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24th Feb 2018

Commission blames China for press gag in EU capital

  • Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso exchanges diplomatic papers with China's EU ambassador, Wu Hailong, in March (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The European Commission has indicated that China is responsible for a ban on media questions to vice premier Li Keqiang during his two-day visit to the EU capital.

Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde on Wednesday (2 May) told reporters they can take photos of him at three separate press events in the EU quarter on Wednesday and Thursday but they will not be able to ask him questions at any point.

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"What can I say? It takes two to tango and this is what we have been able to arrange ... If you have any questions about other media arrangements you should rather ask our Chinese partners. So I'll leave it at that," she added, on whether the press gag was a Chinese idea or an EU one.

Wang Xining, the spokesman of the Chinese embassy to the EU, told EUobserver the decision is based on Chinese "custom" and that he is "frustrated" by people who see it as something else.

"It is interpreted as if we are trying to avoid something ... or repressing freedom of speech. I don't complain. I know what people are thinking. But I feel frustrated because this is just a protocol arrangement. For Europeans, when people meet at this level there must be a press conference. But in our custom, we receive many presidents and prime ministers - sometimes there is a press conference, sometimes not," he said.

Li's trip to Brussels coincides with breaking news on an east-west diplomatic crisis in which a Chinese dissident - Chen Guangcheng - fled house arrest and was sheltered by the US embassy in Beijing.

It also coincides with a scandal in China's ruling clique. Bo Xilai - seen earlier as a contender to become the new Chinese leader in 2013 - was last month defenestrated from the Communist Party's politburo and investigated over a gangland murder, leaving Li as the top candidate.

Noting that she will email press a memo on Li's visit and the texts of three declarations on energy and "sustainable urbanisation," the commission's Ahrenkilde said "this will enable you to cover the story."

When another politburo member, Liu Yandong, visited Brussels two weeks ago, the commission said there was no time for press questions for "logistical reasons."

EU institutions in November 2010 blocked government-critical Chinese journalists from entering a press conference with Chinese VIPs for "security" reasons. They let them in when other EU-accredited reporters complained. But they cancelled the press conference at China's request.

Ahrenkilde on Wednesday said she thinks "it is likely" EU leaders will ask Li about Chen but she "cannot confirm" it. She added that Li's decision to avoid press "is not linked" to the 2010 episode.

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