The EU must challenge Chinese president Xi Jinping on human rights and Tibet

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. [European Commission]

Chinese President Xi Jinping. [European Commission]

Trade ties with China are vital for European member states, but it would be a historic miscalculation if EU leaders continue to avoid engaging Beijing on human rights, six national politicians argue in a joint opinion.

This opinion piece was written by Belgian centre-right MP Georges Dallemagne, French Greens Senator André Gattolin, President of the European Economic and Social Committee Henri Malosse, German MEP and President of the Tibet Intergroup Thomas Mann, President of the International Campaign for Tibet Matteo Mecacci, and Dutch Socialist MP Harry van Bommel. 

Xi Jinping’s first visit to Europe as China’s leader comes at a critical time for EU-China relations after a year of tensions over trade, increasing internal repression and growing strains between China and its neighbours. President Xi is expected to visit France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

Engagement with Beijing and trade links with China are vital for European member states. But it would be a historic miscalculation if Europe’s leaders will continue to avoid engaging Beijing seriously on other strategic issues.

China’s significant economic growth has not been matched by meaningful progress in rule of law, respect for human rights, democracy and the environment.

To the contrary, we see a broadening crackdown and more systematic oppression in mainland China, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Recently Chinese legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, who supported the upholding of China’s Constitution and spoke against corruption was sentenced to four years in prison; leading Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti was seized from his home and imprisoned; in Tibet, hundreds of monks have protested the arrest of a respected Tibetan abbot called Khenpo Kartse and tragic self-immolations continue.

On the international stage, Beijing has subverted and politicised international forums where its human rights record has been challenged. At the same time, unilateral actions by the Chinese military forces on the Indian border and over the East China Sea, have demonstrated the risks of the economic and military rise of a world power run by an authoritarian system.

A unified European policy has never been so vital in building a relationship with a state whose rules and values are at odds with our democracies. European citizens know in their history the price of capitulation while confronting the aggressive policies of other rising repressive governments.

What is at stake in our relationship with China goes beyond a trade deal or access to their markets, and will shape the very nature and future of the world in which we wish to live.

An alternative exists; the rule of law and the respect of fundamental freedoms have proven to be the long lasting guarantee to maintain peace and social progress. European leaders meeting President Xi should seize this critical opportunity to send a clear message by:

  • Linking negotiations on the EU-China investment treaty and a follow-on free trade agreement, to Chinese improvements in rule of law and human rights, as recommended by European Parliamentarians.  The treaties should include binding social and environmental clauses;
  • Declining to entertain Chinese requests to lift the EU’s arms embargo on China as long as authorities are deploying security and military personnel to abuse the fundamental rights of China’s citizens.   

European unity on China can strengthen EU leverage to both contribute to stronger trade ties and encourage China to become a more responsible global actor. Focusing on the former at the expense of the latter, by allowing Chinese leaders to dominate the debate, ignores Europe’s strategic interests as China asserts itself.

We stand in solidarity with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned by China, and his wife Liu Xia, who has since been isolated under house arrest. 

We also welcome fellow Peace Prize Laureate the Dalai Lama, who will visit Latvia, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy this spring. As he speaks of his vision of peace and security for Tibet, Chinese diplomats tour European capitals to disparage him and demand leaders not meet with him.  To give in to Chinese demands would be another tragic mistake, not only for the future of Tibet, but for our own. Leaders of European nations, not the Chinese, should determine their relationship with the Dalai Lama. 

Europe’s leaders should ask President Xi to come to an acceptable political solution on Tibet through dialogue, and step back from repressive policies that produce alienation and resentment in the Tibetan population.

Further, they should engage with the Dalai Lama for what he is, a resilient nonviolent advocate for peace and democracy, who works tirelessly for unity and stability between the Tibetan and the Chinese people.

To do otherwise for the European Union, a recent recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, would be not only a mistake, but an abdication of the values on which we have built our free societies; a price too high to pay for any trade deal that Europe would like to make.


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