EU 'Caved In' to China Over Coronavirus Disinformation Report, Lawmaker Claims

The European Union's foreign policy chief is under pressure to answer allegations that the bloc watered down a report on Chinese coronavirus disinformation under pressure from Beijing.

Dutch MEP Bart Groothuis wrote to Josep Borrell on Monday to demand a "formal and full explanation to the European parliament" about the report, the Guardian reported. Sections of the document were leaked to The New York Times last week and detailed China's alleged efforts to confuse the COVID-19 pandemic narrative.

The Times reported last week that EU officials delayed the release of the report after complaints from China. In an email seen by the Times, Lutz Güllner—the head of communications at the EU foreign service—told colleagues: "The Chinese are already threatening with reactions if the report comes out."

The document was then allegedly rewritten and references to Chinese disinformation watered down, the newspaper said, before being published on the EU monitoring website on Friday.

It noted a "continued and coordinated" effort by actors, including China, "to deflect any blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and highlighting bilateral assistance." It also noted "significant evidence of covert Chinese operations on social media."

The Times reported that the initial draft of the document detailed Beijing's attacks on the French response to the crisis, plus false allegations that 80 French politicians signed a statement including racist slurs to criticize the head of the World Health Organization. The report is also said to have mentioned a Chinese bot network based in Serbia used to spread disinformation on social media.

Groothuis suggested to The Guardian that the EU had "caved in on substance." The Dutch politician added: "China will become stronger, more prosperous and powerful, also militarily. It won't be the last time they will try to intervene in internal politics of the EU." As such, he argued, "If this is true, this can't happen again in the future."

Peter Stano, a spokesperson for the European External Action Service—which published the report—said Saturday that the group's output is "categorically independent," according to Politico. He added, "We have never bowed to any alleged external political pressure. This includes also our latest snapshot overview on disinfo trends."

Stano said the Times article made "ungrounded, inaccurate allegations and contains factually incorrect conclusions about the EEAS' report." He warned that "disinformation and harmful narratives can bear severe potential risks to our citizens, including to their health."

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters Monday that China "is opposed to the creation and spreading of disinformation by anyone or any organisation. China is a victim of disinformation, not an initiator."

China, EU, Europe, disinformation, coronavirus, report
This file photo shows the Chinese and European Union flags at the German Chancellery on May 31, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images/Getty