Borrell: China ‘expressed their concerns’ over disinformation leak

European High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell speaks at a press conference after a video conference of the European foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, 22 April 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Chinese officials have “expressed their concerns” over the leak of a draft Commission publication on disinformation, the EU’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell confirmed on Thursday (30 April).

His comments came days after the European External Action Service (EEAS), which Borrell heads, denied media reports that it had toned down allegations made against China as part of a report into state-led disinformation campaigns, following pressure from Beijing.

Chinese officials had originally been alerted to the publication of the report on disinformation, following a leak of a draft paper which contained strong allegations against the Chinese state.

“It’s clear and evident that China expressed their concerns when they knew that the document was leaked,” Borrell said on Thursday, speaking in front of MEPs on Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Borrell added that the Chinese had used “diplomatic channels” to raise the alarm over allegations that their country has been embarking on a global disinformation campaign in a bid to deflect blame for the spread of the novel coronavirus, which was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The head of the EEAS also said that although Chinese officials had made their displeasure well known to the EU’s diplomatic arm, the EEAS did not feel as though it was under pressure from the complaints.

‘Two documents’

Earlier in the week, the EEAS had been adamant that it was not pressurised by the Chinese into revising the working paper, following a leak of the document obtained by Politico.

The EEAS eventually published a public version of the paper last Friday (24 April), which still levelled accusations against China but had also toned down its language in confronting Beijing so directly compared to the leaked version.

However, on Thursday Borrell echoed an earlier statement from the EEAS that there had been no “toning down’ and that the documents were different in nature simply because one was an internal working paper and the other was intended for public consumption.

An EEAS spokesperson told EURACTIV recently that “the allegations seen in some media refer to the fact that there are two different documents.  One, the Information Environment Assessment, is a document for internal purposes. The other one, the EEAS special report (or snapshot overview), is for public consumption”.

Despite the difference between the two documents, Borrell also noted that “the Chinese were not happy at the beginning, [and] they are still not happy now,” adding that the allegations included in the internal working paper were not included in the public version of the report for fear of potential “inaccuracies” in the reporting.

More generally, Borrell noted his concern at the fact that the leak had been made in the first place, and said that the EEAS would look into the possible issue of internal whistleblowers attempting to discredit the leadership of the organisation.

Strategic Communications

The EEAS Strategic Communications and Information Analysis Division, which had originally been mobilised as part of the East Stratcom Task Force in 2015 and has predominantly analysed disinformation emanating from Russia, has recently expanded its competencies to focus more on China, an EU source told EURACTIV.

Nonetheless, the EastStratCom Task Force’s capacity to deal with fake news coming from Russia has previously been a concern highlighted by the European Commission, whose former vice-president, Andrus Ansip, said that the budget for the body, currently at €5 million, is far from enough when compared to the resources the Russians have at their disposal.

In 2017, two additional Task Forces were established, focusing on Europe’s South and the Western Balkans.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters