In Depth

Did EU cave in to Chinese demands to tone down fake news dossier?

Report was allegedly delayed and rewritten to avoid putting blame on Beijing

The European Union bowed to pressure from Beijing to soften criticism of China in a report on how governments are pushing fake news about the coronavirus pandemic, according to leaked emails.

The document was delayed and edited to remove references to China’s “disinformation” tactics before the toned-down final draft was finally published, The Times reports.

What was in the original report?

The unrevised report included allegations, described as “key findings”, that the Chinese state and its officials were involved in a coronavirus disinformation campaign, says The Times.

“China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image,” according to one key finding that was removed from the dossier but seen by the newspaper. “Both overt and covert tactics have been observed.”

Another finding allegedly removed by EU officials warned of “continued assertiveness by Chinese officials, including direct targeting of the French government with disinformation messages”.

The original draft said that “the Chinese embassy in France criticised France’s response to the virus” and made up “allegations that French parliamentarians, together with Taiwanese officials, used racist slurs” against World Health Organization director Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is from Ethiopia.

The final version of the EU dossier makes no mention of this latter allegation, even though France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had summoned Lu Shaye, the Chinese ambassador, to register an official complaint over the racist slur claims.

Another now-deleted section of the report is said to have referenced a “continued and coordinated push by official Chinese sources to deflect any blame for the outbreak of the pandemic”. This is softened in the published version to say that “we see [a] continued and coordinated push by some actors, including Chinese sources, to deflect any blame”.

According to The Times, “evidence of a Serbian pro-government bot network praising Chinese aid and Serbian-Chinese friendship on Twitter was also deleted”.

The New York Times says that references to “Russian efforts to promote false health information and sow distrust in Western institutions” were cut from the EU dossier as well.

EU officials have previously toned down language about Russia in an attempt to improve relations with Moscow. A 2019 report on election propaganda “stripped out all references to Russian support for certain European political groups”, says the US newspaper.

What do the leaked emails say?

Emails leaked to The New York Times show that senior advisers to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell held back publication of the original version of the fake news dossier following pressure from China.

The assessment was due to be published last Tuesday, but was delayed and rewritten before eventually being released on Friday.

Esther Osorio, Borrell’s communications adviser, asked officials in the EU’s external action service (EEAS) to soften the allegations “as we already see heavy pushback” from Beijing.

Lutz Guellner, a senior EEAS official, also warned colleagues that “the Chinese are already threatening with reactions if the report comes out”.

Why did the EU change the report?

Beijing reportedly began lobbying the EU to rewrite the dossier after sections were published in Politico’s Brussels newsletter on Tuesday morning.

China is an important economic partner to the bloc, which is trying to strengthen its ties with the East Asian superpower and take advantage of the souring of Beijing’s relationship with the US.

However, the leaked emails suggest that not all EU officials are happy about the fake news dossier being censored. Monika Richter, an analyst, complained that “self-censoring to appease the Chinese Communist Party… will set a terrible precedent and encourage similar coercion in the future”.

Meanwhile, China’s envoy to the EU, Zhang Ming, told a Brussels think-tank that it was time to “forget the politics” and focus on fighting the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

“Disinformation is an enemy for all of us and it should be addressed by all of us,” said Zhang.

The EU has declined to comment on the claims surrounding its dossier.

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