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10th May 2021

EU officials more nuanced on human rights after trips to China

  • Van Rompuy in China in May - EU officials take 'a more positive view' on rights after seeing the country, Song said (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Recent trips to China by Catherine Ashton and Herman Van Rompuy have helped them to see human rights from a Chinese point of view, China's EU ambassador has said.

The ambassador, Song Zhe, told journalists in Brussels on Friday (8 July) that some EU diplomats tend to "lecture" China on values.

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"It has been 400 years since world power shifted from east to west and during this time people in Europe have developed a habit of viewing things from above and lecturing others," he said.

He blamed the problem on lack of knowledge, saying Chinese society has come along in leaps and bounds in terms of people's rights to economic development and rights to education even if it falls short in other areas.

Asked if EU foreign relations chief Ashton and EU council President Van Rompuy take a hard line on values, Song answered that extensive visits by the top officials, in 2010 and in May this year, have seen them take a more nuanced approach.

"Ashton and other political figures from the EU, even ordinary people who have been to China and have seen the situation on the ground, the progress we've made, hold a more positive view of what China has achieved," he said.

The ambassador zoomed in on two anecdotes.

"Ashton visited a small village, a very normal elementary school. Despite poverty in the region, the school was well equipped - this illustrates that despite economic difficulties the local authorities attach great importance to education, that the Chinese government is working to ensure that everybody gains access to education."

When Van Rompuy visited a former disaster zone in the Sichuan province "what surprised him was the nice line-up of buildings in the area, with no sign of the [2008] earthquake."

For its part, Human Rights Watch reports that China is currently undergoing the worst wave of repression in its modern history, with systematic censorship of free media, brutal crackdowns on ethnic minorities and hundreds of dissidents disappearing into so-called "black jails."

Song noted that China is "far from perfect. There is huge room for improvement and a long way to go."

He repeated the often-heard line that his country should not be measured by Western standards because it is going through unique economic and social changes which are "unprecedented in world history" in terms of their speed.

"We don't speak of a Chinese model because we are still in an experimental phase. We're still learning. Our model is constantly taking in new ingredients from the EU and US models."

In an insight into how Beijing sees international relations, Song defended China's opposition to an EU-sponsored draft UN Security Council resolution condemning mass killings in Syria.

"The principle we uphold is to respect the will of the country to choose its own path of development," he said.

EU diplomats to tweet and blog for human rights

EU foreign relations chief Ashton wants member states to permanently post human rights experts to Brussels and to use social media to talk to foreign activists in what she calls "digital diplomacy."

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