The European Union watered down criticism of China in a report about the use of disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic because of pushback from Communist Party in Beijing, according to several reports.
European officials delayed and then rewrote the report to weaken the focus on China, taking a much more muted approach than the Trump administration, which has blasted the Chinese ruling Communist Party for not accurately reporting the number of cases and failing to alert other nations about the severity of the outbreak, the New York Times and Axios reported.
The initial report, which the Times obtained last week, included a roundup of publicly available information and news reports.
It noted the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to reduce mentions of how the virus began in the city of Wuhan, blame the US for spreading the disease globally, and accuse France of responding too late to COVID-19.
“China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image,” the initial report said, according to the Times. “Both overt and covert tactics have been observed.”
But China, a crucial trading partner, moved to block the report’s release and the European Union relented.
“The Chinese are already threatening with reactions if the report comes out,” Lutz Güllner, a European Union diplomat, wrote last week in an email seen by The Times.
The mention of China’s “global disinformation” campaign and other language was toned down when the report was issued on Friday.
It had been scheduled to be released last Tuesday.
The blowback from China “allowed the EEAS to get played in the worst possible way. This outcome is better for China than even if the EEAS had published a highly sanitized version of the report to begin with,” a person with knowledge of the situation told Axios. “That’s the disinformation win that should have been avoided.”
The reference was to the European External Action Service, which acts as the EU’s foreign ministry and publishes regular updates about disinformation aimed at the EU.
Yang Xiaoguang told a delegation from the EEAS in Beijing early last week that if the report was published China would be “very angry,” according to documents obtained by Axios.
Yang denied China was spreading disinformation.
Wang Lutong, a Chinese foreign ministry official, told an EEAS official in Beijing on April 21 that if the EU publicly called out China like the US has, then China would push back against the EU the way it has against the US, Axios reported.
EEAS spokesperson Peter Stano told Axios “the publication of our regular findings and overviews or their updates, the timing and content are not determined by any outside factors.”
He would not comment on the diplomatic maneuvers.
Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament and vice chair of the parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the People’s Republic of China, told Axios that the revisions were made because EEAS officials wanted to be extra careful with a report they knew would be highly scrutinized, not because of pressure from China.
The EEAS staff had decided to “check and make sure” they were “on solid ground,” Bütikofer said.