Pressured by China, E.U. Softens Report on Covid-19 Disinformation
A revised report shows how Beijing reacts swiftly and effectively to tamp down Western criticism of its pandemic response.
BRUSSELS — Bowing to heavy pressure from Beijing, European Union officials softened their criticism of China this week in a report documenting how governments push disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, according to documents, emails and interviews.
Worried about the repercussions, European officials first delayed and then rewrote the document in ways that diluted the focus on China, a vital trading partner — taking a very different approach than the confrontational stance adopted by the Trump administration.
The initial European Union report, obtained by The New York Times, was not particularly strident: a routine roundup of publicly available information and news reports.
It cited Beijing’s efforts to curtail mentions of the virus’s origins in China, in part by blaming the United States for spreading the disease internationally. It noted that Beijing had criticized France as slow to respond to the pandemic and had pushed false accusations that French politicians used racist slurs against the head of the World Health Organization. The report also highlighted Russian efforts to promote false health information and sow distrust in Western institutions.
“China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image,” the initial report said. “Both overt and covert tactics have been observed.”
But China moved quickly to block the document’s release, and the European Union pulled back. The report had been on the verge of publication, until senior officials ordered revisions to soften the language.
“The Chinese are already threatening with reactions if the report comes out,” Lutz Güllner, a European Union diplomat, wrote to colleagues on Tuesday in an email seen by The Times.
The sentence about China’s “global disinformation” campaign was removed, as was any mention of the dispute between China and France. Other language was toned down.
The fight over the document is part of a broad, global battle over the coronavirus narrative. And it comes at a time when the European Union hopes to win trade concessions from Beijing and restore a rich relationship once the pandemic has passed.
On Tuesday morning, however, an email circulated inside the disinformation task force team with the subject line: “READY for publication.” A supervisor approved it and an analyst was about to publish a summary online.
But Esther Osorio, a senior adviser to the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, ordered it held, according to an email.
The delay and revisions incited anger and frustration among some diplomats and government disinformation analysts. At least one analyst formally objected, writing to her bosses that the European Union was “self-censoring to appease the Chinese Communist Party.”