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Top European Union diplomat denies bowing to China pressure

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s top diplomat denied Thursday that his agency bowed to pressure from China and watered down a report that criticized the country's role in promoting disinformation about the coronavirus.

In an April 24 article, the New York Times said EU officials had “softened their criticism of China” in a report on the way governments push disinformation during the pandemic because the officials were “worried about the repercussions” of angering one of the bloc’s biggest trading partners.

The article, backed by internal email correspondence, caused an uproar at the European Parliament, with EU lawmakers angry that the 27-nation bloc’s reputation was at stake. The assembly’s foreign affairs committee demanded that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell explain.

During a grilling via videoconference, Borrell said the newspaper had compared the contents of a report meant for internal use within the External Action Service — essentially the EU’s foreign office — with a different document prepared for broader publication on the agency’s website.

Borrell acknowledged that China did complain about the report, but he said that kind of objection was “the daily bread” of diplomacy and insisted Beijing had absolutely no influence on thinking inside the EU agency.

Chinese officials “expressed their concern through the diplomatic channels,” but the text published on the EUvsDisinfo website remains critical of China and speaks for itself, Borrell said. “For sure, they were not happy. They will continue not being happy,” he said.

“There was no watering-down of our findings,” the EU diplomat said. He underlined the bloc’s policy toward Beijing as treating it “as a key partner, but also a competitor and a systemic rival.” While some lawmakers accepted Borrell’s explanation, quite a few were critical. Some demanded to see all versions of the reports.

“Honestly, your explanation doesn’t really convince me,” Belgian parliamentarian Hilde Vautmans said, going on to ask Borrell to tell lawmakers “who interfered, which Chinese official put pressure, at what level, what means of pressure. I think that Europe needs to know that otherwise we’re losing all credibility.”

The public report — a “Short Assessment of Narratives and Disinformation” surrounding the coronavirus — points to what the authors described as evidence of “a coordinated push by official Chinese sources to deflect any blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and publicizing announcements and deliveries of bilateral assistance.”

The report also states that “Chinese officials and state media try to curtail any mentions of Wuhan as the origin of COVID-19.” The report is more critical of Russia’s role in the spread of coronavirus-linked fake news.

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