This year will see a pair of quarter-century anniversaries of key political events in China and Europe: the remembrance in June of those who died in the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989, commemorations in Europe of uprisings, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
In China, the very human rights that thousands protested for remain off-limits today. Those whose family members or friends died at Tiananmen will once again be prevented from marking the occasion—and are no closer to state accountability for the events of June 4 than they were two decades ago. In Europe, the same period has seen the expansion of the European Union (EU) and a huge jump in membership of the Council of Europe, Europe's regional body for promoting human rights, democracy and rule of law, and with it the greater reach of regional human rights treaties guaranteeing respect for fundamental rights and access to justice.
But as the EU seeks deeper ties with China, particularly at a time of economic stagnation, the former's commitment to promoting greater respect for human rights in the latter has faltered badly, so much so that the March 22-April 1 visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Brussels and to several EU member states seemed to induce a sense that European policy makers should adopt Beijing's stance on the freedom of expression. EU authorities once again capitulated to Chinese demands not to have a press conference following Xi's meetings with Commission President Barroso and Council President Van Rompuy and no senior EU official would publicly mention the need to release 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo or any of the dozens of activists languishing in Chinese prisons on charges ranging from subversion to "stirring up quarrels and provoking troubles." Nor was there evidence that the findings or concerns of EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis, who was given access to many senior Chinese officials and regions such as Tibet in September 2013, informed the March 2014 discussions.
Why does it matter that from its senior-most levels the EU is unwilling to confront serious human rights abuses in China? First, this failure lays bare the frailty of the EU as an institution. If the EU wants to make a real difference for those struggling for human rights progress in China, it should use its combined leverage and raise those concerns collectively. The EU's greatest leverage is the sum of its parts: 28 member states and EU institutions. For the purposes of advancing trade the EU remembers that it collectively is China's single biggest trading partner—but for the purposes of advancing rights it does not.
The Chinese government has for years successfully played individual EU member states off one another on issues like whether to meet the Dalai Lama or when and how to raise cases of individuals imprisoned or otherwise abused for peacefully exercising their human rights in China.
The EU's propensity for inconsistency makes it easy for Beijing to dismiss its efforts: when the EU was awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, senior EU officials in Brussels and Beijing could not bring themselves to utter Liu Xiaobo's name, despite their having lauded his award two years earlier. For reasons that remain unclear, the EU opted recently not to publicly rebut a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' article essentially telling the EU it had no role to play in discussions of human rights in China. Each of these gestures is seen by Beijing as the diplomatic equivalent of waving a white flag of surrender.
Not a strategic framework
The EU's June 2012 adoption of the EU Strategic Framework on human rights and democracy was meant to establish an institutional approach to human rights obligations in part to minimize the possibility of member states diverging from an EU-wide global policy. The framework commits the EU institutions and the 28 member states to placing "human rights at the center of its relations with all third countries including strategic partners" and also raising "human rights issues vigorously in all appropriate forms of bilateral dialogue, including at the highest level." The EU recently published an updated "plan of action," an elaborate table articulating the activities undertaken—some even completed—in the dozens of areas the Strategic Framework points out. In principle, it has never been easier for the EU and member states to point to this global initiative as a way of pushing back against Chinese government criticisms over human rights-related interventions.
But virtually none of the Strategic Framework goals or obligations are being pursued with respect to China and the EU has not provided an explanation as to why. Yet the near total-failure to do so suggests that the EU as a whole is simply unwilling to push these issues in China. The lack of political courage to address in a serious and ambitious way systemic human rights abuses profoundly undermines human rights defenders and vitiates the EU's claim to being a global champion of human rights.
That the EU is sacrificing human rights apparently to secure trade gains with this authoritarian regime also reflects an alarming rigidity in EU and member states' thinking about China. There is little indication that the EU and member states at the highest levels of government are aware of, let alone incorporating into policy responses, the dynamism or views of independent voices in China, particularly elements that present challenges of legitimacy to the Chinese Communist Party.
How can the EU construct viable environmental, rule of law or anti-corruption policies with China when it fails to incorporate independent views that may have considerably more credence than those advanced by an unelected government? Are the many proponents of putting trade ahead of human rights thinking about whether the increased Chinese economic footprint—given its implications in terms of technology transfer, financial opacity and corrupt business practices—in the Eurozone will truly benefit the European economy in the long term?
One lesson the EU should draw from the crisis in Ukraine is that underestimating popular sentiment—whether pro- or anti-human rights, whether pro- or anti-government—can mean radically misjudging the very reality with which they are dealing. With respect to China, the EU and member states remain far more interested in the information and opinions of those inside the government and Party than they are on the information or opinions of those trying to make change from outside. Yet doing so leaves the EU with an incomplete grasp on the reality of any given issue and determines the appropriate policy response. Reaching out to independent voices also provides a level of recognition to individuals and organizations in China that can help buy them some protection.
Weak support for rights has consequences
Finally, the EU's weak support for human rights in China reflects a disturbing negotiability of its principles. People all across China struggle daily, and often face serious reprisals, to ensure for themselves and others the very same human rights most Europeans now take for granted. Europe is recognized as a global leader in its rejection of the death penalty, its respect for labor rights, its defense of the freedom of expression—so much so that its failure to engage at every opportunity with Chinese leaders on these subjects erodes its claims to that leadership.
What can the EU do to promote human rights in China so that its foreign policy reflects its domestic achievements?
Rather than press ahead with its profoundly irrelevant human rights dialogue with the Chinese government alone, Brussels should take advantage of Beijing's insistence to gather only once a year and devote its second annual dialogue instead to engagement with civil society actors.
Starting with the upcoming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, senior EU officials should issue a statement publicly reminding Europeans and Chinese why the EU arms embargo imposed on China in the wake of the killings endures and articulate and uphold clear criteria—including accountability for those responsible for abuses and amnesty or new trials for any who remain in prison—for lifting that embargo.
Finally, the EU and its member states should immediately, vigorously and publicly apply the Strategic Framework to China, starting with its most basic obligations: to promote human rights "in all areas of the EU's external actions without exception" and to put its "full weight behind advocates of liberty, democracy and human rights throughout the world." Then—and only then—will we know that Europe is truly united in support for the human rights of everyone in China.
Sophie Richardson is China director at Human Rights Watch and the author of China, Cambodia and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. Follow her on Twitter at @SophieHRW.
Suggested citation: Sophie Richardson, Hang Together: Why the EU needs to Confront China on Rights , JURIST-Hotline, Apr. 28, 2014, http://jurist.org/hotline/2014/04/Sophie-Richardson-EU-China.php.