BEIJING -- An international mission tasked with finding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic stumbled before it even began, after Beijing on Wednesday (January 6) denied entry to the World Health Organisation (WHO) team at the last minute despite months of painstaking negotiations.
Ten specialists were due to arrive in China this week in a trip trailed by accusations of cover-ups, conspiracy and fears of a whitewash.
Some of the analysts already had set off for China, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
"I am very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute," he told reporters in Geneva, in a rare rebuke of Beijing from the UN body.
Another WHO official tried to give Beijing the benefit of the doubt, saying the problem is a lack of visa clearances, however the delays are "not just a visa issue", Beijing said January 6.
Talks are continuing between the two sides over "the specific date and specific arrangement of the expert group's visit", Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.
"The issue of origin-tracing is incredibly complicated," she said. "To ensure the work of the international expert team in China goes smoothly, we have to carry out necessary procedures and make relevant arrangements."
The country is "doing its best to create good conditions for the international expert group to come to China", she said.
Controlling the origin story
The Chinese regime is determined to control the origin story of the virus, which has killed more than 1.8 million people around the world and laid waste to global economies.
The first cases of the coronavirus were recorded in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, prompting accusations of chaotic, secretive handling by Chinese authorities that led to its spread beyond their shores.
In early 2020, the Chinese, knowing a deadly outbreak was afoot, said nothing for almost a week, allowing the virus to take hold in Wuhan and spread across the world, while deliberately suppressing or destroying evidence of the outbreak.
The origins of COVID-19 remain bitterly contested, lost in a fog of recriminations and conjecture from the international community -- as well as obfuscation from Chinese authorities determined to keep control of the virus narrative.
The virus jumped to humans at a market selling exotic animals for meat in the city of Wuhan, said scientists initially.
The market might not have been the origin of the outbreak but rather a place where it was amplified, scientists now say.
Just weeks before the WHO team was scheduled to start its investigation, a Shanghai court sentenced a Chinese journalist to four years in jail for her reporting about the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in China.
Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, was sentenced December 28 at a brief hearing in a Shanghai court for allegedly "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" during her reporting in the chaotic initial stages of the outbreak.
Her live reports and essays were shared on social media platforms in February, grabbing the attention of authorities, who, in defanging criticism of the government's response to the outbreak, have punished eight virus whistleblowers so far.
Beijing has congratulated itself for "extraordinary" success in controlling the virus inside its borders, with an economy on the rebound while much of the rest of the world continues to stutter through painful lockdowns and surging caseloads.
Controlling the information flow during the unprecedented global health crisis has been pivotal in allowing China's communist authorities to reframe the narrative in their favour, with President Xi Jinping being garlanded for his leadership by the country's ruling party.
China's communist authorities have a history of putting dissidents on trial in opaque courts between Christmas and New Year in an effort to minimise Western scrutiny.
Casting doubt on the truth
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Beijing has been attempting to cast doubts on the origins of the virus.
The state-run People's Daily newspaper, for instance, said in a Facebook post in early November that "all available evidence suggests that the coronavirus did not start in central China's Wuhan".
Also in November, Beijing was quick to spin a study in an Italian medical journal that posited that the COVID-19 coronavirus was circulating in Italy as early as September 2019, eliminating key details of the research conclusions and using sketchy science to reinforce doubts over the origins of the outbreak.
The reality is that all evidence points to Wuhan, China, as the epicentre of the global crisis.
Since the beginning of the crisis, Beijing has been actively attempting to deflect criticism of its role in the pandemic by promoting conspiracy theories and has been caught flooding the news and social media with blatant disinformation about the virus.
As part of those efforts, the Chinese regime has been actively pushing the narrative of its "heroic deeds" in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic despite its role in spreading the pandemic and covering up its role in the crisis.
The National Museum of China in August opened up an exhibit, "Unity of Strength", which showcased paintings, sculptures and calligraphy that depict what the regime says is its success in responding to the crisis.
Chinese state media also have been intent on showing the world that the country has moved on from the coronavirus pandemic, but countries continuing to suffer under strict lockdowns as COVID-19 continues to circulate are viewing the media campaign with exasperation.
Beijing has tried to enhance its soft power push during the pandemic -- promising to share its vaccines with developing countries, and engaging in "vaccine diplomacy".