China says it is a "victim of disinformation" and rejected claims from the EU that the country has spread "fake news" about COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.
Brussels has accused China and Russia of spearheading influence campaigns since the outbreak of the virus, but their claims have been met with a swift denial.
A Chinese spokesman said: "First, I would like to point out that China is always opposed to the fabrication and dissemination of disinformation by any individual or organization. China is a victim of disinformation."
The accusation came as the European Commission laid out plans to beef up its fight against a "wave of false and misleading information, hoaxes and conspiracy theories."
"The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a massive infodemic," said Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign affairs minister, at a press conference in Brussels.
Under the current circumstances, spreading disinformation and trading accusations will do nothing to help the global fight against the pandemic.
- A spokesman for China has firmly denied hindering the global response to the pandemic by spreading fake news
In the report, titled Getting the Facts Right, Brussels accused China and Russia of engaging "in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU, its neighborhood and globally."
The European External Action Service has leveled this accusation before. In May, it claimed China was deflecting blame and using the pandemic to "enhance their image abroad," but this is the first time the EU executive arm has publicly named China.
"We are clearly mentioning Russia and China and we have sufficient evidence to make such a declaration. It's very evidence-based," said Vĕra Jourova, vice-president of the European Commission in charge of values and transparency. "I strongly believe that a geopolitical EU can only materialize if we are assertive and name the issues we face."
However, China is adamant the report is incorrect and stated that spreading fake news would hinder its goal of forging a close relationship with the EU.
A spokesman added: "China and the EU are not systemic rivals, but comprehensive strategic partners. While remaining firmly committed to the path of its own choice, China has no intention to export its system and development model, nor to participate in any 'battle of narratives.'
"Under the current circumstances, spreading disinformation and trading accusations will do nothing to help the global fight against the pandemic.
"The communication refers to China selectively, and does not mention a single word about those who fabricate genuine disinformation that is anti-China and anti-science. We hope that the EU could address the relevant issues in a fact-based, unbiased and rational manner."
The EU says it's concerned with how quickly disinformation spreads on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In recent weeks, Brussels has stepped up pressure on social media platforms to do more to combat the spread of false information and has threatened regulatory action if they fail to do so.
"One thing is the facts, the other is the opinions," said Borrell. "We have to fight for the facts to be the right ones, the true ones, in order to fuel a fair democratic system."
Brussels is urging social media companies to sign a code of practice on disinformation. Jourova said Chinese video-sharing app TikTok has committed to signing the pledge. Google, Facebook and Twitter are among the other signatories. Brussels is also asking these companies to issue detailed monthly reports on how they are fighting false information.
The report also highlighted Europe's own shortcomings. The plan called for better communication both within and outside the EU and more support for independent media and fact-checkers.（Toni Waterman in Brussels）