One of China Global Television Network’s most recent ads on Facebook is of an interview that the state-controlled propaganda network conducted about the coronavirus pandemic with the editor of The Lancet, one of the world’s top medical journals.
The editor, Richard Horton, largely praised the Chinese government’s response to the pandemic while blasting the U.S. in the May 2020 interview, which garnered around 900,000 impressions at a cost of around $500, according to Facebook data.
“I think we have a great deal to thank China for, about the way that it handled the outbreak,” Horton said in the interview.
Horton, who is British, also criticized U.S. politicians for “being so openly critical” of China and the World Health Organization.
“The U.S. has wasted the whole of February and early March, said Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet,” reads the caption from CGTN, which the U.S. government requires to register as a foreign agent of China.
“He said it is disappointing to see American politicians giving credence to conspiracy theories and promoting unproven treatments,” the CGTN caption also said.
Horton’s remarks may not be a surprise given his past praise for Beijing.
In 2015, China’s State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA) gave Horton its Friendship Award for his “enthusiastic support for China’s construction” and for his “friendly co-operation.”
Despite the bland bureaucratic name, the now-defunct SAFEA was the agency tasked with recruiting foreign experts and scientists to work for the Chinese government.
It oversaw China’s “Thousand Talents Program,” which the Chinese government has allegedly used to steal trade and military secrets from companies and governments in the U.S. and other Western countries.
On Sept. 13, 2019, federal prosecutors in New York indicted Zhongsan Liu, an official with the China Association for International Exchange of Personnel, which was the foreign arm of SAFEA, on charges that he conspired to mislead U.S. immigration officials to obtain visas for Chinese government employees.
An official with SAFEA was also named a co-conspirator in an espionage case in which a defense contractor was sentenced to 32 years in prison for selling cruise missile technology to the Chinese government.
SAFEA also worked to recruit experts to help develop China’s health care system.
Horton wrote for the Lancet in November 2016 that SAFEA invited the journal earlier that year to a conference on China’s health system.
In March 2016, a website for China’s State Council Information Office, its foreign propaganda agency, reported that Horton had attended a symposium for SAFEA and contributed to a report released to the Chinese government.
Meanwhile, Horton’s remarks regarding the coronavirus pandemic — and China’s response to it — carry significant weight, largely because of The Lancet’s position as perhaps the world’s premier medical journal. The journal partners with international health agencies, universities and nonprofit groups across the world to study a variety of health issues.
Its influence was on display in May 2020 when the journal published a study that said the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine caused serious illness when used to treat coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) paused a clinical trial of the drug in response to the findings.
But the saga proved embarrassing for The Lancet after other researchers pointed to significant flaws in the data used for the research.
The journal was forced to retract the study, leading to a wave of negative media coverage.
Like Horton, Sachs has a history of taking pro-Beijing positions on trade and health issues. He served as an adviser for a Chinese government economic committee in 2001 and 2002 and advised the United Nations until 2018, according to his resume.
One member of the Lancet commission is Peter Daszak, a zoologist who was the only American on a WHO mission to investigate the origins of the virus in Wuhan last month.
Both Sachs and Daszak dismissed a theory that the virus began as a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some U.S. officials have asserted that the virus may have started from a leak and that the Chinese government has covered it up in order to avoid embarrassment.
Though the WHO and the Lancet COVID-19 Commission have said that they will investigate all origin theories without bias, both Daszak and Sachs long ago dismissed the possibility of a lab leak.
In February 2020, Daszak organized more than two dozen scientists to sign a letter published in The Lancet that called the lab leak hypothesis a “conspiracy theory.” In September, Sachs called the theory “dangerous.”
Chinese government officials have also publicly denied the lab leak theory.
Horton’s pro-China remarks both before and during the pandemic have made him popular with China’s media agencies and the government.
The friendship medal he received in September 2015 is the “highest prize” that the Chinese government awards to foreign experts, according to China’s State Council.
In 2014, Horton met with Li Bin, a Communist party official who oversaw China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, the agency that enforced China’s “one child” policy.
The government began rolling back the policy in 2013.
Horton has appeared multiple times during the pandemic on China’s propaganda news networks, including CGTN.
In a July 17, 2020, interview with CGTN, Horton said it was “completely wrong” to say that China failed to warn the rest of the world early on in the pandemic.
“China is not the problem, and WHO is not the problem,” he said.
Horton’s comments in other venues have been picked up by China’s state-controlled media.
In April 2020, Horton called President Donald Trump’s threats to pull funding from WHO because of its close relationship with China a “crime against humanity.”
President Trump’s decision to defund WHO is simply this—a crime against humanity. Every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity. https://t.co/7hTwUZ4lJV
— richard horton (@richardhorton1) April 14, 2020
In an interview this month, Horton denied that China “deliberately lied” to the international community in the early days of the pandemic and said that the world owes China a “debt of gratitude” for how it handled the outbreak.
He accused other countries of “xenophobia” and “racism” for blaming China for the outbreak.
“It’s very easy to blame another country to deflect responsibility from your own government,” he said.
Horton’s emphatic defense of China’s pandemic response puts him at odds with other health experts who have said that Beijing withheld key information about the virus early on in the outbreak. Chinese government officials have also released misinformation aimed at deflecting blame for the virus.
Chinese authorities continued to claim through at least mid-January 2020 that the coronavirus from Wuhan was not transmissible between people.
That assurance prompted the WHO on Jan. 14, 2020, to tweet the now-debunked claim that the virus did not spread through human-to-human contact.
Chinese government operatives also pushed false theories in mid-March 2020 that the U.S. military created the virus and released it in China.
Horton has offered some slight criticism of how local Chinese authorities responded to the virus outbreak in Wuhan.
In his book “The COVID-19 Catastrophe,” Horton wrote that “there are legitimate questions the Chinese government must answer. There is a gap in the timeline of the pandemic outbreak.”
He also questioned whether local officials told Beijing about the outbreak, and whether Beijing was “complicit in playing down the significance of the outbreak.”
Horton also questioned why the Chinese government told the WHO on Jan. 11, 2020, that new cases of COVID-19 hadn’t been detected since Jan. 3.
Despite that critique, Horton said in his interview last month that he did not believe that the Chinese government “deliberately lied to the international community.”
He said local officials “took steps that were completely designed to suppress discussion of the outbreak,” but asserted that that was “very different from saying that the government deliberately tried to mislead the international community.”
The Lancet did not respond to a request for comment.