A speech by EU Council head Charles Michel scheduled to be broadcast at the opening of a major Chinese trade fair was abruptly cancelled due to wrangling over censorship, diplomats told AFP Tuesday.
The pre-recorded video address was meant to be shown at Friday's opening of the China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, but Michel's spokesman and three Beijing-based diplomats confirmed it was not broadcast.
"The Chinese wanted to censor parts of Charles Michel's speech. Brussels preferred to cancel the speech altogether instead," one European diplomat told AFP, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Another European diplomat said Chinese authorities wanted to censor all parts of Michel's speech about the Ukraine crisis, a sensitive issue for Beijing. China seeks to position itself as neutral in the crisis but has offered diplomatic backing to its strategic ally Russia.
The second diplomat said the EU had asked to discuss the censorship but the Chinese side refused, so the video address was cancelled.
China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied any knowledge of the matter during a routine media briefing Tuesday.
Michel's spokesman Barend Leyts told AFP the EU leader had been invited to address the 5th Hongqiao Forum/CIIE in Shanghai.
"As requested by the Chinese authorities, we had indeed provided a pre-recorded message which was ultimately not shown," Leyts said.
"We have addressed this through the normal diplomatic channels."
China-EU relations have deteriorated rapidly since both sides traded sanctions last year over China's alleged human rights abuses in its Xinjiang region.
Beijing later slapped a trade embargo on virtually all Lithuanian goods in response to Vilnius' deepening ties with Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China claims as its own territory.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, European Union leaders have repeatedly lobbied China to condemn Moscow's actions and withdraw its support for Russia, but to little avail.
The bloc officially considers China a "partner, economic competitor and systemic rival" according to a formulation adopted in 2019.
Michel, who is president of the EU body consisting of heads of member states, will attend next week's G20 leaders' summit in Bali along with senior EU official Ursula von der Leyen and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trade ties with China are still important to certain members of the bloc, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week becoming the first G7 leader to visit China in person since the beginning of the Covid pandemic.