Uighur Sanctions Finally Show EU’s Rough Awakening on China as a ‘Responsible Stakeholder’
For many years now, a major diplomatic collision between the European Union and the People’s Republic of China had been a question of “when”, not “if” — if both parties were expected to stick and remain true to their own respective standards and doctrines.
That major collision finally occurred in March 2021, and it keeps unfolding. What’s a little historically surprising is this diplomatic clash has been brought about by a previously marginal issue that just a couple of years ago was hardly the top candidate for becoming “the stone to overturn the card” of overt EU-Chinese amicability: the treatment of the ethnic Uighurs in the Xinjiang province in Northwest China, also known historically as “East Turkestan”.
That is correct. It hasn’t been an EU outrage over the state of democracy and human rights in China (alright, let’s clarify: the way they are perceived by the West); or the massive outsourcing of European jobs (in the same fashion as American jobs have more famously been outsourced to China); or intellectual property theft accusations; or the issues surrounding Hong Kong; or the geopolitical situation in the East China Sea and the South China Sea; or anything else.
It is the Uighur issue which has “the honor” of formally ending the European Union leaders’ pipe dreams that they can do lots of business with China while pretending that the leadership of the People’s Republic isn’t engaging in actions and policies that don’t correspond to the EU’s own self-imposed standards in a wide range of areas – even if the Chinese position could actually seem perfectly justifiable and morally defensible from Beijing’s point of view.
Thus, in March 2021, the EU penalized Chinese officials for the first time since the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement (yes, it’s been 32 years!).
The EU joined the US, the UK, and Canada in sanctioning China over the treatment of the ethnic Uighur Muslims by China which, reports suggest, amount to ethnic cleansing and genocide, including the reported internment of some 1 million Uighurs in “re-education camps”. Beijing has declared such reports to be “maliciously lies and disinformation”, as it has slapped its own counter sanctions on EU and European politicians.
In early May 2021, EU Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis revealed that “the EU sanctions in place against China and Chinese counter sanctions in place” have effectively frozen the ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). The EU-China trade deal in question was signed in December after seven years of negotiation.
It seems like the European Union has finally come to that rough awakening long in the making that China will not be “the responsible stakeholder” that the liberal-minded ruling establishment in the West had either genuinely hope or hypocritically touted the PRC would become as its internationalist capitalist class lavishly poured investment as well as know-how and intellectual property – on Chinese soil.
This whole notion that “China will become a responsible stakeholder” in international affairs, and, more specifically, in the international order shaped by the West (and more specifically by “the Anglo-Americans”) has been one of the worst, most naïve and/or hypocritical clichés since the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the fall of the Berlin Wall 32 years ago.
That is, China was supposed to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the Western order as Western capitalists greedily showered it with money and know-how in order to make short-term profits on the backs of hundreds of million hardworking common Chinese people.
Why is it that this “China as a responsible stakeholder” notion has been naïve and/or hypocritical?
Because the fact of the matter is that under its existing political setup (not to mention the many thousands of years of Chinese imperial history, the People’s Republic of China would and could never have become the “responsible stakeholder” the Western theoreticians would have hoped – to respond to Western standards and to join in the propping up of a Western world order (also described as a “liberal world order” amid the post-Cold War euphoria, a notion now seemingly discredited).
But let me pause right there and state that China is a “responsible stakeholder” in international politics. It is just that is a “responsible stakeholder” by its own standards, by Beijing’s definitions, world views, and ideology; certainly by the standards of the what – 4,000 years of Chinese history; largely by the current standards or modus operandi of the region of East Asia; and also by the standards of world great power politics prior to 1945, and classical European great power politics from 19th century and prior to that.
And that is not a morally weak position by any means as far as the leadership in Beijing and the Chinese citizens are concerned.
Let me spell out further, in an oversimplified fashion, how the Beijing leadership’s line of thinking seems to go:
China is a “responsible stakeholder” with respect to the history of the Middle Kingdom because its current rise is making up (to put it mildly) for its humiliation at the hands of Western and later Japanese imperialists in the roughly 100 years from the First Opium War until World War II.
China is a “responsible stakeholder” with respect to the perceived welfare of the Chinese people by having skillfully managed to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, to industrialize (environmental and human costs aside), and to bring (by whatever means) top-notch manufacturing know-how.
China is “responsible stakeholder” with respect to its nation’s self-perceived national pride by seeking to reclaim Taiwan and other domains, and to boost Chinese influence around the world, partly with the Belt and Road Initiative.
China is a “responsible stakeholder” with respect to the national integrity of its own country by seeking to crackdown on any potential for secession, breaking up from the country, Western-backed “fifth columns”
China is a “responsible stakeholder” with respect to its own stability by cementing the power and authority of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party to the extent of a personality cult, not to mention the “social credit” system in which every citizen would be tracked to make sure they obey the party-state.
China is a “responsible stakeholder” with respect to “stability” in international affairs because it has been acting out based on the principle of sovereignty (for example, consider Chinese vetoes alongside Russian vetoes in the UN Security Council draft resolutions targeting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad).
