Coronavirus: EU rebuffed Beijing’s attempt to water down report critical of China, diplomat says

Stuart Lau

China tried to influence European Union efforts to document Beijing’s disinformation tactics during the coronavirus pandemic, the bloc’s chief diplomat admitted for the first time on Thursday.

But Josep Borrell dismissed media accusations that the EU bowed to China’s threats and altered its report, describing diplomats’ efforts to influence each other to further their own political agenda as commonplace.

The EU’s overall position on China, he said, remains the same as the three-fold identity first set out by the European Commission last year: a key partner, a competitor and a systemic rival.

“Did China put pressure? Look, it’s clear and evident that China expressed their concerns when they knew the document that was leaked. They expressed their concerns through the diplomatic channels,” Borrell told the European Parliament in Brussels.

“I am not going to reveal how it was done because we don’t explain publicly this kind of diplomatic context. Yes, [there] was expression of concern by the Chinese diplomacy.”

Borrell said the published report “very clearly points out state-sponsored disinformation campaigns and very specifically names the actors behind them, including China.”

“I can assure you that no changes had been introduced to the report published last week to align the concerns of a third party, in this case, China,” he added. “There is no watering down of our findings. We have not bowed to anyone.”

Borrell was summoned to a special sitting at the European Parliament, which he attended via teleconferencing, after his team was accused of bowing to Chinese threats and watering down a disinformation report.

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His appearance was the first by a major member of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s cabinet to address EU-China relations, but several members of the European Parliament said he failed to address their concerns.

Markéta Gregorová, a Czech member of the European Parliament, said that either way, the EU’s reputation had taken a hit. “The European Union is portrayed as weak and bowing to Chinese influence,” she told Borrell.

“Whether true or not, the damage to our reputation is done and we inadvertently communicated to our adversaries that harassing and intimidating our diplomats will work and they should continue.”

Borrell dodged several questions, including one by Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the parliament’s China delegation, who asked if he would support Swedish and German appeals to China to offer greater transparency into the origin of the virus.

The EU high representative, who is from Spain, also did not respond to questions about whether the EU would show more support for Taiwan, which had been sidelined by the World Health Organisation amid pressure from China despite the island’s success in containing the virus.

Beijing has rejected claims that it engaged in any disinformation campaign during the pandemic. It called on other countries to show recognition for its work in curbing the virus and helping others nations.

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