Europe envoys defend decision to let China media censor column on coronavirus

Several EU members complained that the delegation hadn't consulted with them. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (BLOOMBERG) - European Union ambassadors defended their decision to let Chinese state media remove a coronavirus reference from an opinion piece, in the latest diplomatic dust-up over the pandemic's origins.

The EU Delegation to China said in a statement on Friday (May 8) that it approved publication because the edited piece still addressed other issues of concern such as climate change, environmental sustainability, human rights and multilateralism.

Several EU members complained that the delegation hadn't consulted with them before agreeing to China's demands, BuzzFeed News reported based on diplomatic correspondence it reviewed.

The piece - signed by 28 ambassadors to mark the 45th anniversary of ties - originally stated: "The outbreak of the coronavirus 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."

But "in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world" was struck from the version published in the China Daily, a state-run, English-language newspaper.

"The EU delegation strongly regrets that the op-ed was not published in its original, unedited form by the China Daily," the group of envoys said on Friday.

They said that the China Daily informed them that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs would only allow publication after the change. The Communist Party-run People's Daily didn't carry the piece at all.

The incident shows China's sensitivity over foreign government statements that could be read as ascribing blame to Beijing for the virus first detected on Chinese soil.

Early sympathy for China's plight as the original epicentre of the outbreak has given way to increased tensions around the world, from the US to Europe to Africa to Australia, fuelled in part by aggressive reactions from China's diplomats.

The debate over the virus' origins has heated up in recent days as Trump administration officials accused the China of covering up the outbreak, hoarding medical supplies and allowing the pathogen to escape from a high-security government laboratory.

China has denied the claims, saying it has done what it could to inform the world about the outbreak.

The European Union is among those groups seeking an investigation into how the previously unknown virus made the jump from animals to humans before being discovered in central Chinese city of Wuhan last year.

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