The China Factor in the EU: a values-oriented approach
For a long time, the EU has been characterised as “soft power” or “civilian power”. Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union clearly defines the Union’s founding values. Surprisingly, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China includes similar provisions. For instance, Article 33 states that “All citizens of the People’s Republic of China are equal before the law.” and “The State respects and preserves human rights.”
On paper, everything seems to be fine. In practice, indicators tell a different story.
Examining multiple global rankings, China consistently ranks poorly – 126th in the Human Freedom Index, 153rd in the Democracy Index and 88th in the Rule of Law Index. These numbers reveal something intrinsically wrong at the stage of implementation. On the plus side, “order and security” performs well, due to the widespread surveillance and information control and may contribute to economic development. On the down side, the self-proclaimed stability and harmony are maintained at the expense of fundamental rights, civil and political rights in particular. Minority groups also suffer, especially on the periphery of China, namely in Xinjiang and lately Hong Kong. It is worth noting that the EU strategy for China released in 2019 identifies these issues, naming them “Human Rights” issues.
There are classical rebuttals from the Chinese government. “The relevant country has made irresponsible accusations about China’s human rights situation in disregard of basic facts. China is firmly opposed to that.” This was the first sentence of an answer given by the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson during the regular press conference on Human Rights Day in 2019. In line with this response, a pre-condition was added – “The Chinese people have the best say in the human rights situation in China”. Under this hard-line stance, it is wrong to expect that engagement from the international community drives short-term changes within Chinese territory as the one-party state has already shut the door on this field.
More worryingly, the willingness to ignore wrongdoings and aggressiveness from China have continuous implications on European affairs. The following examples in April 2020 relate to the Coronavirus and can help visualise this trend.
The Chinese embassy in Berlin openly criticised Bild, the largest newspaper in Germany, for publishing an article reporting the damage caused by the pandemic. Later the same month, the Netherlands was asked by the consulate of China to clarify the decision to change the name of the Dutch representation in Taiwan, from “The Netherlands Trade and Investment Office” to “Netherlands Office Taipei”. This demand is linked with a well-timed bargaining chip – the possible suspension of medical supplies from China.
At the European level, pressures from China exist as well. The media reported that Chinese diplomats attempted to influence the content of a report from the European External Action Service documenting the disinformation surrounding the disease. Josep Borrell, the so-called EU foreign policy chief, admitted the intervention, and reassured that it was a normal but unsuccessful diplomatic move.
It is reasonable to believe that China will continue to put pressure on European issues with increasingly assertive diplomatic efforts. An underlying cause for this phenomenon leads the analysis back to the theme of values. China ranked 177 out of 180 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. A critical argument from Reporters Without Borders is that Chinese society could have reacted to the virus more promptly and saved more lives, under the absence of media control and censorship from the state. For the EU, the take-away from this chain of events is that disrespecting universal values has tangible real-life consequences, even if the violations happened in China, an authoritarian regime far from the continent.
From the European perspective, EU-China relations require a more assertive approach. Firmly anchoring foreign policy measures with European values can be a way-out. Unlike economic gains, strategic interests and values are long-term-oriented and mutually shared amongst member states. An EU-wide solid and unified front will rebalance the influence from China with the resilience from Europe.
There is a saying in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The deeply-rooted distrust against Beijing contributes to the success in fighting the Coronavirus. Even though it may be academically and politically incorrect, this sends a clear message to Europe. Now is the time for Europeans to better protect the Union while engaging with China.
(Banner image: europa.eu)