EU Complains of Chinese Censorship After State Media Deletes Diplomats' Reference to Pandemic Origins

The European Union has accused China of censoring a letter signed by the bloc's ambassadors to the country and published in a state-controlled newspaper, removing a passage suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic originated in China.

EU Ambassador to China Nicolas Chapuis and the ambassadors of the 27 EU states to Beijing co-authored a letter published Wednesday on the EU mission to China's website and by the China Daily newspaper, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department. The letter called for closer cooperation between Brussels and Beijing, despite political concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

The original letter included the passage: "But the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months, has meant that our pre-existing plans have been temporarily side-tracked."

This passage meant the article was initially barred from publication by the Chinese foreign ministry. The EU decided to allow the passage to be removed from the English version published, but China Daily did not print the article in full in Chinese as agreed, the EU said.

Virginie Battu-Henriksson, an EU spokesperson on foreign affairs, told Newsweek that the EU delegation in China was told that the letter could only be published "with the agreement of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

In response, "The EU delegation to China made known its concerns to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in no uncertain terms, both on the process and on the request to remove part of a sentence related to the origins and spread of coronavirus to allow publication," Battu-Henriksson explained.

Ultimately, the EU diplomats agreed—"with considerable reluctance"—to allow the article to be published without the controversial passage, meaning it could be published to coincide with the 45th anniversary of EU-China diplomatic relations. Battu-Henriksson said, "We regret that the [article] was not published in full by the China Daily."

Battu-Henriksson said the full article was distributed to other Chinese publications, some of which published it in Chinese "in its original unedited form."

Newsweek has contacted the Chinese mission to the EU to request comment on why the article was censored and whether the Chinese government was involved in the decision.

Battu-Henriksson told Newsweek that the EU is "acutely aware of the fact that China does not have a free press, does have state-controlled media, and does have censorship." She noted that the bloc is pushing China to end these practices.

The spokesperson added that China is simultaneously a partner, an economic competitor and a "systemic rival, promoting alternative models of governance." Nonetheless, Battu-Henriksson said the EU and China have "a broad and deep positive agenda on all aspects of our relationship."

Also on Wednesday, the Chinese ambassador to the EU wrote an op-ed urging closer economic ties between Brussels and Beijing, noting the investment treaty being negotiated since 2013. Officials hoped the treaty could be signed when President Xi Jinping attended the EU summit in Germany in September, but the pandemic has thrown the plans into doubt.

European officials—including EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen—have called on China to support an international probe into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak, though on Wednesday Beijing's ambassador to the UN in Geneva rejected the proposal.

Beijing has also reacted angrily to an EU report suggesting that China has been spreading disinformation about the pandemic, designed to undermine Western governments.

China, EU, coronavirus, censorship, diplomats, state media
A pedestrian wears a protective face mask as he walks past a banner in front of The European Union Commission building in Brussels, Belgium on May 6, 2020.