The European Union’s diplomatic service has publicly upbraided its ambassador to Beijing, saying his decision to allow Chinese censorship of an open letter signed by EU envoys was “not the right one.”
The European External Action Service (EEAS) said late Thursday that its Beijing envoy Nicolas Chapuis was wrong to allow the letter to be published after a reference to the coronavirus originating in China before spreading worldwide was removed in response to pressure from the Chinese foreign ministry.
“This decision, taken under great time pressure, was not the right one to take,” EEAS spokesperson Virginie Battu-Henriksson said. “This has been made clear to the ambassador.” But Battu-Henriksson insisted Chapuis “continues to have our confidence,” as he “is an outstanding expert of China and thus an asset for the EEAS.”
China Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, on Wednesday published a letter attributed to Chapuis and the ambassadors to China of the EU’s 27 member countries calling for greater cooperation with Beijing. But the version that appeared on its website omitted a key reference to the fact the deadly pandemic originated in China and spread from there across the globe.
Battu-Henriksson said “the decision to go ahead [with the letter], with considerable reluctance, was taken locally,” adding that the ambassador did not consult with EEAS headquarters in Brussels beforehand.
China’s censorship of the ambassadors’ letter triggered outrage among EU diplomats and politicians, with some calling for Chapuis to be dismissed.
“If the ambassador has indeed decided on his own responsibility to accept the censorship, then he is the wrong man for the job and must leave,” Reinhard Bütikofer, the chairman of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, told POLITICO. He added that “it has long been known that this EU ambassador in Beijing is relatively uncritical.”
The EU’s delegation to China declined to respond directly to Bütikofer’s comment, but in a press statement sent to POLITICO, said it “strongly regrets that the Op-Ed was not published in its original, unedited form by the China Daily.”
The statement added that “the decision to proceed with the publication was taken by the EU Delegation due to the fact that, even without this phrase [referring to the origins and spread of the coronavirus], the Op-Ed passed key messages on a number of our priority areas to a potential audience of more than 1 billion readers.”
The incident was the second within two weeks in which the EEAS stood accused of bowing to pressure from Beijing over the coronavirus pandemic.
In late April, the diplomatic service dialed down criticism of Chinese disinformation about the coronavirus following protests from Beijing. The move triggered a furor, with the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell forced to appear before the European Parliament to defend his institutions’ actions.
Critics have also taken aim at the EU of failing to openly address China’s human rights record.
Bütikofer said the ambassadors’ letter was “euphemistic and cynical” on human rights, avoiding any mention of Chinese oppression of Uighurs or persecution of doctors who warned of the coronavirus at the beginning of the outbreak.
Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a candidate for the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, echoed that sentiment.
“I am shocked not once but twice,” Röttgen wrote Thursday on Twitter. “First the EU ambassadors generously adopt Chinese narratives and then the EU representation on top accepts Chinese censorship of the joint op-ed.”
In its statement, the EU’s delegation to China said: “The European Union consistently advocates strongly and at all levels with its Chinese interlocutors the need for a free and open press, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and for a level playing field. The EU Delegation does everything it can to operate effectively and to pass EU messages to the Chinese public.
“As the Op-Ed states, while the EU and China have differences, notably on human rights, our partnership has become mature enough to allow frank discussions on these issues. This is what makes this incident even more regrettable.”
Zoya Sheftalovich contributed reporting.
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