after a nationality or location. In February, US Senator Tom Cotton and several Republican lawmakers gave voice to a fringe theory that the coronavirus could have come from China’s bioweapon programme. Cui called those remarks “crazy” and Cotton later retracted the statement. It is rare for Chinese diplomats to openly disagree with each other. Analysts said Cui’s remarks suggested that Zhao’s aggressive tweets may have prompted criticism within China’s diplomacy team. “Cui is China’s US ambassador, and his interest is in ensuring stable bilateral relations,” Adam Ni, diplomacy analyst and director at the Australia-based China Policy Centre, said. Defying Beijing, Trump doubles down on ‘Chinese virus’ label for Covid-19 Other diplomats, Ni said, were focused on “pushing forward a particular narrative in support of China’s external propaganda efforts”. During the interview, Cui was asked whether he had ever asked Zhao for evidence behind the claims that the coronavirus may have come from the US. “Maybe you could go and ask him,” Cui said. “I’m here representing my head of state and my government, not any particular individual.” Zhao Tong, a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said it would be difficult for Cui to criticise Zhao explicitly, given the anti-US rhetoric that is dominant in the Chinese government. “Such extreme speech no doubt has very negative implications for China’s diplomacy and soft power,” the analyst said. “But the current environment does not allow different opinions to be voiced.” With rising nationalism in China, Zhao Tong said it was likely that some seasoned diplomats had posted aggressive tweets designed to further their careers. Over the weekend, Zhao Lijian – who has nearly 470,000 Twitter followers – fired off a series of tweets suggesting the possibility that Covid-19 had been spreading in the US before it was reported in China in December. “I really think Covid-19 has been here in America for a while. Do you guys remember how sick everyone was during the holidays/early January?” he quoted Twitter user The Lizard King as saying. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.