Two state-backed Chinese lawyers have brought lawsuits against the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other U.S. departments, alleging that they "covered up" the emergence of the coronavirus.
The claims are in line with Beijing's attempt to change the narrative internationally about how the pandemic started.
Wuhan lawyer Liang Xuguang filed one lawsuit with the Wuhan Intermediate People’s Court against the U.S. Government, CDC, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Armed Forces Sports Council claiming damages of 200,000 yuan (around U.S.$28,000).
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants were responsible for lost wages and emotional harm because they "covered up" the alleged emergence of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 on U.S. soil.
"From Sept. 2019 to Mar. 2020, the U.S. Government and the CDC knowingly disclosed the wrong public health information in the name of “influenza” when some of the influenza patients were actually infected with some undetermined type of virus (which was later proved to be COVID-19)," the lawsuit, translated by the China Justice Observer (CJO) website, said.
The "cover-up" resulted in the global COVID-19 pandemic, in which Wuhan was one of the worst-hit regions, the lawsuit claimed.
Lawyers at the China Justice Observer said the case would likely be effectively referred to the Supreme People's Court in Beijing for a ruling, because sovereign states are generally immune from prosecution.
Beijing lawyer Chen Yueqin filed a similar lawsuit at the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court on Tuesday, calling for compensation for reputational damage done by President Donald Trump's use of the phrase "the Chinese virus" to describe the coronavirus.
'Too many clowns'
Rights lawyer Sui Muqing said the lawsuits are clearly serving the ruling Chinese Communist Party's agenda, regardless of the reasoning behind them.
"There are too many clowns in the legal profession," Sui said. "I don't know whether [Chen] is acting for someone powerful or simply showing patriotism."
"The main aim of the Chinese government in picking these fights is to make the Chinese people believe in them," he said.
Two lawsuits have also been filed against the Chinese government in the U.S., but China will enjoy sovereign immunity in that case too, according to an article by the CJO's Zheng Sophia Tang and Zhengxin Huo.
News of the lawsuits circulated on social media as Chinese premier Li Keqiang warned people to "seek truth from facts" when discussing the pandemic.
Warning of the peril of "chasing patient zero" while ignoring the potential danger of false negative testing, Li called for a "more sustainable mental attitude" when dealing with the coronavirus. His comments were carried on the front page of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, the People's Daily.
The authorities have also been blocking social media reports of a "patient zero" alleged to be a U.S. soldier, suggesting Beijing may be moving to distance itself from the conspiracy theories.
Social media reports continued to circulate of an alleged patient zero in northern Italy, however.
The post cited an Italian doctor, Giuseppe Remuzzi, who later said his comments had been taken out of context.
No doubt about Wuhan
Remuzzi said that the virus had first appeared in Wuhan, "beyond a shadow of a doubt."
Chinese health officials reported 67 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, which they said were all imported from overseas.
In worst-hit Wuhan, residents are skeptical that the figure of some 2,500 deaths in the city to date are accurate.
Wuhan resident Sun Linan said relatives of those who died are now forming long lines outside funeral homes to collect their loved ones' ashes.
"It has already begun," Sun said. "There were people lining up in Biandanshan Cemetery yesterday, and a lot of people forming lines today at Hankou Funeral Home."
A resident surnamed Zhang confirmed the report, saying families began receiving notification on Monday.
Wuhan resident Chen Yaohui told RFA that city officials have been handing out 3,000 yuan in "funeral allowances" to the families of the dead in exchange for their silence.
"There have been a lot of funerals in the past few days, and the authorities are handing out 3,000 yuan in hush money to families who get their loved ones' remains laid to rest ahead of Qing Ming," he said, in a reference to the traditional grave-tending festival on April 5.
"It's to stop them keening [a traditional expression of grief]; nobody's allowed to keen after Qing Ming has passed," Chen said.
Too many funerals
The son of deceased COVID-10 patient Hu Aizhen said he had been told to collect his mother's ashes by the local neighborhood committee.
"The local committee told me they are now handling funerals, but I don't want to do it right now," the man, surnamed Ding, told RFA.
"There are too many people doing it right now."
Wuhan resident Chen Yaohui said nobody in the city believes the official death toll.
"The official number of deaths was 2,500 people ... but before the epidemic began, the city's crematoriums typically cremated around 220 people a day," he said.
"But during the epidemic, they transferred cremation workers from around China to Wuhan keep cremate bodies around the clock," he said.
A resident surnamed Gao said the city's seven crematoriums should have a capacity of around 2,000 bodies a day if they worked around the clock.
"Anyone looking at that figure will realize, anyone with any ability to think," Gao said. "What are they talking about 2,805 people?"
"Seven crematoriums could get through more than that [in a single day]."
Reported by Ng Yik-tung, Ho Shan and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.