On 12 March last year, I texted a trusted source connected to Australia’s foreign intelligence agency. ‘What do you think about the theory that the virus came from a virology lab in China? Does that have credibility? I know it’s officially a conspiracy theory but China is not exactly a picture of transparency so I thought it’s possible.’
He replied to say he knew someone ‘very involved in the observation of that lab and its activities’ and it was a definite possibility the virus leaked from the facility. It was a surprising response because, at the time, this view contradicted every utterance by scientists and world leaders, who insisted the virus had a natural origin. Most media outlets dismissed the lab-leak theory as a conspiracy.
A month after this exchange, I confirmed and reported on a global scoop for my paper in Australia, that the Five Eyes intelligence network of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were seriously examining the possibility of a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The story went global. For the following year, as I developed new sources around the world and unravelled the complexities of the Chinese Communist party’s suppression of the theory, I wrote a book on the topic and my reporting made me a target of the CCP.
There have been many personal attacks by the CCP newspaper Global Times, the English-language propaganda newspaper China Daily and the China Global Television Network, which have repeatedly tried to smear and discredit me. The Global Times called me a ‘bugler for American lies on China’. Another piece accused me of ‘fabricating anti-China rumours’ in order to ‘slander China’. China Daily said I had ‘helped to poison the international community’s rhetoric’. After the Australian foreign minister Marise Payne called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 in April last year, Chinese authorities claimed my stories were sanctioned by, or even commissioned by, the Australian government.
Perhaps most bizarrely, China Daily created a video about me, which it tweeted to its 4.2 million followers. The clip incorrectly claimed I was a ‘social butterfly in the right-wing circle’ who had ‘made big money and big fame’. China Daily reporters Xu Pan Yiru and Meng Zhe said: ‘If you think about the Wuhan lab-leak theory, you would probably think the US media played a major role in promoting the conspiracy. But as we look closer at the origin of Covid-19, we find actually it is an Australian journalist who has pushed the conspiracy.’
There have been hacking and malware attempts as well. My Wikipedia page is subject to constant trolling from IP addresses registered in China. The night after my first Wuhan scoop, I received anti-Semitic death threats that also targeted my family.
It wasn’t until I spoke with officials who had led intelligence agencies that I properly understood the motivation behind such a concerted campaign against me in the Chinese media. The former US secretary of state and CIA director Mike Pompeo told me that the CCP was desperate to control the narrative about how the virus began and to deflect any attention from the Wuhan lab.
‘The CCP disseminate information through their media outlets, the Global Times, China Daily, and all the organisations, the propaganda arms that you know. Their diplomats around the world share this with their international counterparts, all with the central message being driven from Beijing,’ he said. ‘It’s something that they have professionalised, they are very good at it, and this was an example of their capacity to flood the zone with a storyline and have that storyline become the narrative in the western media as well.’
His comments were supported by Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6. He told me that China was leading a ‘bloody outrageous global disinformation operation… You can bet your bottom dollar that the ministry of state security has been in control of the narrative from day one’.
‘This is what the CCP have spent decades since Tiananmen preparing for,’ says Matt Turpin, the White House’s former Director for China on the staff of the National Security Council. ‘They’ve got the influence and the media and propaganda apparatus to be able to control the story.’
As someone who became fodder for the Chinese propaganda machine, I certainly discovered this to be the case. But what I found most remarkable in the past 18 months was the number of western scientists, government officials and tech giants who willingly accepted the CCP line. In doing so, they not only helped push China’s narrative, but shamefully aided and abetted the CCP’s vituperative attacks on people like me who dared question that narrative.