This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The European Union ambassador to Beijing has allowed the Chinese foreign ministry to censor a joint opinion piece penned by EU ambassadors to remove a reference to the coronavirus originating in China.
The EU said on Friday that the decision by its ambassador Nicolas Chapuis to allow the change to the article in the English-language state-run China Daily newspaper was a “mistake.”
China’s foreign ministry had said the article could only appear in the paper if the reference to the coronavirus originating in China was removed, according to the EU’s External Action Service.
It said Chapuis had been reluctant to agree to the cut, but did so because he was under “time pressure,” and gave the go-ahead without checking first with member states.
“There was no consultation of headquarters, and there was no consultation either of member states prior to the decision,” spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson said.
“The decision was not the right one to take,” she said, adding that Chapuis did inform the EU after the decision was made.
The China Daily’s editorial team removed a phrase in the article referring to the outbreak of the coronavirus being “in China” and also to “its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months.”
The opinion piece was posted in full on the official website of the EU’s China delegation.
External Action Service head Josep Borrell was last week forced to deny that his agency had bowed to pressure from China and watered down a report critical of the country’s role in promoting disinformation about the coronavirus.
EU lawmakers demanded to know who exactly had exerted the pressure on EU officials, and how.
The EU delegation in China said on Friday that it “strongly regrets” that the article was edited, and that it had objected “in no uncertain terms” to the foreign ministry in Beijing.
Lee Cheng-hsiu, a senior assistant research fellow in the national security division of Taiwan’s National Policy Foundation, said the pressure on the EU is in keeping with the Chinese Communist Party’s current efforts to boost its political influence around the world, and in particular to push its own narrative on the coronavirus pandemic that plays down or questions the virus’ origins in the central province of Hubei.
“China has been under a lot of pressure from a lot of countries, especially the U.S., France, the U.K., and even the EU and New Zealand, to thoroughly investigate the source of the coronavirus,” Lee said.
“So of course they are going to want to do everything they can to play down China’s role in this article,” he said.
“China has a major propaganda drive under way, hoping on the one hand to rebuild friendly ties with a number of countries, and on the other, to push its own propaganda internationally,” Lee said. “But there is a lack of mutual trust, because China has repeatedly covered up, denied or delayed notification of the extent of the epidemic.”
“This made it harder for other countries to get the epidemic under control, so they blame the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Monday that while China was the first country to report cases of the coronavirus, that didn’t mean that the virus originated there.
And Zhang Ming, head of the Chinese delegation to the EU, called last week for an end to “fake news,” saying China had suffered as a result of it during the pandemic.
Political risk management consultant Ross Feingold said the EU’s revision of the China Daily article was a minor diplomatic victory for Beijing.
He said EU lawmakers and officials are still in the process of reevaluating their opinions of China in the wake of the pandemic, and that Chinese officials had made good use of this time-lag.