Human Rights Off the Table at E.U.-China Summit

Human Rights Off the Table at E.U.-China Summit

Ahead of the 21st E.U.-China Summit in Brussels this week, there appeared to be little consensus between E.U. member states regarding an approach to China, and European negotiators threatened to walk away from the discussions in frustration over China’s lack of solid promises and deliverables concerning long-promised market reforms. On the eve of the summit, international human rights groups called on the E.U. to press China on its human rights record during the meeting, and the the European Council on Foreign Relations called on member states to speak out against the network of internment camps holding an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The summit concluded on Tuesday, and while the two sides did list a mutual commitment to upholding “all three pillars of the UN system, namely peace and security, development and human rights” in their joint statement, little direct pressure appears to have been put on the Chinese side in the meeting. E.U. President Donald Tusk closed his personal post-summit statement by highlighting the supposed priority given to human rights at the meeting:

The summit was devoted to our bilateral relations, as well as to global economic governance. But during our talks, we did not forget about human rights. As I have stressed many times before, human rights are – from our, European point of view – as important as economic interests. This is why today, just like in our previous meetings, I underlined the need to maintain the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. I expressed again the EU’s serious concerns as regards human rights, and raised a number of individual cases. [Source]

At the South China Morning Post, Keegan Elmer relayed rights campaigners’ calls for a harder line against Beijing outside the summit on Tuesday, pressing Premier Li Keqiang on specific rights crises unfolding in China today:

In Brussels, demonstrators chanted slogans that chided Beijing, calling on it to “close the camps” – a reference to mass detention centres in the western province of Xinjiang – and for an “independent EU”, hoping Brussels would not be soft on human rights at the expense of economic interests.

[…] Melanie Blondelle, policy advocacy officer of the International Campaign for Tibet in Brussels, said EU leaders should raise the issue of Tibet and Xinjiang directly with the Chinese premier.

[…] Ryan Barry, policy coordinator at the World Uygur Congress based in Munich, Germany, said the many of those who turned out to demonstrate had family members who were in the camps in Xinjiang, which Beijing has described as “vocational training” facilities.

[…] Jo Leiden, president of the EU parliament delegation on relations with China, said human rights issues are an “open wound” between China and the EU.

“The suspicion is that economic interests will outweigh human rights values,” he said, adding that the EU and China had been “drifting apart” rather than moving together on issues such as human rights and governance. [Source]

At The New York Times, Steven Erlanger reports on the relative skepticism that the E.U. adopted in approaching China at this year’s summit, citing a lack of delivered promises after last year–one being the significant decline in China’s domestic human rights protection since a 2018 joint statement was signed, which similarly committed to upholding the U.N. charter’s third pillar of human rights:

In difficult negotiations, the Europeans had a hard time finding agreement on a joint statement with the Chinese that is serious about substance. They succeeded up to a point, but the commitments made by China are more about further talks than specific actions.

[…] The Europeans did succeed, by threatening not to sign a joint statement, in getting a promise to conclude a long-discussed bilateral investment deal by the end of 2020, which would improve market access, and a promise to limit forced technology transfers.

But a senior European official also pointed to a statement finally reached after the last summit, in Beijing in July, which was full of promises not delivered, especially on issues like investment ground rules and market reciprocity, which are sources of tension now.

[…] If anything, there has been backsliding and more vivid violations of human rights, like the detention of foreigners and the settlement camps for Uighurs. [Source]

At Deutsche Welle, Frank Sieren agrees that the joint statement is light on specific actions to be taken, noting that China appears to have won the round in framing the issues mentioned. Sieren cites agreements on human rights, forced transfer of technology, and the Belt and Road Initiative as examples from the joint statement:

[…T]here are constant glimpses of the Chinese viewpoint. Beijing does not recognize the Western perspective on human rights, but rather all “human rights,” which of course includes the Chinese perspective. There is to be no negotiation on this subject and further “exchanges” will be conducted only “on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” The West no longer decides what is universal when it comes to human rights.

Another passage, which Brussels is selling as a victory, is not worth much on closer inspection: “Both sides agree that there should not be forced transfer of technology.” This is easy for the Chinese government to sign onto because Beijing also believes that no one should be forced to invest in China. But Beijing takes it for granted that Europeans who want to invest in China should adhere to Chinese laws. This sentence will thus do nothing to stop EU states from having to transfer technology if they want to invest in China.

There was also no progress in cooperation on the One Belt One Road initiative, often referred to as China’s New Silk Road, or, as the EU puts it, the EU-China “Connectivity Platform.” The EU is insisting China be transparent and follow “international norms and standards,” whatever that may mean. Meanwhile, China is insisting “the law of the countries benefitting from the projects” being followed. Both perspectives stand side by side in the statement. [Source]


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