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Photo credit: Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Controversy over revisions made to a public report from the European Union under pressure from China is pitting EU staff against each other and against media outlets that have covered the issue.

Why it matters: The furor over the report, which called out China for its coronavirus disinformation campaign, demonstrates how behind-the-scenes pressure from an authoritarian government can sow division within democratic societies.

What's happening: The European External Action Service (EEAS), which acts as the EU's foreign ministry, houses a task force that publishes regular updates about disinformation targeting the EU.

  • Politico reported early last week that EEAS would soon be publishing a report about Chinese and Russian disinformation about the coronavirus.
  • But the report didn't appear for several days. When the public version of the report was finally released on Friday April 24, its criticism of China had been slightly softened and several lines removed, when compared with the version Politico had previously seen.
  • Leaked emails revealed Beijing had objected to the report and warned it would harm the EU-China relationship.
  • The internal version of the report was left unchanged.

And now it's gotten ugly. The EEAS press office has accused media outlets of "disinfo," of "ungrounded, inaccurate allegations" and of "play[ing] into the hands of those who seek to undermine our work."

  • Journalists, EU staff, and politicians spent the weekend lobbing criticisms at each other over the issue.

The big picture: The pressure from China "allowed the EEAS to get played in the worst possible way. This outcome is better for China than even if the EEAS had published a highly sanitized version of the report to begin with,” a person with intimate knowledge of the situation told Axios.

  • “That’s the disinformation win that should have been avoided.”

What they're saying: Chinese diplomat Yang Xiaoguang told the EEAS delegation in Beijing early last week that if the report was released it would be very bad for cooperation, adding that China would be "very angry" and "very disappointed," according to diplomatic communications obtained by Axios.

  • Yang urged EEAS not to publish the report and denied that China was spreading disinformation.
  • In multiple communications viewed by Axios, Chinese officials raised a controversial incident in which a post on the website of the Chinese embassy in Paris claimed, falsely, that residents of French nursing homes had been abandoned to "die of hunger and disease." The officials said the incident already had been resolved and thus did not merit further attention. This incident was scrubbed from the EEAS report.

Between the lines: In communications with EU officials regarding the forthcoming report, Chinese officials repeatedly compared EU-China relations favorably with US-China relations — but dangled that comparison as a threat to what might happen if the EU criticized China's coronavirus response.

  • In a phone call with an EEAS official in Beijing on April 21, Chinese foreign ministry official Wang Lutong stated that if the EU were to publicly blame China, as the U.S. was doing, then the EU would be pushed back against in the same way, according to diplomatic correspondence viewed by Axios.
  • Wang said criticism in Chinese media was only directed against “one power, across the ocean," a reference to the U.S. Yang, the other Chinese diplomat, said that any European criticism of China would be viewed as "trying to please someone else," another veiled reference to the U.S.

The EEAS delegation in Beijing declined to comment.

EEAS spokesperson Peter Stano declined to comment on diplomatic communications but did tell Axios "the publication of our regular findings and overviews or their updates, the timing and content are not determined by any outside factors."

Yes, but: Those defending the EEAS have emphasized they did not accede to Beijing's demand, which was to not publish the report; that the internal report distributed privately to EU member states was not revised at all; and the changes in the public report were not substantive.

  • Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament and vice chair of the parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the People’s Republic of China, said in an interview with Axios that the revisions weren't done to appease Beijing. He said EEAS leadership wanted to take extra care with the report given the scrutiny they realized it would be under.
  • The staff had decided to "check and make sure" they were "on solid ground," Bütikofer said, so the report was sent to additional editors for review to ensure that every statement could be thoroughly backed up. "Nobody advocated not publishing. But they wanted to be on safe ground."

Go deeper: China takes a page from Russia's disinformation playbook

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