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Europe Is Taking a Harder Look at China After Virus Suspicions

Europe Is Taking a Harder Look at China After Virus Suspicions

(Bloomberg) —

European governments struggling with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic are hardening their positions toward China as suspicions grow over the level of transparency in the coronavirus’s country of origin.

French President Emmanuel Macron accused Beijing of not being upfront over its handling of the epidemic, while in the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to involve Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co. in the nation’s next-generation mobile network may fall prey to mounting opposition.

The European Union’s position on China has been relatively measured, but leaders are beginning to call for a more thorough examination of its activities amid accusations Beijing has covered up the true scale of the epidemic. American intelligence officials are said to have concluded that China concealed the extent of its outbreak and under-reported the number of cases and deaths.

“Let’s not be so naive as to say it’s been much better at handling this,” Macron told the Financial Times in an interview published Thursday, referring to China. “We don’t know — there are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.”

Revised Count

China on Friday revised its official death count from the coronavirus, adding some 1,290 fatalities from the city of Wuhan. The government pushed back against accusations of a cover-up, with Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian saying that revisions were common practice and that China “has done nothing that should be criticized.”

“China would like to work with all countries including France and the U.K. to stick to multilateralism, strengthen solidarity and cooperation to jointly safeguard life and health of all people,” Zhao told reporters in Beijing.

But tensions boiled over when the French government summoned the Chinese ambassador following the publication of a post on the embassy website that suggested France abandoned nursing home residents. France’s junior minister for European affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, also accused China and Russia last month of using the delivery of medical equipment to help spread propaganda in Europe.

A French official who declined to be identified said France’s priority was to secure masks and other health supplies from China and other countries, adding that the incident was “over.”

5G Networks

The strain was also set to stoke one of the key flash points of Chinese-EU relations: the presence of Huawei in European fifth-generation networks and suspicion that Beijing could exploit it for potential sabotage or espionage.

In London, Johnson’s government had hoped to win over Tory rebels with an information campaign about Huawei ahead of an as-yet-unscheduled vote in Parliament on the company’s involvement in the country’s 5G infrastructure.

But two people familiar with the government’s thinking now believe that a hardening of positions among rank-and-file Conservative MPs will make it difficult — if not impossible — to get the legislation passed. Prominent Conservatives have called for a rethink in Britain on relations with China.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has spent her tenure cultivating relations with the key trade partner, has been more cautious over any accusations against China. But German officials have warned about Beijing exploiting the crisis in the west and stepping into power vacuums as nations turn inward to slow the spread.

Power Vacuum

EU countries are already on alert for Chinese companies that may be seeking to exploit low valuations to take over European firms. Bankers have recently seen a spike in requests from Chinese firms and funds for proposals on targets in Europe.

Group of Seven and European nations must be on guard as President Xi Jinping’s government uses its leverage during the crisis and as the virus subsides, a German government official said in late March.

Without naming China explicitly, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that President Donald Trump’s order to freeze funding to the World Health Organization may invite powers that shun liberal democracy to scale up their presence.

“Every inch that the U.S. withdraws from the wider world, especially at this level, is space that will be occupied by others –- and that tends to be those who don’t share our values of liberal democracy,” Maas said Thursday in Berlin.

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