PARIS — China’s ambassador in France, Lu Shaye, on Thursday appeared to stand by his embassy’s controversial comments on the handling of the coronavirus crisis by western democracies and China, which have caused a rift with the French government.
The friendship between China and France is “stronger than rock,” Lu said in a statement posted on the embassy’s website, describing his country’s “goodwill” in fighting the pandemic alongside Paris and other capitals.
In recent weeks, his embassy’s tweets and comments have become the focus of increasing outrage among French officials and lawmakers. Things came to a head on Sunday with a blog post entitled “Restoring distorted facts.”
The text, signed by “a Chinese diplomat in Paris,” and not the first of its kind, defended China’s handling of the health crisis and accused western democracies of reckless behavior, including allegations that French health care workers left old people to die in nursing homes.
Lu was summoned on Tuesday by French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian over “recent remarks” that “are not in line with the quality of the bilateral relationship between our two countries,” according to a statement from the French ministry.
In his post, dated Thursday, Lu described joint efforts by Paris and Beijing to fight COVID-19, including the mutual supply of medical equipment.
“In the fight against COVID-19, France’s government, businesses and the public at large have for the most part been friendly towards China,” Lu added. “However, some media organizations, journalists and so-called ‘China experts’ have said discordant things that shouldn’t be taken lightly. China’s embassy in France is reacting to that with resolve, in a timely fashion, to restore the facts.”
French lawmakers expressed concerns over the relationship between France and China during a parliamentary hearing with Le Drian on Wednesday.
“Overall, the committee and its members did not at all appreciate the attitude of the Chinese Embassy and therefore welcomed the fact that a firm response was needed to what was written,” said Socialist Senator Rachid Temal at the hearing.
“The Chinese ambassador was too provocative and too rude, and above all, too complicit with the idea that this could be a conspiracy,” MP Éric Bothorel, from Macron’s La République En Marche party, told POLITICO, referring to comments in which the embassy, for instance, seemingly hinted at conspiracy theories linking the virus to U.S. work on bioweapons.
The embassy previously compared the lawmaker himself to “a toad” for having congratulated Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen upon her election.
Despite Macron’s push to cultivate good relations between the EU and China amid the coronavirus crisis, the embassy’s recent remarks, which are in line with a more aggressive approach by other Chinese diplomats posted abroad — sometimes referred to as “wolf warriors” — made it difficult to remain silent.
Since the virus spread from China to the rest of the world, Beijing has been engaged in an intense diplomatic effort to lend a positive sheen to its handling of the epidemic and efforts toward international cooperation, often at the expense of its western counterparts.
“When the epidemic began in China, France showed its willingness to offer support, even sending masks, but did so discretely at China’s request,” said a French Foreign Affairs official on the condition of anonymity. “But when it was time to help France, China put on a big show,” they added.
In addition to blog posts, the Chinese embassy in France wrote a Twitter thread criticizing the response to the pandemic in western democracies.
While this somewhat aggressive Chinese attitude has rankled French diplomats, they have kept a relatively low profile until now, mostly for pragmatic reasons.
Until national and European production capacity can be built up, and Paris can radically reduce its dependence on imports of these items, France will have to “secure production chains” and foster “very pragmatic cooperation,” a senior Elysée adviser told POLITICO.
But things escalated after the publication of Sunday’s article.
In it, an unnamed Chinese diplomat also denounced a “siege” by western countries against the World Health Organization. The diplomat wrote that some 80 French lawmakers had co-signed a disparaging statement, including a racist slur about World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and had accused Tedros, an Ethiopian, of pro-Chinese bias. It remains unclear which statement the accusation is meant to refer to.
“Nowadays, China’s role in Africa is competing with what [France is] doing,” said Senator Rachid Temal, adding that it was therefore all the more important for Paris to “relaunch its relationship with African countries.”
Over recent weeks, President Macron has been finalizing a support package for Africa, which he has been building in coordination with African leaders.
U.S. President Donald Trump has attacked the WHO for bowing to Beijing, one of the reasons cited for his threats to defund the organization.
Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.