China pressured EU to drop COVID disinformation criticism: sources

File photo. A member of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) wearing a protective face mask stands guard near the Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China, 11 March 2020. [Roman Pilipey/EPA/EFE]

China sought to block a European Union report alleging that Beijing was spreading disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak, according to four sources and diplomatic correspondence reviewed by Reuters.

The report was eventually released, albeit just before the start of the weekend Europe time and with some criticism of the Chinese government rearranged or removed, a sign of the balancing act Brussels is trying to pull off as the coronavirus outbreak scrambles international relations.

The Chinese Mission to the EU was not immediately available for comment and China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to faxed questions about the exchange. An EU spokeswoman said “we never comment on content or alleged content of internal diplomatic contacts and communication with our partners from another countries.” Another EU official Reuters said that the disinformation report had been published as usual and denied any of it had been watered down.

Four diplomatic sources told Reuters that the report had initially been slated for release on 21 April but was delayed after Chinese officials picked up on a Politico news report had previewed its findings.

A senior Chinese official contacted European officials in Beijing the same day to tell them that, “if the report is as described and it is released today it will be very bad for cooperation,” according to EU diplomatic correspondence reviewed by Reuters.

The correspondence quoted senior Chinese foreign ministry official Yang Xiaoguang as saying that publishing the report would make Beijing “very angry” and accused European officials of trying to please “someone else” – something the EU diplomats understood to be a reference to Washington.

The four sources said the report had been delayed as a result, and a comparison of the internal version of the report obtained by Reuters and the final version published late Friday showed several differences.

For example, on the first page of the internal report shared with EU governments on 20 April the EU’s foreign policy arm said: “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image. Both overt and covert tactics have been observed.”

The public summary posted Friday to the bloc’s disinformation portal, euvsdisinfo.eu http://www.euvsdisinfo.eu, attributed the disinformation to “state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and – to a lesser extent – China.”

The public summary did note “significant evidence of covert Chinese operations on social media,” but the reference was left to the final six paragraphs of the document.

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