The European Union is facing criticism for agreeing to remove a key paragraph from a joint letter by 27 E.U. ambassadors published in China Daily to mark the 45th anniversary of China-E.U. diplomatic relations. David Brennan reports for Newsweek:

Ambassador to China Nicolas Chapuis and the ambassadors of the 27 states to Beijing co-authored a letter published Wednesday on the mission to China’s website and by the China Daily newspaper, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s department. The letter called for closer cooperation between Brussels and Beijing, despite political concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

The original letter included the passage: “But the outbreak of the in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months, has meant that our pre-existing plans have been temporarily side-tracked.”

This passage meant the article was initially barred from publication by the Chinese foreign ministry. The EU decided to allow the passage to be removed from the English version published, but China Daily did not print the article in full in Chinese as agreed, the EU said.

Virginie Battu-Henriksson, an EU spokesperson on foreign affairs, told Newsweek that the EU delegation in China was told that the letter could only be published “with the agreement of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” [Source]

The individual ambassadors who signed the letter were not consulted about the final version of the letter before it was published, according to a Reuters report by Yew Lun Tian:

“It is regrettable that part of the sentence about the spread of the virus has been edited,” EU Ambassador to China Nicolas Chapuis told reporters at a briefing.

[…] Chapuis refused to comment on why the words may have been taken out. A senior EU diplomat told Reuters that the change arose from censorship by Chinese authorities but that individual EU ambassadors were not properly consulted about whether to go ahead with publication in The China Daily, despite censors.

The European Commission, the EU executive, defended the decision by the EU delegation to Beijing on Thursday.

“The EU delegation decided nevertheless to proceed with publication of the op-ed with considerble reluctance as it was considered important to communicate on key EU policies,” the Commission said in its daily news briefing in Brussels. [Source]

Alberto Nardelli of BuzzFeed News has more on the response from the ambassadors:

Diplomats from several European countries confirmed that their governments had not been consulted and some only found out about the changes to the article after it was published.

One of the diplomats said there had been no discussion about the piece in capitals, nor among diplomatic missions in Brussels. They noted the irony of the incident happening just a few days after World Press Freedom Day on Sunday.

Another diplomat described the decision to accept China’s request as “weak”, while a third said member states being kept in the dark was “really bad”. A senior diplomat from a major EU country told BuzzFeed News that several European governments were unhappy about how the issue had been dealt with. “The EU lost credibility in the eyes of China by accepting the demands,” said the diplomat. [Source]

This revelation comes after reports that the E.U. had altered the final version of a report on disinformation about COVID-19 to downplay information about campaigns from Russia and China. Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times reported last month on the accusations as well as on denials by the E.U.’s top diplomat that the report was changed due to pressure from China:

The report, released late last week, described Chinese and Russian efforts to spread falsehoods and propaganda about the pandemic. But The New York Times reported that the language had been toned down amid criticism from China. The final report differed in key areas from both an internal version and an earlier draft that had been planned for public release, according to interviews, emails and documents seen by The Times.

The European Union’s senior diplomat, Josep Borrell, acknowledged that Chinese officials had objected to the report, but said such objections are “are the daily bread of diplomacy.” He said the revisions had been part of the normal editing process. “There was no watering down of our findings,” Mr. Borrell said.

Lawmakers appeared skeptical. Thierry Mariani, a French member of the European Parliament, told Mr. Borrell that his team had been “caught with their hand in the cookie jar.”

[…] The report was a routine roundup of publicly available information and news reports. The internal report, and a version that was drafted for public release, both dedicated separate sections to state-sponsored by China and Russia. In the final version, those sections were folded into the rest of the report, and many of the examples related to China’s actions were included at the bottom, under the heading “Other selected activities.” [Source]

Alberto Nardelli reports for BuzzFeed that, when questioned about the changes to the report, Borrell and other top E.U. officials have lashed out at those who leaked the earlier version of the report:

Responding to questions from members of the European Parliament, Borrell accused staff of damaging the EU by leaking. He also appeared to suggest that analysts’ views were biased and cast doubt on their credibility.

“I cannot accept that the personal belief or feeling of a member of staff leaking mails — maybe being written to be leaked — created damage to the credibility of the institution,” he said, later asking MEPs why “more credibility” was being given “to the personal opinion of a member of a staff”.

Multiple EU officials told BuzzFeed News they were left angry and disappointed by Borrell’s focus on leaks and, in particular, his singling out of junior staff members.

Two officials said similar arguments had been pushed internally. A senior EU official told BuzzFeed News that Borrell’s closest advisers had said on multiple occasions at recent meetings of top EU officials that “it’s the leaks that are unacceptable”. [Source]

These moves come as the Chinese government is making a concerted effort to alter the historical record on their response to the coronavirus. In April, the German interior ministry revealed that Chinese officials had approached German politicians to ask them to make positive comments about China’s handling of the disease. Chinese officials have also rebuked efforts by other governments, including Australia, to investigate the virus’s origins and spread, and to criticize China’s initial obfuscation and censorship of its potential threat. At the same time, the Chinese government has spread propaganda and disinformation about the virus’s origins and their handling of it.