The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China has turned to bullying to avoid accountability. It may be working on Europe.

Chinese President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province in March.
Chinese President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province in March. (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua/AP)
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CHINA’S EFFORT to avoid accountability for the novel coronavirus pandemic through a global propaganda campaign seems to be doing as much harm as good for Beijing. Attempts by government officials and state media to cast blame on the United States or other Western countries for the origin and spread of the virus have triggered a backlash; deliveries of humanitarian supplies have led to reports about their poor quality.

Rather than retreat, President Xi Jinping’s regime has turned to a familiar tactic: bullying. Its diplomats are demanding that governments offer praise for China’s handling of the epidemic or censor reports on its failings, and they are threatening consequences if their requirements are not met. Disturbingly, this tactic appears to be working with the European Union.

Last week, a unit inside the European External Action Service dedicated to tracking disinformation completed a report about covid-19 that described Chinese and Russian propaganda. Among other things, it said, accurately, that “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image.”

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Global Opinions writer Josh Rogin has obtained a 2018 U.S. diplomatic cable urging Washington to better support a Chinese lab researching bat coronaviruses. (Video: The Washington Post)

When a leak about the report appeared in Politico’s European edition, China’s enforcers got busy. According to the Financial Times, two foreign ministry officials called the E.U. Embassy in Beijing, while a third contacted the E.U. diplomatic headquarters in Brussels. They objected to the conclusion that the Chinese government was spreading disinformation; the Financial Times reported that a senior official told the E.U.’s ambassador in Beijing that “if the E.U. were to follow the U.S. in publicly attacking China, it would be pushed back as the U.S. had been.”

Brussels’s reaction was extraordinary. According to the New York Times, an aide to the E.U.’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, told the disinformation unit to revise its report so that it focused less on Russia and China. Sure enough, when it was finally posted Friday, the account dropped the reference to China’s “global disinformation campaign” as well as a reference to an attempt by the Chinese ambassador in Paris to discredit France’s response to the pandemic.

A spokesman for the External Action Service claimed Monday that there had been a “misperception” of its actions, and that there had been two reports, with the tougher one intended all along for “internal consumption.” That was hard to credit, given an internal email obtained by the Times in which one E.U. analyst accused her superiors of “self-censoring to appease the Chinese Communist Party.” And why prepare two versions, if not to avoid Beijing’s wrath?

The Xi regime’s campaign to suppress Western reporting and commentary about its coronavirus record is escalating. It recently expelled journalists from The Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Its diplomats demanded a public statement by the German government praising its coronavirus management. Its ambassador in Australia threatened the country with an economic boycott if the government did not stop asking for an investigation of the origin and handling of covid-19 in China. The response to such belligerence cannot be appeasement and censorship.

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