The proposal by Beijing's new ambassador to the European Union for Brussels and Beijing to lift their sanctions on each other so that a bilateral trade agreement can go ahead is the latest in a slew of Europe-China developments that, taken together, suggest a worrying trend.
As Beijing cajoles Europe back to "business as usual," European governments should remain steadfast in their recent resolve to hold Beijing accountable for its deepening human rights abuses.
In recent years, the EU and some European governments and institutions have helped build momentum to hold Beijing accountable for its crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. They have imposed sanctions on Xinjiang's senior officials. They have led on, or pushed for, an October 2022 vote in the United Nations Human Rights Council to put these abuses on the table for discussion.
And, although the Chinese government narrowly escaped council scrutiny by a vote of 19 to 17, that unprecedented vote shows that pressure is mounting to end Beijing's impunity for its human rights record. Furthermore, the EU has draft bills on human rights due diligence for businesses and on banning forced labor products from entering the EU market that could be used to bar goods sourced from or made in Xinjiang.
But as the Chinese government abruptly ended its draconian "Zero Covid" measures in December, it has courted Europe, and EU-China relations have been warming. In November, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz brought a big business delegation to China.
In December, European Council president Charles Michel visited president Xi Jinping in Beijing. This coming weekend, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is expected to attend the Munich Security Conference. French president Emmanuel Macron and EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, are expected to visit Beijing in the spring.
One can argue that as pandemic restrictions lift, diplomatic –and business—engagement with China is inevitable, and that these visits are not, by themselves, problematic.
But on 8 February, news emerged that the UK, France and the EU were planning to meet with Erkin Tuniyaz, a top Xinjiang official sanctioned by the US. His trip was cancelled a week later, due to strong blowback from Uyghur activists, human rights organizations and parliamentarians in those countries.
Also on 8 February, Beijing's EU ambassador, Fu Cong, suggested that Brussels and Beijing lift their sanctions together—Beijing had retaliated after Brussels imposed Xinjiang sanctions—so that the frozen Comprehensive Agreement on Investment could go ahead.
Then, on 11 February it was reported that the EU would resume its bilateral "human rights dialogue" with the Chinese government, which had been suspended as bilateral relations got frosty following those tit-for-tat sanctions. Human Rights Watch and other civil society groups have repeatedly urged the EU not to resume these dialogues until they can be proven capable of securing concrete human rights improvements.
Unfortunately, there is no indication that this will be the case for the upcoming talks, which are not linked to benchmarks nor are they expected to produce any concrete deliverables, much as during the previous 37 rounds.
So why this slew of developments now? Just last August, the United Nations published an unprecedented report detailing widespread abuses, including targeting cultural and religious practices, family separation, arbitrary arrests and detention, rape, torture, and enforced disappearances, across Xinjiang, concluding that they "may constitute crimes against humanity."
Tuniyaz's visit, the proposed resumption of a bilateral rights dialogue and a trade deal are part of Beijing's daring effort to erase this stain. Much as Beijing convinced the world to forget its massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1989 — its initial pariah status was quickly forgotten as Western governments sought access to its market and cheap labour — the Chinese government is trusting that the world can once again turn a troubled page.
By initially accepting Tuniyaz's official visit, and by resuming the tick-the-box exercise of a "human rights dialogue," the EU risks helping Beijing to neutralize remaining pressure to hold it accountable. The trade deal would cement the EU-China relationship, part of Beijing's efforts to hedge against escalating tensions with US, and may once again sweep concerns about human rights under the carpet.
As the EU's experience in Russia makes clear, conducting business with abusive regimes without attention to the rights impacts can carry considerable costs.
The EU and European governments should not make the same mistake with China. Now that Tuniyaz's visit has been called off, these governments should sanction him and other top Xinjiang officials, suspend the rights dialogue, and strengthen their efforts to hold the Chinese government accountable for its abuses at the Human Rights Council and beyond.