The European Union has caved in to pressure from China and has watered down a report on Chinese efforts to deflect blame for the coronavirus pandemic. Officials in Beijing reportedly threatened to block the export of medical supplies to Europe if the report was published in its original form.
The revelations come as Chinese diplomats around the world are waging an aggressive disinformation campaign — described as a “Wolf Warrior” style of diplomacy, named after a Chinese nationalist action film series — aimed at controlling the narrative about the origins of the coronavirus.
Chinese envoys have been especially aggressive on Twitter, which they are using to attack, intimidate and silence Western journalists, lawmakers and think tank scholars — essentially anyone who contradicts China’s official version of events.
Over the past year, more than 60 Chinese diplomats and diplomatic missions set up Twitter or Facebook accounts, according to the Reuters news agency, even though both platforms are banned in China, and have been using them to attack Beijing’s critics around the world.
On April 21, the Brussels-based news outlet Politico Europe reported that it had received an advance copy of an EU report about Chinese and Russian disinformation activities related to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The report, which the EU was planning to publish that same day, included the following paragraph:
“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.”
Chinese officials quickly contacted the European Union’s representatives in Beijing to try to kill the report, according to the New York Times, which also received an original version of it.
The EU’s External Action Service eventually published the report — Covid-19 Disinformation — on April 24 but the language on China was heavily toned-down. The New York Times explained:
“The original report 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….
“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 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….”
Under pressure from Chinese officials, Esther Osorio, a communications adviser to Josep Borrell, the head of the EU diplomatic service, personally intervened to delay the release of the initial report. The New York Times wrote:
“Ms. Osorio, the aide to Mr. Borrell, asked analysts to revise the document to focus less explicitly on China and Russia to avoid accusations of bias, according to an email and interviews. She asked analysts to differentiate between pushing disinformation and aggressively pushing a narrative, and to document each ‘as we already see heavy pushback from CN’ — an abbreviation for China.”
The EU was reportedly hoping to get better treatment for European companies in China. On April 25, however, the South China Morning Post, which also obtained a copy of the original report, revealed that Beijing had threatened to withhold medical supplies from Europe if the section on China was not removed.
The Indian geopolitical analyst Brahma Chellaney summed up the broader implications of the EU’s actions:
“EU self-censors its report after pressure from China. Diluting its report, EU removed references to China’s pandemic-related ‘disinformation campaign.’ EU remains a weak link in building a concert of democracies against China’s muscular authoritarianism.”
Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats around the world, led by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, have been lashing out at governments and individuals they feel have insulted China. Some analysts say this reflects China’s growing influence in international affairs. “China wants other countries to know who’s boss,” wrote China watcher Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.
Other analysts argue that China’s intransigence reflects the fragility of the Chinese Communist Party and that Chinese President Xi Jinping is fueling nationalism to consolidate his control amid growing domestic anger over his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. “All governments worry how they’ll survive this plague, but for a one-party authoritarian government, the fears are existential,” noted Kevin Libin, columnist and managing editor of Canada’s National Post.
In any event, Chinese pressure tactics have worked in some instances — including with the European Union and the Philippines. With others, China’s bullying has backfired spectacularly.
On April 15, Germany’s most popular newspaper, Bild, published an article titled, “What China Owes Us So Far,” which suggested that China should pay Germany €150 billion ($162 billion) in reparations for the coronavirus pandemic. The article included an itemized list of economic damage, including €50 billion for losses to small businesses and €24 billion for lost tourism.
The Chinese Embassy in Berlin responded by accusing Bild of racism. In a letter, embassy spokesperson Tao Lili wrote:
“Your report not only lacks essential facts and precise timelines, but also a minimum of journalistic due diligence and fairness. Those who do as you did with today’s newspaper article fuel nationalism, prejudice, xenophobia and animosity against China. It does not do justice to the traditional friendship between our two peoples or a serious understanding of journalism. Against this background, I ask myself, where in your editorial office does the dislike of our people and our state come from?”
Rather than being cowed into submission, Bild’s editor-in-chief, Julian Reichelt, countered with his own letter: “You Are Endangering the Entire World.” It was published in German and English and addressed directly to President Xi Jinping. Reichelt wrote:
“You rule by surveillance. You wouldn’t be president without surveillance. You monitor everything, every citizen, but you refuse to monitor the diseased wet markets in your country.
“You shut down every newspaper and website that is critical of your rule, but not the stalls where bat soup is sold. You are not only monitoring your people, you are endangering them — and with them, the rest of the world.
“Surveillance is a denial of freedom. And a nation that is not free, is not creative. A nation that is not innovative, does not invent anything. This is why you have made your country the world champion in intellectual property theft.
“China enriches itself with the inventions of others, instead of inventing on its own. The reason China does not innovate and invent is that you don’t let the young people in your country think freely. China’s greatest export hit (that nobody wanted to have, but which has nevertheless gone around the world) is Corona….
“You have created an inscrutable, non-transparent China. Before Corona, China was known as a surveillance state. Now, China is known as a surveillance state that infected the world with a deadly disease. That is your political legacy.
