The European External Action Service (EEAS), which serves as the region’s foreign ministry, has released a report about China’s and Russia’s coronavirus disinformation campaigns. However, even the final version of the report has apparently been softened due to pressure from Beijing.
EU releases report calling out China's coronavirus disinformation campaign
One of the issues that has been repeatedly brought to light is conflicts between Beijing's official number of coronavirus cases and deaths and other sources. For example, one Wuhan mortuary had 5,000 urns delivered in only two days, suggesting that the death toll from COVID-19 is much higher there than being reported.
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In addition to the number of cases, the report also highlights China's propaganda machine, not only at home but also abroad. It also mentions Beijing's efforts to deflect blame for the pandemic. However, it doesn't refer to allegations about the involvement of a Wuhan lab in the release of the virus.
"We see continued and coordinated push by some actors, including Chinese sources, to deflect any blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and highlighting bilateral assistance," the report states.
The report also mentions China's propaganda campaign involving social media. It cited ProPublica's report on a network on Twitter that's "involved in a coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government."
Citing the Daily Telegraph, the report states that "the ads are part of a worldwide propaganda campaign, coordinated across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and traditional media, attempting to depict China as a global leader in the fight against Covid-10 and drown out accusations that it made the crisis worse by trying to cover up its own outbreak."
Some lines completely removed
Politico initially reported that the EU was working on such a report, saying it was expected out last Tuesday. However, it wasn't published until Friday. According to Politico, the report originally contained several lines about China's coronavirus disinformation campaign that were removed before it was published.
For example, it was reported that Chinese officials referred to a post on the Chinese embassy in Paris which falsely claimed that nursing home workers in France were leaving their posts and allowing residents to "die of hunger and disease." The South China Morning Post reported on the incident here. Officials said the problem had already been resolved and didn't require additional attention, and the final draft of the report includes no mention of the incident.
The language calling out China's coronavirus disinformation campaign has also been softened, according to Reuters. The report originally stated:
"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."
However, the public summary posted to the EU's disinformation portal said the disinformation came from "state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and – to a lesser extent – China." While the summary did state that the EEAS found "significant evidence of covert Chinese operations on social media," that reference was pushed to the last six paragraphs of the report.
Chinese pressure revealed
Axios and Reuters obtained diplomatic communications between Chinese and EU officials which show the kind of pressure Beijing was exerting against the report. Chinese authorities reportedly pressured the agency not to release it at all, and EEAS authorities say they didn't bow to China's demands because they published it anyway. Those who have spoken to news outlets deny that the report was changed before it was published.
Chinese diplomat Yang Xiaoguang reportedly told the EEAS in Beijing last week that if the agency released the report, it would be bad for China-EU relations. Yang said China would be "very angry" and "very disappointed" if the report was released. Yang also denied that Beijing was spreading disinformation about COVID-19, according to communications seen by Axios.
Communications between Chinese and EU officials indicate that Beijing repeatedly said that relations between the EU and China are more favorable than U.S.-China relations. However, Chinese officials also threatened that if the EU accused China of a coronavirus disinformation campaign, relations would worsen along the lines of what has happened between the U.S. and China.
Chinese foreign ministry official Wang Lutong told an EEAS official in Beijing last week that if the EU blamed China publicly like the U.S. is doing, then China would push back against the EU in the same way it was pushing back against the U.S. Wang also said Chinese media was only criticizing "one power, across the ocean," meaning the U.S. However, Wang also said that if the EU criticized China, it would be seen as "trying to please someone else," also meaning the U.S.