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Is China the EU’s ‘Dear Friend’ or ‘Strategic Rival’ on Human Rights?

Mixed Messages Open Weeks of Key Meetings

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, right, shakes hands with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, Friday, June 1, 2018.  © 2018 AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

This week the European Union began a series of high-level discussions with and about China on a range of issues. But these talks got off on the wrong foot when the EU’s high representative, Federica Mogherini, soft-pedalled EU concerns over China’s abysmal human rights record at an opening press conference.

Just last week, a number of human rights organizations cautioned her against such an unassertive approach. Yet Mogherini, referring to the Chinese foreign minister as her “dear friend,” only managed to say that human rights was “one of the areas where [their] points of view might differ.” That won’t be very reassuring to the Chinese government’s many victims who hope for tough EU action on these issues.

Mogherini’s meek statement is all the more disappointing coming just days after the EU’s tough remarks at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for China to allow meaningful access for independent observers in Xinjiang. There are credible estimates that up to one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in the region. The EU also denounced torture, abuses against ethnic and religious minorities, and called for the release of numerous human rights defenders, lawyers, and perceived critics unjustly jailed, including EU citizen Gui Minhai.

Several of these issues were also mentioned in the joint communication for the 10-point strategy proposed by the European Commission last week, where the EU for the first time described China as a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”

Mogherini also insisted on the importance of holding yet another round of the EU-China human rights dialogue, an exercise that, despite commendable efforts by the European External Action Service, has failed to produce any tangible results. This might be because EU leaders continue to relegate human rights issues to that low-level forum rather than publicly challenging Chinese leaders at high-level meetings.

Perhaps Mogherini raised human rights concerns in private discussions. But if EU leaders genuinely seek a Chinese government that respects and promotes universal human rights, they should take their cue from those who are courageously paying a high price for their human rights work on China, and fiercely, unapologetically, stand by them.

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