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EU-China ‘wolves v sheep’ media dispute

8 May 2020

The decision to allow the publication of an op-ed in China Daily censored under Chinese pressure has led to sharp criticism of the EEAS for the second time in two weeks. The article, co-authored by the EU ambassador to China and the 27 member state ambassadors, painted a relatively rosy picture of cooperation to mark the 45th anniversary of the EU-China relations.

But the Chinese had removed the reference to the outbreak of the coronavirus “starting in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world,” something which Beijing has either disputed or played down in recent weeks as the ‘battle of the narratives’ started.

The news of the EU ambassador, Nicolas Chapuis, acquiesing to Chinese demands resulted in immediate calls for his dismissal. Reinhard Bütikofer, the chair of the EU Parliament Delegation to China, called for his resignation for ‘kowtowing’ to the Chinese government. Norbert Roettgen, the chair of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, also tweeted his shock that the EU not only adopted the Chinese narrative but also accepted the censorship.

It seems that the 27 ambassadors had not been properly consulted on the decision to go-ahead with the publication after the cut. Nicholas Chapuis described the publication of the censored opinion piece “regrettable.” The EU delegation also issued a press statement which “strongly regretted that the op-ed was not published in its original form.” The decision to go ahead regardless had been made “with considerable relucatance” to deliver the message on “climate change and sustainability, human rights, the importance of multilateralism, the Coronavirus Global Response Summit, macro-economic assistance and debt relief for highly indebted countries” to the Chinese audience of potentially “over one billion”.

Apart from China Daily, the op ed was published uncensored in some other Chinese media outlets, according to the EU Delegation. Some EU embassies published the original version on their websites while others simply replayed the censored version. The same confusion reigned in Brussels where different versions were re-tweeted by officials.

The EEAS spokesperson Virginie Battu-Henriksson, publicly rebuked Chapuis’ decision as “not the right one to take” but added that the ambassador still has “the continued confidence of the EEAS as he is an outstanding expert on China.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the EU High Representative Josep Borrell said that the diplomatic mission in China must “work under the conditions and within the limits set by the Chinese authorities”.

The latest row comes barely a week after EEAS was accused of bowing to Chinese pressure to tone down its criticism of China in a report on disinformation about Covid-19. The accusation was denied by Josep Borrell in a speech to the European Parliament on 30 April.

The pressure on EEAS to acquit itself will undoubtedly mount as it attempts to balance its designation and treatment of China as ‘a systemic rival’ and its efforts build closer cooperation with China on issues of shared concern. Just polishing its tarnished image in Brussels will be difficult. On Europe Day, Reinhard Bütikofer tweeted “Where China has wolf warrior diplomats, the EU has sheep.”