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18th Jan 2021

Coronavirus

EU criticised for giving in to Beijing censorship

  • EU foreign affairs chief said the EU needs to work within the Chinese context, including censorship (Photo: European Parliament)

The EU has come under renewed criticism for giving into censorship by China, after part of an opinion piece by the bloc's 27 European ambassadors published in the official China Daily was removed before publication.

The passage, referring to coronavirus originating from China, says the outbreak "...in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months" was removed upon the request by Chinese authorities.

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The op-ed was published on Tuesday (6 March) to mark the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the EU and China. The full piece was published on the EU delegation's website.

The EU's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell admitted on Wednesday (7 March) that "it was a misguided decision that must be put in this context".

"The EU delegation [in China] thought that was better to pass the EU's message on other topics, but he didn't manage to reach what he wanted, because the article was not published in Chinese," Borrell told journalists.

"I don't think it has a significant importance," he added, commenting on the missing sentence.

The commission said it regretted that the op-ed was not published in full in China Daily.

A commission spokesperson said the EU delegation was informed that the publication could only go forward with the agreement of the ministry of foreign affairs of China.

The delegation made its "concerns" known over the process and the request to remove part of the sentence.

"The EU delegation nevertheless decided to proceed with publication with considerable reluctance as it considered it important to communicate on EU policy priorities," the spokesperson said.

The 27 EU ambassadors in China were not properly consulted about whether to go ahead with publication in China Daily, despite the censorship, Reuters reported.

Borrell said it is "not a secret that in China there is censorship and the control of media", and that diplomacy operates within those constraints.

"All our missions, like all missions in Beijing, must work following the limits marked out by the Chinese authorities," Borrell said, adding that Chinese authorities use media freedom in Europe, including social platforms banned in China, to promote their messages across.

"Within this context, EU delegations do all their best to send the EU's message to China trying to overcome these barriers," he added.

"One sentence was deleted, but it is still the way of passing the EU's message in other areas like human rights, sustainability and others," the Spanish politician added.

In fact, the op-ed only briefly mentions human rights.

"While we have our differences, notably on human rights, our partnership has become mature enough to allow frank discussion on these issues," it reads.

It also calls on China to "join hands" and "invest in smart and green solutions for a more sustainable and healthy planet fully adhering to the universal principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

'Simply unacceptable'

MEP Reinhard Bütikofer said allowing censorship was "simply unacceptable".

"If the EU ambassador decided on his own to kow-tow, he should be relieved of his post. If he was given green light for kowtowing from Brussels, the European Parliament must censure Borrell," the Green MEP, who heads the EU parliament's delegation for relations with China, tweeted.

The EU came under scrutiny last week, as China pressured the bloc to tone down its report on Chinese disinformation.

The US and China has been locked in a war of words over the pandemic, with president Donald Trump claiming the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, while Chinese diplomats have promoted the theory that the virus was planted in Wuhan by the US military.

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