“Your embassy tells me that I am not living up to the ‘traditional friendship of our peoples.’ I suppose you consider it a great ‘friendship’ when you now generously send masks around the world. This isn’t friendship, I would call it imperialism hidden behind a smile — a Trojan Horse.
“You plan to strengthen China through a plague that you exported. You will not succeed. Corona will be your political end, sooner or later.”
Other recent examples of efforts by Chinese diplomats to intimidate and silence those abroad who challenge the Chinese government include:
On April 23, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison called on all countries that are members of the World Health Organization (WHO) to support an independent inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic. He said that all members of the WHO should be obliged to participate in a review and added that Australia would push for the inquiry during the WHO Assembly on May 17.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, replied: “The so-called independent inquiry proposed by Australia is in reality political manipulation. We advise Australia to give up its ideological prejudices.”
China’s Ambassador to Brazil, Yang Wanming, shared a tweet, later deleted, calling the family of President Jair Bolsonaro a “huge poison” after his son Eduardo blamed the “Chinese dictatorship” for the coronavirus pandemic. The tweet drew a rebuke from Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, who said the tweet was inappropriate behavior for an ambassador.
On April 19, the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa denounced the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI), a leading Canadian think tank, after it published an open letter accusing Chinese authorities of covering up the pandemic. The Chinese Embassy wrote:
“Recently, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute published the so-called open letter, falsely claimed that the roots of the pandemic are in a cover-up by China, carried out malicious slander and attacks on the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government, and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs. The Chinese side expresses its firm opposition over such actions by the MLI…. We urge the MLI to abide by the professional ethics, focus on the work a think tank is supposed to do, refrain from politicizing the research work, and give up anti-China nonsense.”
A scholar at the MLI, Kaveh Shahrooz, tweeted:
“The Chinese embassy in Canada has issued a statement attacking the @MLInstitute, where I serve as a Senior Fellow. We are a thorn in the side of the governments like those of China, Iran, and Russia. I am immensely proud of this fact.”
Another MLI scholar, Shuvaloy Majumdar, tweeted:
“I would like to congratulate the PRC Embassy-Ottawa for helping draw more scrutiny to the Communist Party’s intimidation of its own people, and its continued abuse abroad.”
The Canadian government has remained silent on the issue. Charles Burton, a senior fellow and China expert at the MLI, said that Ottawa’s silence will only embolden Beijing to make further attempts to stifle free speech in Canada:
“One would expect that the government of Canada would engage with the Chinese embassy about such a statement. It’s clearly an attempt to interfere with freedom of expression by a Canadian think tank and make allegations against the think tank that are clearly without basis whatsoever.”
On April 19, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tweeted:
“Shocked to learn that my longtime friend Martin Lee, founder of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, was arrested today together with many of #HongKong’s most prominent citizens. Martin is the elder statesman of Hong Kong democracy. I hope for his immediate release.”
The Chinese Consulate General in Calgary responded:
“The Premier of Alberta commented on Twitter on the lawful arrest of an anti-China rioter by the Hong Kong police. No one stays out of the law. Ignoring the facts and openly advocating for the rioters can only undermine the rule of law, which is not in Canada’s own interests. We urge local politicians to abide by the basic norms governing international relations, respect the Hong Kong SAR law enforcement, and immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.”
“I acknowledge that Alberta doesn’t have a foreign policy and I don’t freelance in foreign policy, but I’ll just say this — when a personal friend of mine is arrested as a political prisoner, I cannot in good conscience remain silent.”
When China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong from the British in 1997, Beijing agreed to allow Hong Kong to enjoy its freedoms until 2047, in an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.”
On April 14, The Globe and Mail, the most widely-read newspaper in Canada, published an opinion article titled, “The Chinese Communist Party’s Culture of Corruption and Repression has Cost Lives around the World.” The article accused the CCP of concealing, destroying, falsifying, fabricating, suppressing, misrepresenting information about the epidemic; of silencing and criminalizing dissent; and of disappearing whistleblowers, “all of which reflect the breadth of criminality and corruption in the party.” The article called on the international community to hold Chinese authorities accountable for their roles in creating “one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history.”
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa replied that the article was “full of hatred and prejudice” against the Communist Party of China (CPC):
“How could anyone speak of such a thing as accountability? The ‘political virus’ of stigma is more dangerous than the disease itself. Those who try to ascribe so-called ‘criminality’ to the CPC are viewing China with ideological prejudice, and the ‘political motive’ behind that is doubtful.
“We advise those persons to focus on their domestic epidemic prevention and control efforts. To shift blames won’t help mitigate the epidemic at home, nor will it help the international cooperation in prevention and control of the pandemic.”
