After the 22nd China-EU Summit held late last month, the EU leaders told the press that they had expressed concerns to China about disinformation and said that they know the origin of cyberattacks against EU hospitals, alluding to China. Some journalists then asked for the evidence, but the EU failed to offer a definite reply, provoking a barrage of criticisms.
As a researcher on China-EU relations, I was caught by big surprise. Normally, the annual China-EU Summit is an occasion where leaders of the two sides engage in strategic communication. Due to the time limit and broad agenda, the conversation is usually focused on major issues concerning the interests of China, the EU and the international community. It is rather abrupt to bring up the issue of disinformation.
It is worth noting what is happening behind the scenes. From the recent EU comments and reports, it is clear that the EU is trying to make “disinformation” a new source of tension between China and the EU, adding a new footnote to justify what it calls a “systemic rival”.
There are at least three loopholes in the EU’s accusations against China.
First, the EU seems to define disinformation according to its own likes and dislikes rather than scientific, objective and impartial criteria. Some examples given by the EU are quite far-fetched. For instance, the EU perceives it as disinformation that Chinese media report that the strict containment measures adopted by the Chinese government helped prevent 7 million infections.
The irony is that the conclusion is actually the result of a joint study by scientists from China, the U.S. and the UK published in Nature. What the Chinese media did was simply citing the study. It is far from being objective and fair to label information recognizing the Chinese government’s response efforts as disinformation.
Second, the EU is barking up the wrong tree. Anyone with a fair mind is clear-eyed who is the biggest producer and disseminator of disinformation about the pandemic. The top leader of a superpower, referring to COVID-19 as “Kung Flu”, said that the virus was from a Chinese laboratory, and even claimed that drinking bleach could kill the virus. The EU turned a deaf ear to such absurd comments and labeled Chinese diplomats’ rebuttal as disinformation. This is apparently applying double standards.
Third, the EU is abusing the concept of disinformation. As WHO pointed out, we are fighting not only a “pandemic” but also an “infodemic” and solidarity is the only way out. The EU describes China’s media coverage on the pandemic as a threat to democracy. Obviously, the EU’s concept of disinformation has an ideological and political tinge. This would only undermine efforts to fight real disinformation and do harm to the global cooperation against the pandemic.
In addressing the outbreak, there are differences arising within the EU. It is quite understandable. After all, this is an unprecedented global crisis that poses challenges to all countries in the world. The EU’s efforts to strengthen solidarity deserve due credit. Yet as we will eventually prevail over the pandemic, for European integration to advance steadily in the long term, the EU must spend more time on self-reflection and reform, instead of complaining about and blaming others.
Creating a false rival by hyping up disinformation may help divert attention and give a temporary vent to internal pressure in the EU, but it will come at the price of support and cooperation from the EU’s global partners, making it even more difficult for Europe to cope with global challenges and the real rivals such as the pandemic, climate change, and protectionism.