China is a “responsible stakeholder” with respect to trade and economic stability – for example, by sending its own vessels to tackle the Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden a few years back, or by making declarations in support of the Eurozone at the height of the Greece debt crisis a decade ago.
China is a “responsible stakeholder” with respect to global development with its investments in Africa, for example, – never mind those might come with Chinese staff, dubious loan conditions, and a byproduct of spreading Chinese influence.
This is just an overly simplistic try to demonstrate the seeming line of thinking of the leadership of the People’s Republic of China to justify its policies.
The list could go on and on, and it is overheated with controversies, contradictions, duplicities, regardless of what angle you look at it. Of course, if you look at it from the angle of an honest position of modern-day Western values, the standards of the European Union and its kind, the negative predictably outweighs the positive, and that has increasingly been the case in the past few years.
I personally think that the notion of concentration camps is appalling, the crackdown of the “One Country, Two Systems” setup is deplorable (and probably against China’s own self-interest in the long run but motivated by the centralist grandeur vision of the leadership of President Xi Jinping), the threat to use military force in the South China Sea or East China Sea is horrifying in its own right, you name it.
However, it’s important to understand the logic of the Beijing leadership. And it is also important to understand that this logic and line of thinking could and should have been grimly predicted by Western analysts, who should have offered Western publics a more sober, realpolitik, and cynically honest assessment of relations with China. It would have done everybody a lot more good than the semi-naïve, semi-duplicitous ultra-neoliberal globalist triumphalism of the 2000s.
And that’s not even mentioning that the Chinese leadership has its own issues to take care of first and foremost: legitimacy; the ever present threat – again, no matter how real, imagined or perceived – of regime change (a greater degree of openness, for example in Hong Kong, or greater amicability with Taiwan with its alternative model of an “alternative China”, or a greater empowerment of the Muslim Uighurs could potentially open up the door for Western and Islamic subversion, secession, coup – you name it – goes the theoretical realpolitik thinking); the threat of relative or absolute disintegration of the country – which over the course of the thousands of years of national history is somewhat of a worrisome pattern; to name but a few of those
The People’s Republic of China would and could never have become “a responsible stakeholder” in the Western-formed world order. Why should the PRC live up to Western standards, anyway? To overjoy some “progressivist” or constructivist Western intellectuals or the board of some Western multinational corporation? Maybe it would have, had it been forced to do so back when was and/or if it present it were weak. But it isn’t weak, not any more, certainly. (And that has been mostly thanks to the West, and its unquestionably greedy capitalist elite seeking to rake ever greater financial profits by exploiting what used to be cheap Chinese labor.)
From now on – and that seems to have always been the intention of PRC leadership, including under Mao Zedong and then under Deng Xiaoping who found a better way to achieve the respective goals – China is going to be a “responsible stakeholder” only with respect to its own definition of the term.
By imposing sanctions over the treatment of the Uighurs, the EU seems to be awakening to that.
Now, if the West, the EU included, doesn’t like that, they are, always, free to compete with China in great power politics on the world stage with no holds barred. They used to do that although it’s quieted down somewhat in the post-Cold War world. You know, the one that has given rise to the pretentious, semi-delusional notion that the People’s Republic of China needed to be “groomed” to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the Western-shaped world whose very inception has been a severe historical humiliation to the Middle Kingdom.
(Or maybe theorists behind the “responsible stakeholder” under Western standards notion deserve more credit. Perhaps, they weren’t that naïve; perhaps they were just overwhelmingly hypocritical – the Nixon administration struck a grand bargain with the elderly Mao, then avaricious US, Western European, and Japanese capitalists started shipping factories to China and becoming ever more filthy rich leaving their own working class compatriots to only vie for jobs in fast food and retail – so maybe something had to be made up as a justification of all… How about the wonderfully inspiring “responsible stakeholder” idea in which a China historically humiliated by the West would be happy to become a polluted sweatshop for that West and “responsibly” remain so!)
Beyond the specifics, the proponents of such failed or flawed, or at best only partly successful policy notions have also been trying to convince us in the Western publics that international politics is not a zero-sum game. Sure, it isn’t. But only sometimes. Sometimes it is exactly a zero-sum game. Actually, regretfully, many times it is exactly a zero-sum game. Many times, the whole is so much smaller than the sum of its parts.
What’s important is to be honest. In great power politics and beyond. It is great to see the European Union finally take a stand in favor of what it says it stands for. The worldviews of the Chinese leadership and the Western leadership, EU included, are diametrically opposed in too many ways. They are so by default, and they have always been. This could and should have been predicted a long time ago as far as the West is concerned instead of putting forth public delusions that could lead to wrongful policies.
As always in the history of great power politics, the West and China, the EU and China are bound to cooperate in many ways. But at the same time, as the Uighur sanctions and counter-sanctions demonstrate, their big clash, or clashes, are coming up (hopefully, on the diplomatic level only). And they won’t be pretty. So the EU best brace itself.