On April 1, The Globe and Mail published an opinion article, “Why Would We Trust China’s Official COVID-19 Numbers?” It asked:
“The Chinese government’s first instinct has always been to hide the facts, especially if they reveal its own failures, so why would anyone believe the data coming out of China now on COVID-19? …. The Communist government owes its very legitimacy to persuading Chinese citizens that it does a better job than democratically elected administrations in protecting their interests. To that end, it has long inflated the country’s economic growth statistics and underreported its greenhouse-gas emissions. Why would anyone expect it to be straight about its own COVID-19 epidemic?”
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa replied:
“The article views that the United States is a democratic state and China is a country led by the Communist government, leading to a ridiculous conclusion that the data of the U.S. is more transparent than that of China…. This is a naked double standard. We urge The Globe and Mail to abandon prejudice, respect facts, and stop making irresponsible remarks against China’s efforts to fight against COVID-19.”
On April 14, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned the Chinese Ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, to express his disagreement with certain recent remarks by Chinese representatives in France as part of the coronavirus pandemic. “Some recent public statements by representatives of the Chinese Embassy in France do not conform to the quality of the bilateral relationship between our two countries,” he said.
In a series of recent media statements, Lu accused “a certain French press” of besmirching China’s image by means of “lies” about its role in the current coronavirus pandemic. These media — which he never named but which seem, in his view, to represent the entire French press — have “mocked China” in violation of “all media ethics and the most elementary good faith” with an approach which, in Lu’s words, “borders on paranoia.”
Speaking on the cable TV channel Mandarin TV on March 15, Lu accused the media of using “propaganda” methods to “brainwash” the public. In statements posted on the embassy website on February 14 and 29, he condemned the “irresponsible“ comments and “absurdities“ being said in the French media about China.
The secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Christophe Deloire said:
“This ‘lesson in journalism’ for the French press is inappropriate coming from a representative of the People’s Republic of China, a country that is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index and is one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists. Beijing’s censorship of the Chinese media had a very negative impact by delaying the regime’s response at the outset of the coronavirus epidemic.”
RSF added in a press release:
“The ambassador’s statements reflect a policy concerted at the highest level of the Chinese government that aims to control international media coverage, as RSF demonstrated in a report entitled ‘China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order’ in 2019.”
On April 12, the newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported that it had received leaked documents from the German Foreign Ministry which revealed that Chinese officials had directly contacted officials and employees at several federal ministries and asked them to “express themselves positively” about China’s management of the coronavirus crisis. Chinese officials also “engaged decision-makers from the political environment including lobbyists” to use them “for Chinese interests in Germany to promote the political agenda of the Communist Party.” The Chinese Embassy in Berlin responded by accusing Welt am Sonntag of being “keen to slander and smear” China. “All kinds of stigmatization of China should be stopped.”
The Chinese Ambassador to India, Ji Rong, has repeatedly lashed out at Indian officials and media outlets. On April 8, he tweeted:
“So-called complaint by certain Indian organizations to UNHRC asking China compensate for losses caused by #COVID19 is ridiculous & eyeball-catching nonsense. At this difficult time, we need to work together instead of stigmatizing others & shifting blame.”
On April 10, Ji tweeted:
“It is regrettable some Indian media published articles referring #COVID19 again as ‘WuhanVirus’,’ChineseVirus’. It is clear consensus by international community that a virus should not be linked to any specific country, region or ethnic group. Such stigmatization is unacceptable.”
On March 29, the Department of Health apologized for comments it made a day earlier that two batches of coronavirus test kits provided by China were substandard. Undersecretary for Health Maria Rosario Vergeire had said that kits made by Chinese manufacturers BGI Group and Sansure Biotech were only 40% accurate in diagnosing Covid-19 and that some of them would have to be discarded. The Chinese Embassy in Manila tweeted:
“The Chinese Embassy firmly rejects any irresponsible remarks and any attempts to undermine our cooperation in this regard.”
On January 18, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde summoned the Chinese Ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, after compared Swedish media coverage of China to a lightweight boxer who “provokes a feud” with a heavyweight. Congyou, who has become well-known for his outspoken attacks, told the state broadcaster SVT that the “frequent vicious attacks on the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government by some Swedish media” were comparable to a 48kg light featherweight boxer taking on a fighter almost twice his size:
“The 86kg boxer, out of good will to protect the lightweight boxer, advises him to leave and mind his own business, but the latter refuses to listen, and even breaks into the home of the heavyweight boxer. What choice do you expect the heavyweight boxer to have?”
Utgivarna, a group which represents Sweden’s private and public sector media, in a statement said:
“Time and again, China’s ambassador Gui Congyou has tried to undermine the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression under the Swedish constitution with false statements and threats. It is unacceptable that the world’s largest dictatorship is trying to prevent free and independent journalism in a democracy like Sweden. These repeated attacks must cease immediately.”
On March 18, the Chinese Embassy in Venezuela posted an angry “declaration” consisting of 17 tweets after unidentified Venezuelan lawmakers referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese Coronavirus” or the “Wuhan Coronavirus.” The Chinese Embassy said the lawmakers were afflicted with a “political virus” and recommended they “seek treatment.” A first step, it tweeted, would be for them to “put on a mask and shut up.”