The Chinese Communist Party doesn't really care where you think COVID-19 came from. Its problem is that what you think could become what the Chinese people think.
That goes double for the rising international suspicion that the virus escaped from a government laboratory in Wuhan. Widespread acceptance of that idea in China would be a propaganda disaster for the party.
When trying to understand China's behaviour, never forget that nothing is more important to the CCP than keeping the CCP in power. This partly explains its extreme reaction last year to Australia's call for an international inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.
Don't be surprised if there is more over-the-top CCP reaction as foreign governments and experts keep trying to get to the bottom of why the world has been in misery since early 2020.
In January and February last year, the party faced its greatest propaganda crisis in decades as news of the outbreak, deaths, cover-ups and official incompetence burst across the country.
Outraged public opinion was just about beyond the control of the CCP's maestros of brainwashing. The country was suffering a catastrophe, and everyone knew the government had at least made it worse. More seriously, this failure had imperilled the health, even lives, of the people - just the sort of issue that in the past had repeatedly caused spasms of public anger at the CCP.
Ah, but what maestros they are! Propaganda officials first let the anger bubble, rather than try to suppress it; they evidently judged that the country needed to blow off steam.
It worked. Dissatisfaction declined to a simmer as a severe lockdown distracted attention and as the government, quite rightly, urged everyone to work together. Effective measures brought the contagion under control with impressive speed, creating public satisfaction and a sense of national achievement.
Then came the crucial new government message: COVID-19 might not have originated in China, and, actually, it probably didn't. So China was just another victim. This idea was naturally agreeable to the audience.
So, by April last year, I would meet no one in China who still griped much about the party's performance in the pandemic. And anyone hearing a reference to "the Wuhan virus" would be briefly speechless, so outrageous and unacceptable was the concept.
Now, if you were the CCP and had achieved that level of thought control, would you want to let foreigners mess it all up?
The danger to the party of renewed dissatisfaction still lurks, partly because there is still an old wound that could be reopened. People have not forgotten the wicked initial handling of the outbreak, including politically driven arrests of doctors who tried to warn of contagion.
More serious for the party is the risk of the country suffering a colossal loss of face. China is increasingly brash and confident, but, far more than most foreigners realise, it craves admiration. The Chinese people would be mortified if they thought their country had caused a global calamity.
Ideas floating around the outside world are a problem for the party because the Great Firewall of China is not at all leakproof, and some Chinese are diligent in trying to burrow through it, usually by using internet services called virtual private networks. Also, rumours can spread, even if masses of internet monitors eliminate undesirable posts on social media services such as WeChat.
For 16 months, the party must have been uncomfortable enough with the outside world assuming that SARS-CoV-2 jumped from animals to people in China - quite plausibly because the country had failed to stop trade in wild-game meat, long regarded as a risk factor for causing a pandemic.
But if the virus leaked from a Chinese state laboratory, then the government is directly to blame. Worse, the organisation that is the focus of these growing suspicions, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is no obscure, minor outfit. It's attached to the prestigious and famous Chinese Academy of Sciences, the top of the country's scientific hierarchy.
And, the US says, the institute is connected to the military, which everyone in China is supposed to revere.
The economic hammering that Australia got from China after calling for an international inquiry was perhaps predictable (though I can't claim to have predicted it). The CCP knew it would be hard to discredit an adverse report from the World Health Organization.
As it turned out, the party could ensure that the WHO came up with nothing uncomfortably definite (as plenty of people did predict).
Foreign intelligence agencies are not within the party's control, however, least of all those of the US, the initial source of the key evidence of viral leak from the institute: that three of its employees fell sick with COVID-19 symptoms in November 2019.
But last year's call for an investigation is only one reason why Australia's relations with China have dropped so low.
To Beijing, it was a fourth serious instance in which Australia was guiding world opinion and action against China's interests. The others were the banning of telecommunications equipment maker Huawei from the National Broadband Network in 2012, then from the 5G network in 2018, as well as the crackdown in 2018 on foreign attempts at manipulating Australian politics.
Officials in Beijing were no doubt fed up with Australia, and wanted to make an example of it. How displeased they must be that, so far, they have been unable to cause much pain here.
A tricky problem will emerge when Chinese business people, tourists and students start heading abroad again in large numbers. They will sometimes chat to the locals and find, to their consternation, that these people think the world's suffering came from China; some of the locals will bluntly say that they blame China for it.
I can see a few unpleasant arguments erupting.
Also, Chinese people sitting in their foreign hotel rooms and watching local Mandarin-language television (always intriguing for them) will pick up the same message.
The CCP is probably in no rush to reopen international travel.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
- This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.