The incidents indicate a discordant approach from Europe toward China at a moment when the continent is heading into what it expects will be the worst economic collapse in its post-World War II history. Europe is eager for Chinese trade as an economic lifeline and seeks to hedge its bets if China manages to be the first to develop a vaccine against the virus. But it also prides itself on being a defender of liberal democracy, press freedoms and human rights — all areas where European policymakers have criticized Beijing.
“We regret that this op-ed, that this joint op-ed was not published in full by the China Daily,” European Commission spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson told reporters Thursday. “The E.U. delegation to China made known its concern to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in no uncertain terms.”
It was with “considerable reluctance” that the delegation agreed to the publication of the censored article, Battu-Henriksson said. She said the E.U. mission in China ultimately decided that the broader benefit from publishing the messages contained within the edited version of the opinion article outweighed its unhappiness over the removal of material.
The material that was removed referred to the Chinese origins of the virus: “the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world.” The op-ed was published Wednesday and was co-signed by the ambassadors to China of the 27 E.U. member states.
The E.U. delegation to China published the unredacted opinion piece on its own website, and Battu-Henriksson said it was made available to other Chinese outlets. But the censored version was promoted on Twitter by Gunnar Wiegand, the top official for Asian affairs at the European Commission’s diplomatic arm.
China initially sought to cover up the outbreak, which is believed to have started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Beijing has since been sensitive to criticism of its handling of the pandemic.
The E.U.’s handling of the censorship incident was sharply criticized by European lawmakers who have been critical of China.
“This is simply unacceptable,” tweeted Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament from the Green Party. “If the EU ambassador decided on his own to kowtow, he should be relieved of his post. If he was given green light for kowtowing from Brussels, the European Parliament must censure” E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
Even in its uncensored form, the op-ed, celebrating the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Europe and Beijing, was notably gentle with China at a time when Beijing’s diplomatic missions in Europe have been unrestrained in their broadsides against both Europe’s own response to the pandemic and its criticism of China.
“At different stages of the pandemic, there has been reciprocal assistance between Europe, China, and others, demonstrating mutual support,” read one line of the op-ed. “That is how true partners act.”
In contrast, an unsigned opinion piece posted late last month on the website of China’s embassy in France said that “some Westerners are starting to lose confidence in liberal democracy” amid the pandemic. Another post said France had abandoned its elderly to “die from starvation and disease,” leading the French Foreign Ministry to lodge a formal protest.
European officials may simply be trying to avoid yet another fight at a moment when they are also clashing with Washington on several issues, including trade, defense and vaccine development, analysts said. And European economies are in free fall: Figures released Wednesday suggested that they are suffering a vastly worse blow than during the 2008 financial crisis or anything outside of war or total economic collapse.
“We’re in an economic disaster. It’s a very weak moment for Europe. There is very little unity. There are doubts about solidarity,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The question is how many battle fronts you can afford.”
But Oertel warned that the concessions may weaken European leaders’ ability to put limits on Chinese behavior on their territory.
“There is a lot of noise in the relationship at the moment. They likely thought this is a good opportunity to turn down the volume, but when you choose to publish in China Daily, then it will necessarily be on China’s terms,” she said. “The text is astonishing, even without the censored parts.”
Some observers wondered why the 27 E.U. ambassadors to China had signed off on such a platitude-filled message in the middle of a confrontation with Beijing.
“I am shocked not once but twice: First the #EU ambassadors generously adopt #Chinese narratives & then the EU representation on top accepts Chinese censorship of the joint op-ed,” tweeted the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Norbert Röttgen. “Speaking with one voice is important, but it has to reflect our shared European values and interests!”
Top E.U. leaders in recent weeks have been willing to criticize China; those critics include Borrell, who supervises the E.U. ambassador in Beijing, Nicolas Chapuis. During a hearing last week at the European Parliament that was requested after the report on disinformation was softened, he called China “a competitor and a systemic rival.”
Some national leaders of E.U. states also have been tough. So the conciliatory moves toward Beijing may reflect a conflict of visions about how to handle relations with it rather than a coherent policy of appeasement, observers said.
And China’s aggressive public tone toward Europe may be backfiring, souring opinions at a time when it might otherwise have been able to reap a public relations bonanza from its shipments of medical equipment to hard-hit European countries.
One notable bellwether emerged this weekend in Germany, whose manufacturing-heavy economy is deeply dependent on good relations with China. German leaders have often advocated a go-gentle approach with Beijing. But a prominent business leader, the chief executive of the influential Axel Springer publishing group, on Sunday called for a decisive break.
“There is no need for finely crafted rhetoric here, we need to make a fundamental political decision. China or the US. It is no longer possible to go with both,” Mathias Döpfner wrote in an op-ed published in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper and in Business Insider. “Should we allow the state capitalism of a totalitarian global power to continue to infiltrate or even take over key industries?”