EU humiliated: Brussels ‘backed down to China and allowed coronavirus censorship’

Xi Jinping ‘engaging in wolf warrior diplomacy’ says expert

Brussels surprised international spheres — especially the incoming Biden administration in the US — when it signed an investment deal with China back in December. The agreement appeared to signal that the EU was less willing to adopt a shared strategy with the US towards China, and that it intended to strike out on its own. However, in the months leading up to that agreement, Beijing’s successful attempts to censor the EU suggest that this budding relationship may be more one-sided than Brussels had originally intended.

A report released by the bloc in April and an op-ed written in May last year were both altered to remove any criticism towards President Xi Jinping’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an exclusive interview with, commentator and former research director to George W Bush, Peter Rough, suggested that Brussels had allowed itself to be censored by China because it did not want to rock the boat.

He said: “It could be on the one hand that they underestimated the significance of this [censoring].

“They wanted to have collegial relations with Beijing and they backed down in the face of pressure.”

He continued: “One way to think about it is the EU has paused between confrontation and collaboration with China.

“In part because they don’t get ahead of their skis in terms of anything because of the German hesitation, the German markets, and the German power in Brussels.

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“They have been hesitant to offend the Chinese and do anything that would jeopardise the German export markets.”

However, Mr Rough also considered the nature of the bloc’s typical foreign policy strategy.

He noted: “On the other hand, EU officials can be very hard-nosed.

“Think about how they negotiated Brexit, think about the way in several aspects of the relationship they dealt with the Trump administration.

“It’s not that they’re soft.”

Mr Rough concluded that permitting the censors to go ahead “was obviously a huge mistake” which “in retrospect they recognised”.

Yet, he acknowledged that it was a curious decision from the EU and noted: “It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the EU.”

The most surprising censor occurred in May last year, when Brussels penned a flattering opinion piece for the Eastern superpower to honour the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the EU and China.

The original op-ed was uploaded to several EU embassy websites, having been authored by the EU’s ambassador to China, Nicolas Chapuis, and the bloc’s 27 ambassadors to Beijing.

But there was a key difference between what was included in this version when compared to the article uploaded by China Daily, a state-run newspaper.

The redacted sentence had originally read: “But the outbreak of the coronavirus in China and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months….”

When the same piece was printed in China Daily, any mention of the disease’s origins in China and its “subsequent spread” was removed.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission explained: “This op-ed was drafted and agreed on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the EU-China diplomatic relations and we regret that this joint op-ed was not published in full by China Daily.”

Mr Chapuis also told reporters: “It is regrettable that part of the sentence about the spread of the virus has been edited.”

However, during the European Commission’s daily briefing the bloc backed down over the editing of its piece.

It announced: “The EU delegation nevertheless decided to proceed with publication of the op-ed with considerable reluctance as it was considered important to communicate on key EU policies.”

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This incident took place just one month after China had also attempted to block an EU report which alleged that Beijing was spreading disinformation about the pandemic.

The EU’s Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell then confessed that China had put pressure on the bloc to alter the report.

He explained: “It is usual that powers put pressure, using the diplomatic channels. When someone is not happy, they tell us — we do the same thing!

“The important thing is not how do you receive pressure but how do you react to the pressure?”

He also conceded that Brussels has a “complex relationship” with China, which is its “systemic rival” but “important partner”.

Upon catching wind of the report on Chinese disinformation, Chinese foreign ministry official Yang Xiaoguang had told Brussels that to publish the report would make Beijing “very angry”.

He even accused the EU of trying to please “someone else” — which was believed to be a Washington reference.

A senior Chinese official also claimed: “If the report is as described and it is released today it will be very bad for cooperation.”

The report was released in the end, after a significant delay caused by Beijing’s pushback, but the criticism of the Chinese government had been rearranged or removed in the final version.

The version shared with EU governments claimed: “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image.

“Both overt and covert tactics have been observed.”

In comparison, the public summary uploaded to the EU’s disinformation portal at a later date attributed disinformation to “state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and — to a lesser extent — China”.

A later reference to covert Chinese operations on social media was limited to the final paragraphs of the public summary, too.

However, another source told Reuters that the “disinformation report had been published as usual and denied any of it had been watered down”.

Reuters reported that by allowing the censorship to slide, Brussels was trying to pull off a “balancing act” despite the furore unleashed by the pandemic.

Yet, the EU did claim it was “time to tell the truth” on Chinese disinformation in June.

Officials claimed to “have evidence” on the matter — but, based on Mr Rough’s comments, the two incidents have already significantly damaged the bloc’s international reputation.

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