China v the EU: Who Will Win?

A newspaper article published by the Chinese embassy in France deriding the country’s care for senior citizens during the pandemic is the new front in a propaganda war between China and the EU. It has raised the interesting question of who will win this war. 

The Chinese government is widely seen as engaging in a propaganda war with the EU to deflect blame away from itself for its own mishandling of the current pandemic, and to paint a positive image of itself within individual EU nations. 

To some extent, it could be argued that the Chinese have experienced some initial success. Be it Italy’s foreign minister posting a video welcoming Chinese aid whilst at the same time criticising the lacklustre EU response or Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez praising China’s approach and saying Spain would seek to learn from it. Alongside  Serbian President Aleksander Vucic saying that China was the only country that could help, in contrast to his fervent criticism of the EU’s decision to close exports through its borders. It does appear as though the Chinese have hit the right tone between providing immediate aid and reminding nations within the EU of where that aid has come from.

Further to their genuine efforts to provide assistance, the Chinese have also resorted to taking a leaf out of the Russian playbook. First, there were tweets which cast doubt over the origin of the virus, suggesting that it actually started in Italy. Then came a tweet which amplified a false story of Romans thanking China whilst playing the country’s national anthem from their balconies. The use of bots to spread these fake news stories alongside countless other tweets filled with misinformation has helped distort the narrative around what exactly is happening in regards to Chinese aid to Europe. Such tweets patently ignore or brush over the faulty equipment which has been returned by countries such as the Czech Republic.

Statements from both the European Commission and French President Emmanuel Macron that highlighted the fact that ‘both Germany and France have donated more masks to Italy than China,’ only serves to emphasise how successful the Chinese have been in this propaganda war. For, if the EU had managed to get itself together, it would not have allowed the Chinese narrative to so dominate public discourse.

Only recently has the EU started trying to truly counter the Chinese propaganda efforts. Joseph Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy representative recent speech on a global battle of narratives and accusations against China of pushing false narratives saw Huawei decide to scale down its European mask donation programme to avoid becoming embroiled in politics. Borrell’s speech also saw the European Council acknowledge that it needs to engage in a communication battle with those spreading disinformation, which is a belated realisation of the dangers facing the EU’s internal workings. 

To this end, it seems that the EU is relying both on the skepticism that its elites and citizenry already hold toward China-with some already pushing for war damages– and it’s own understanding of history, which has been shown by the cancellation of the regular EU-China summit. Alongside the implementation of a new framework for the protection of critical European medical assets. 

However, it should be noted that no matter how much the EU might bark, its bite will always be hindered by economic concerns particularly those of its leading economies Germany and France. With Germany and France being export heavy economies, and with China forecast to be the first country to emerge out of the current pandemic induced economic shock, both nations will be eager not to walk too tightly over the country in their desire for accountability, out of fear of harming trade relations and their own economic futures. 

This doesn’t even take into consideration the blatant truth that the Chinese are also the country responsible for producing the vast quantities of masks and other supplies that European nations need to protect their key workers. Which again suggests a need for the EU to tread lightly, as clearly demonstrated by their editing of a key report which had as its key conclusion a line holding China responsible for the outbreak of the virus. The version of the report that was published on Friday instead used softer language to talk about China and potentially edited out other elements from an earlier version.

It would appear therefore that in the current propaganda war, though the EU might be making all the right noises about countering Chinese disinformation attempts, they are actually able to do very little. The reasoning being that to anger the dragon would negatively impact their economies when the pandemic settles, and that as with everything money is the big decider in all this. Not to mention that angering the Chinese now could see them stop sending desperately needed supplies for European hospitals and staff. In short the Chinese are winning.

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