27th Sep 2023


Hong Kong - when the Chinese Dream became a nightmare

  • 2019 protests in Hong Kong. 'The true Chinese Dream was that of 1989, not the one postulated by President Xi Jinping in so many speeches recently; the same dream that is turning into a nightmare before our very eyes' (Photo: Studio Incendo)

Almost to the day, 31 years ago, on Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, the dream of Chinese democracy was crushed by the tanks of the so-called People's Liberation Army.

I believe that to all democrats across the world, the true Chinese Dream was that of 1989, not the one postulated by President Xi Jinping in so many speeches recently; the same dream that is turning into a nightmare before our very eyes.

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Let's face it: the Communist Party of China (CPC) is not our friend.

After everything that came our way this year from the People's Republic of China - a reckless initial reaction to Covid-19, the bullying of partners and competitors across the world, and now the blatant destruction of the political guarantees given to the people of Hong Kong - it is amazing how many EU leaders continue to pretend that we can somehow return to business as usual with China.

Nightmare? What nightmare?

Even compared to previous years, when relations between China and the West had already taken a turn for the worse, 2020 stands out.

It began with the corona crisis, and a CPC-induced culture of obfuscation, denial of responsibility, and cracking down on critics, which cost precious weeks during which the global pandemic could have presumably been averted.

Chinese propaganda remained silent about Western assistance with masks and equipment in the initial weeks of the outbreak, then made huge PR shows out of its own (often faulty) deliveries to countries like Italy.

Chinese diplomacy began spreading conspiracy theories about the US having brought the virus to Wuhan, while Chinese troll armies took a page from Russia's textbook and began threatening individuals from across the world who dared to criticise the CPC.

Countries such as Australia, who dared to demand independent inquiries about the origins and initial handling of the virus in Wuhan, were immediately 'punished' with exorbitant tariffs on their products.

All the while, of course, massive human rights violations (such as in Xinjiang) continued, while citizens' liberties are further curtailed, and 'regime security' technology is exported to potentates around the world.

Military expansion in the South China Sea went on.

Very ominously, and in view of the victory of the CPC-critical Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan's presidential election, Xi Jinping has now dropped the word 'peaceful' from the CPC's unification rhetoric about the island.

Finally, and in total contravention of the Sino-British Joint Declaration about Hong Kong, China imposed a 'security law' on the city, which will mean direct Chinese police and intelligence presence there and the end of the 'one country, two systems' principle.

Meanwhile, in EU

This is the bleak backdrop to the European-China debate, which is now intensifying by the day.

While the tone of European debates has become palpably more CPC-critical amid the corona pandemic in most member states, there have been some examples of pro-Chinese reactions in countries such as Italy, Hungary as well as in the southeastern neighbourhood.

More ominously, in some important member states such as Germany, governments are still considering Huawei for their 5G networks – knowing full well that there is no separation between private business and the CPC, the way we separate business from politics in the West, and against the explicit warnings of the intelligence community.

Moreover, over the past couple of weeks, there have been examples of the EU and its institutions, such as the European External Action Service (EEAS), kowtowing to the CPC.

This ranges from accepting de facto censorship of EU documents, to leaving Sweden alone among the member states to demand a principled reaction to the Hong Kong 'security law'.

The kowtowing has to stop.

Otherwise, the CPC will feel, like all authoritarians would, that they can push us around forever.

Pharma and digital

But there is much more the EU has to do now: in pharmaceuticals as well as digital technology, we need to decrease our dependency on China.

That ranges from stockpiling medical equipment, to promoting our own industrial champions in 5G – Nokia and Ericsson.

Any future agreement with China over trade and investment will have to make sure we operate on a level playing field, without China unilaterally using our open economies to gain a unilateral advantage, as they use our open societies for political influencing.

The EU urgently needs a European China Knowledge Endowment to fund original research and expertise, independent of the Confucius Institute and other outlets of the CPC.

We cannot afford to let the CPC influence our knowledge about China.

The EU will not be able to build a more self-confident posture vis-à-vis China alone.

We will need allies for this, and as much as Europeans are flabbergasted by Donald Trump, we should carefully distinguish between disagreements and existential conflicts.

It may be conventional wisdom by now that the big, overarching geopolitical conflict which will define the coming decade and beyond, is the rivalry between the United States and China.

For years, pundits have compared the US to ancient Sparta, the declining power, and China to Athens, the rising one, and predicted that military conflict will be hard to avoid: the 'Thucydides trap'.

Accordingly, as US-Chinese rivalry is heating up, Europe has been busily discussing its own position in this.

While very few still argue that siding with China is an option, and many see Europe's place at the side of the US, the majority of EU pundits plead for a self-confident EU steering a middle course.

This means treating China, in the words of a EU Commission Strategic Outlook from March 2019 as a partner, a competitor, and a strategic rival, depending on the respective area of interaction.

This 'compartmentalisation' may have a lot going for it.

Decoupling, as is now proposed by many in Washington, may not be an option for Europe for sheer economic reasons, especially after corona.

But politically, there can be no equidistance.

On this front, the EU is not alone with the US, but in the company of other democracies, such as Canada, Australia, and many neighbours of China such as Japan, South Korea, and, of course, Taiwan.

It may suit the CPC to present the coming conflicts as a binary choice between China and the United States. But the answer to this is not an attitude of equidistance. Europe must stand firmly on the side of liberal democracy and against authoritarianism.

Author bio

Roland Freudenstein is policy director of the Wilfried Marten Centre for European Studies in Brussels, the official think tank of the European People's Party group.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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