4th Oct 2023


How EU leaders should deal with Chinese government repression

  • Ursula von der Leyen and Emmanuel Macron in Beijing. (Photo:
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Josep Borrell, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, in a recent commentary, offered a hint of how the EU may adjust its three-part policy towards the Chinese government ("partner, competitor, and systemic rival"). Borrel and EU heads of states will have another occasion to discuss EU's relations with China at the European Council in late June, before a possible EU-China Summit later this year.

And while Borrell comes closer than previously to acknowledging Chinese leader Xi Jinping's aspiration to "build a new world order", the prescriptions that follow are woefully tepid, especially on human rights.

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Borrel characterized the EU's and Beijing's "differences" on values as "hardening". His proposed fix: "obstacles to the free flow of ideas and to the presence of Europeans in China must be removed". But he has nothing to say in this commentary about the need to pursue accountability for Chinese government crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and others, or about freeing Europeans, including the Swedish publisher Gui Minhai, wrongfully detained by the Chinese government.

Borrell expresses concerns over Beijing's threats to human rights in international forums, but he ignores the depth and cruelty of repression inside China. He does not aspire to support those across China taking enormous risks to promote human rights, and the realities of Chinese government surveillance in Europe does not appear in the equation.

Borrel is more assertive on economic, national, and global security issues. As solutions he invokes international institutions and law, but has nothing to say about Beijing's disdain for both. Citing no evidence that such an outcome is likely or even helpful, Borrel "welcome[s] positive moves from China aiming at finding a…just peace in Ukraine."

Borrell also calls for "robust engagement" between Europe and Beijing. But engagement with whom, and to what end? Many EU leaders reiterated their desire to engage with China, but few if any articulate what that might accomplish or how it might achieve positive outcomes. What aspirations the EU can have in cooperating with the Chinese government, which continues to commit crimes against humanity, on a pressing global issue like the climate crisis, Borrel doesn't say.

The appeal to "engagement" has also been used to gloss over major policy failings. In practice the EU continues to largely content itself with a bilateral human rights dialogue, one so inconsequential that over the course of nearly 40 meetings Beijing has become exponentially more —not less— abusive. EU leaders should acknowledge that the lack of good faith of Chinese officials on rights issues made mere engagement pointless, if not counterproductive. The EU should instead use international institutions to push for accountability for widespread, systemic abuses.

"De-risking" is the latest term of art to enter the China policy lexicon. But it appears to largely mean, for some leaders at least, protecting European economic actors' interests. Perhaps the most vivid example: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sought to "de-risk" its bilateral relations by bringing dozens of German business executives with him on his November 2022 visit to Beijing, an approach repeated by French President Emmanuel Macron in April. So China ties are made safer for Airbus and Volkswagen —but not for Uyghurs, including those in forced labor for international supply chains. No democracy has articulated a strategy to "de-risk" China for the repression of independent journalists, lawyers, and other constructive critics across the mainland —the ones whose work could help make Beijing a more transparent, law-abiding government.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rightly noted that China "is becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad". There is now wide EU recognition that China poses threats on multiple fronts —including on global governance, the economy and human rights. This is something Borrel and EU heads of states should fix at the June European Council. If the EU can map out a strategy to "de-risk" economic and trade relations with Beijing, it can do so on human rights.

The EU should explain how it will recalibrate human rights policy, committing publicly to more senior interactions with Chinese critics of Beijing. Borrel should support building up resilience not just around supply chains but around Chinese government threats to human rights both in China and abroad. He should ensure the EU does not just "counter" but to reject China's efforts to undermine rights protection at the United Nations and other international forums. Finally, the EU should use the multilateral system to investigate Chinese officials implicated in crimes against humanity and human rights violations.

This approach is needed to show that the EU is prepared to "deal with China", and demonstrate commitment to addressing one of the greatest threats to EU values. Xi has the resolve and resources to tear down human rights at home and abroad. Whether the EU is prepared to face and solve this "uncomfortable dilemma" will become clearer in the months ahead.

Author bio

Philippe Dam is EU director and Sophie Richardson is China director, both at Human Rights Watch.


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


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